Axios - Technology

News turns to comedy in the Trump era

Rebecca Zisser/Axios

At a time of political uncertainty and confusion, news outlets are using new types of comedic relief to relate to their readers.

The role of comedy in news isn't novel, but it's transforming. It used to be that comedy and voice were limited mostly to opinion pages, but now it's become an important part of the way journalists communicate the news. As veteran political cartoonist Ted Roll explains, "Shortly after World War II, The New York Times, which today has none, employed four cartoonists on staff. Today there are fewer than 30 (in the U.S.)."


  • The Boston Globe's Editor Brian McGrory put out a 3,000+ word memo Monday about creating a blueprint for their coverage in the future. Humor was a point of focus:
We're going to be more humorous, god dammit, and absolutely more humane.
  • The Washington Post announced in January that it's hiring video journalists to produce what looks to be a Daily Show-style scripted humor series.
  • The New York Times created a new "best of late night" feature, where the paper posts a recap of the best moments, usually news-related, from late-night shows.


  • Fusion turned to its sister publication, The Onion, to write satirical news banners to appear next to Fusion's coverage of the President's first address to Congress.
  • MSNBC took a similar approach that night, recruiting comedian Kathy Griffin to react to the speech in real time on live TV during Chris Matthew's 8 p.m. hour, where she made jokes about Congressman looking at Melania in her sequin jacket.
  • Showtime's The Circus often uses humor to make an editorial point about how unusual the current political environment is. For example, leading up to the release of the Congressional Budget Office's health care score in March, Circus hosts Mark Halperin and Mark McKinnon staked out the CBO cafeteria, catching the staff there by surprise. The pair did everything they could to get everyday CBO workers to talk to them at their own comedic expense, like offer workers free pizza and using makeshift signs made out of cardboard lunch trays to lure people into conversation.


  • Buzzfeed turned the photos of Trump riding a truck at The White House into a funny viral post and less than 24 hours later, their product lab had created a children's book out of it.
  • Bloomberg Politics published a satirical version of Ocean's Eleven during the Las Vegas vice presidential debate to explain why voter fraud is unlikely to occur during the election.
  • CNN earlier this year created a humorous digital series around political reporter Chris Moody, that featured videos like "Boat-crashing the GOP establishment."
  • Vox published a satirical commercial during the election spoofing Trump's debate comment calling Hilary Clinton a "nasty woman."
  • WNYC's On the Media host Brooke Gladstone tells Axios that she uses humor in her media investigative show because, "Humor gives responsible parties cover for saying what's real, and decrying what's reprehensible, without the backlash suffered by mainstream media. And so, ironically, it serves the audience in a way that even the best straight journalism often cannot."
  • Pod Save America, a podcast run by former Obama staffers, uses humor constantly to explain the twists and turns of the Trump Administration. In one episode, hosts Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor joke: "It's the rich versus the racist in the White House."

On the flip side: Comedy has always the news as a peg, but lately, the news has taken on a larger role.

  • Late-night: There's no question the Trump Era has given rise to the late-night comedy boom. Earlier this year Alec Baldwin brought in SNL's highest-rated show since 2011. Per CNN, SNL is averaging 10.6 million weekly viewers, the show's biggest audience in 22 years. Stephen Colbert's Late Show has seen an unprecedented ratings bump over late-night competitor Jimmy Fallon, which critics attribute to Colbert's reputation and ability to explain politics.
  • Stand-up: Vulture spoke to 16 comedians, and many said that comedy is becoming increasingly political in their routines.
  • Washington: This year, comedian Samantha Bee will be hosting an anti-White House Correspondents Association Dinner, in response to news organizations and celebrities boycotting The Trump Administration.

Something to consider: Some comedians are wary of overindulging in Trump fever. John Oliver said last month he is "very anxious not to make it all Trump all the time." South Park creators have too said that they will be backing off of Trump-focused humor. "It's really tricky now as satire has become reality," co-creator Trey Parker said in February. "They're already going out and doing the comedy. It's not something you can make fun of."

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Uber and Lyft are being sued for their software

Richard Vogel / AP

Apparently, the software that you rely on to hail an Uber or Lyft from your phone was dreamed up in 1997. At least that's what Hailo Technologies, LLC. says after suing the two ride-sharing companies for allegedly infringing on their patent that was granted in 1999.

