October 06, 2020

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Situational awareness: Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence will be separated by plexiglass tomorrow at the VP debate.

1 big thing: White House COVID outbreak reaches press corps

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

White House reporters are angry about the Trump administration's handling of coronavirus cases among its own staff.

State of play: Several White House reporters have tested positive and many are trying to figure out whether they and their families need to quarantine.

"My wife has now tested positive for COVID. The collateral damage is going to be pretty significant I think."
— Michael Shear, White House Correspondent The New York Times, in an interview with Axios

Driving the news: White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany announced yesterday that she tested positive for coronavirus, sending White House reporters scrambling to figure out whether they had been exposed.

  • McEnany briefed reporters without wearing a mask at the White House, a practice that speaks to the overall dismissal of White House officials around COVID-19 safety protocols.
  • White House communications aides Chad Gilmartin and Karoline Leavitt tested positive for the coronavirus over the weekend, Axios' Alayna Treene confirmed Monday after a report from ABC News.

What they're saying: Members of the press corps have expressed frustration that they've been directly exposed to officials with the virus without being warned.

  • "What frustrates me is that the White House could have and should have taken steps mitigate or minimize the risk if they had just done simple things like wearing masks," said Shear.
  • "I felt safer reporting in North Korea than I currently do reporting at The White House. This is just crazy," tweeted CBS News White House Correspondent Ben Tracy.

Details: On Friday, White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) president Zeke Miller said in a letter to colleagues that at least three members of the White House press corps had tested positive for the virus.

  • Miller said the White House is beginning to contact trace these cases, but they don't have an estimated time of completion.

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2. News Corp. changes its tune on Big Tech

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

One of the biggest news publishing companies in the world has slowly backed away from its harsh public criticism of Big Tech platforms, as companies like Google and Facebook have begun to open up their wallets to news companies.

Why it matters: News Corp. has for years been the driving force behind much of the regulatory scrutiny of Big Tech and its impact on the publishing industry. Now it's becoming a beneficiary of the massive pockets of several of the largest tech companies.

Driving the news: News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson put out a statement lauding Google's new efforts to pay publishers around the world more than $1 billion to license and curate their content last week.

  • "There are complex negotiations ahead but the principle and the precedent are now established,” he wrote.
  • It stood in sharp contrast to the reaction from the CEO of the News Media Alliance, a trade group representing newspapers that News Corp. supports.
  • "We haven't heard anything good about Google's offers so far, and they seem mostly designed to front-run government actions and lawsuits around the world," News Media Alliance CEO David Chavern said in a statement to Axios.

Catch up quick: In early 2018, News Corp. Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch released a newsy statement calling on Google and Facebook to pay trusted publishers a carriage fee for their content — similar to the model adopted between cable companies and TV networks.

  • Today, "the terms of trade truly have changed," Thomson said at the Dow Jones Investor Day in late September.

State of play: News Corp. now has several partnerships with Big Tech firms:

  • Facebook: Reports suggest that News Corp. was offered millions of dollars to participate in the program.
  • Apple: The Wall Street Journal is the only national newspaper in Apple News+. Thomson has spoken highly of the Apple partnership, while its rival The New York Times has pulled out of Apple News+.
  • Amazon: The company has a significant licensing agreement with Amazon's e-book subsidiary Audible.
  • Spotify: The company launched its flagship daily podcast "The Journal" in September 2019 with Spotify's Gimlet Media.
  • Snapchat: The Wall Street Journal was a launch partner on Snapchat's Discover platform in 2015 and it continues to be a highly-visible participant.
  • Twitter: The company has a #WSJWhatsNow video partnership, which is in its second year.

The big picture: [W]hen you combine these deals, they are having a significant impact on our revenue and on our profitability. And it's frankly true for all media companies," Thomson said on the Dow Jones earnings call in August.

Behind the scenes, the media giant has commented or consulted on numerous investigations into Big Tech's dominance, and is continuing to press for regulatory reform.

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3. A flurry of investigations

Data: Axios research; Table: Axios Visuals
Data: Axios research; Table: Axios Visuals

Big Tech companies face a one-two punch from Washington.

  1. Criticized for not doing enough to stop misinformation on their platforms ahead of the election.
  2. Investigations on issues like antitrust and privacy. (See above.)

State of play: On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are hauling tech execs in (virtually) on October 26th to discuss content moderation right before the election, Axios' Ashley Gold writes.

  • A long-awaited House report on antitrust and tech, along with a Justice Department lawsuit against Google, is expected imminently,

What's next: We can expect that regulators want to wrap up any regulatory action on tech ahead of the election, when there are the most political points to be scored before a potential new administration and Congress.

Go deeper: Follow Ashley for breaking news on the ongoing investigations.

4. Mosseri on TikTok ban: "Damage might have already been done"

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Adam Mosseri, the Head of Instagram, told me in an interview Monday that President Trump's efforts to ban TikTok may have already dealt irreversible damage to the digital world.

Driving the news: "The damage might have already been done in terms of normalizing this type of policy," Mosseri said.

  • "I think it's really going to be problematic if we end up banning TikTok and we set a precedent for more countries to ban more apps," Mosseri said. "You can imagine them feeling really emboldened to say, 'Look, you have to do this or we will ban you entirely.'"
  • Mosseri cites how counties could be emboldened to push Instagram, such as "wanting us to censor more content, wanting us to hand over more content to law enforcement, and wanting us to prioritize some type of content."

Be smart: Mosseri and others have previously cautioned that nations targeting individual apps could chill innovation and free expression and encourage authoritarian governments to further extend their reach online.

  • ⚡ Facebook said Monday that it would defy a new Turkish law requiring social media companies to establish a formal presence in the country, per FT.

The big picture: His comments come on the eve of Instagram's 10th birthday. (The photo-sharing app was acquired by Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion.) Today, Mosseri says, well over 90% of its users and growth is outside of the U.S.

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5. Movie industry in shambles for foreseeable future

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Any hope that blockbuster hits would return to the big screen this year have been shattered in the past week.

Driving the news: Cineworld, the parent company of Regal Cinemas, on Monday said it would be temporarily closing all of its 663 theaters in the U.S. and the U.K. In doing so, it cited that movie studios weren't sending enough of its biggest movies to theaters to lure consumers.

  • More movie delays announced Monday showcase their point.

Details: Warner Bros. on Monday said that its highly-anticipated film "Dune" would now be delayed in its theatrical debut until 2021.

  • Later that night, it was reported that Warner Bros. would push the theatrical release date for "The Batman," from 2021 to 2022, so that the release date would not coincide with the new release date for "Dune."
  • It also said it would delay other movies like "Flash," and "Shazam 2."
  • Regal's notice came three days after MGM announced it was pushing back the release date for the second time of the latest James Bond film to April 2021.

Be smart: These delays weren't shocking, considering the fact that Warner Bros. had already pushed back "Wonder Woman 1984" after "Tenet's" shaky debut.

The bottom line: The movie industry likely won't even begin to begin to bounce back until 2021, when big blockbusters are back on the release schedule. Even then it's likely to face continued closures and delays.

6. Conspiracies surge on Trump's COVID diagnosis

Data: Zignal; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Zignal; Chart: Axios Visuals

Misinformation related to President Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis has swarmed social media and the broader web since Friday, with claims that Trump is faking his illness gaining particular traction, according to data provided to Axios by social intelligence firm Zignal Labs.

The state of play: False claims have already begun to diverge into a few different threads, including one holding that Democrats or “Deep State” operatives intentionally infected him as an assassination attempt, Axios' Kyle Daly and I write.

  • Other conspiracies going viral are that masks aren’t effective in preventing the virus, and that China is responsible for creating the virus in a lab.
  • One false idea picking up steam is that masks don’t work, because some of the GOP officials who have been infected during the current Trump-world coronavirus outbreak did at some points wear masks.
  • Related: CDC director suggests face masks offer more COVID-19 protection than vaccine.

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7. Media companies join the SPAC party

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, are booming, and media companies are looking to be a part of the action, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva and I write.

Why it matters: SPACs have become a popular alternative for businesses seeking to go public without undertaking a traditional IPO process.

  • Since SPACs are shell companies whose sole purpose is to acquire an existing business to take it public, they act as a conduit for companies to make it to the stock market via a process that's much more akin to an acquisition or merger.

What they're saying: "With a traditional IPO, it's a longer process to register initially with the SEC. But when you're merging with an already public company, it's a streamlined process," says John Hendricks, the Discovery Communications founder and chairman who launched CuriosityStream in 2015. 

  • CuriosityStream has agreed to merge with Software Acquisition Group, a SPAC led by former Ooyala CEO Jonathan Huberman. 
  • Playboy Industries recently announced it would also go public by merging with a SPAC, as have gaming and betting companies like Rush Street Interactive, Skillz, and Golden Nugget Online Gaming.
  • Dish Network co-founder and chairman Charlie Ergen recently assembled his own SPAC, CONX Corp., which is seeking to acquire a business in the technology, media and telecommunications industry, including wireless communications.
  • In the gaming world, Mark Pincus, founder and ex-CEO of Zynga, also recently jumped into the SPAC game, while ex-Glu Mobile CEO Niccolo de Masi is already onto his second one.

Go deeper: What the 2020 SPAC boom means for 2021

8. PBS turns 50

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios; Photos: Getty Images
Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios; Photos: Getty Images

While PBS is best known for shows like "Sesame Street" and "Downton Abbey," its legacy also includes innovations in technology, like creating closed captioning to make TV accessible to the deaf, and pioneering diversity in television.

  • ”We were one of the earliest adopters of high-definition programming as well as multicast," says Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, in an interview with Axios.

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9. Media's new talent reality

Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman, the authors of Politico Playbook since 2016, announced Tuesday they are leaving Politico at the end of the year.

  • Sources say the duo could lure some investor interest if they strike out on their own.

The big picture: They're the latest big media stars to leave their outlets in pursuit of other projects.

Go deeper: Pandemic spurs journalists to go it alone

10. 1 fun thing: Adlandia is back


Advertising and marketing podcast Adlandia returns today on the iHeartPodcast Network featuring an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, its hosts Laura Correnti and Alexa Christon tell Axios.

Why it matters: It's one of the most authoritative podcasts on the business and culture of advertising. The show debuted February 2017 on Panoply, the podcast network born from Slate.

Details: With its relaunch, the show will also have its own app on New Stand called Newlandia.

  • New Stand is a modern-twist on the classic city street newsstand. It features "shops that feed people snacks with an app that feeds people’s brains," its CEO Andrew Deitchman says.
  • Adlandia and the Ad Council will also work together on a featured segment called "Goodlandia" to support initiatives moving the ad industry forward. 
  • Adlandia will role out a mini-series focused on purpose and profit in partnership with professional network Kindred.

What's next: Upcoming guests include Lisa Sherman, President and CEO of the Ad Council and Bob Pittman, Chairman and CEO of iHeartMedia.