Sounds familiar: The patent covers an "automated vehicle dispatch and payment honoring system" that allows users to select a mode of transportation, enter in the number of passengers and your desired destination, which will then provide an estimated cost for the trip and accept your digital payment.

Programming note: Hailo Technologies, LLC. has no relation to Daimler's Hailo, the ride-sharing service that operates in Europe and North America.

Why it matters: While it's unclear how much this could actually hurt their brand from a consumer's perspective, this is just another legal battle Uber is facing in a growing list of controversies from the past few months alone.

Get up to speed: We've written about their lawsuit from Waymo, including the full history of their legal fight, their PR and self-driving car execs leaving the company, and the allegations that they used secret software to track Lyft, among others.


Uber accused of stealing Waymo's self-driving car device

Waymo, Alphabet's self-driving car unit, says that Uber has been hiding a secret device designed using stolen trade secrets by a former Waymo employee, according to new court documents. And for that reason, it's asking the court to bar the former employee, Anthony Levandowski, from working on Uber's self-driving car technology.

Why it matters: Uber's defense in the case has hinged on claims that it only has two self-driving car device designs and neither resemble Waymo's tech. However, Waymo's latest claims could mean Uber has been lying all along.

What's next: A hearing is scheduled for May 3 in regards to Waymo's request for a preliminary injunction to halt Uber's self-driving car efforts.


Dems push White House to hire more tech and science advisers

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

A group of Senate Democrats used a letter Friday to push President Trump to fill the wealth of open positions in the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy:

"Without adequate OSTP staffing, the country will lack key insights from those with deep experience in these fields. We understand that few staff are currently assigned to OSTP, with only one staff member in the Office of the White House Chief Technology Officer as of last month – a position recently authorized by Congress."

Why it matters: The Obama administration's OSTP was bolstered by the White House's close relationship with tech, and worked on bleeding-edge issues like discrimination in big data and automation. It's not clear how Trump plans to tackle those topics and other tech policy issues that would likely be handled by the office.


Uber exec "misspoke" about startup (non)acquisition

Automobile Italia / Flickr cc

Uber chief product officer Jeff Holden recently told the following to a conference audience (video at 13:00):

"We found a startup at Carnegie Melon with some ex-CMU professors called Carnegie Robotics that had this great concentration of people who were just perfect for this and we bought the company and that formed the nucleus of the Uber self-driving team."

But Uber never actually bought Carnegie Robotics, although its CTO did leave for Uber before returning to Carnegie Robotics earlier this year. Instead, Carnegie Robotics was, and remains, an independent company. An Uber spokesman tells Axios that Holden "misspoke."


Theranos accused of faking tech demos to investors


Theranos allegedly bought outside lab equipment via a secret shell company and ran "fake demonstration tests" for potential investors and partners, according to a recently unsealed lawsuit by one of its investors, Partner Fund Management, obtained by the Wall Street Journal.

Why it matters: Since the Journal published a series of reports in 2015 questioning Theranos' technology, the company has accused the media of maliciously attacking its efforts to improve medicine. Now, depositions of current and former employees and directors could shed even more light on the company's secretive practices. Theranos says is disagrees with the allegations raised in the "one-sided filing by one party to litigation."

What to watch: Last week, a judge blocked a deal Theranos sought to make with investors in exchange for not being sued. Partner Fund, who sued to have the deal blocked, says that its terms would make it hard for the firm to recover its investment in the event of a bankruptcy. A hearing is scheduled for May.


Apple has recruited two top Google satellite execs

Eric Risberg / AP

Apple has hired a pair of top Google satellites execs for a new hardware team, reports Bloomberg. John Fenwick, who led Google's spacecraft operations, and Michael Trela, head of satellite engineering, will report to Greg Duffy, co-founder of camera maker Dropcam, who joined Apple earlier this year.

What they're saying: The recruits are experts in the field of satellite design and operation, and could be part of a new plan to use satellites for collecting images and communications. Bloomberg also reported that Boeing has been in talks with Apple about being an investor-partner in the aerospace company's plan to use satellites to provide increased broadband access, but its unclear if a deal will be reached.


Ex-Googlers join startup to build machine-learning chip

Former engineers from Google's secretive, next-generation chip project — also known as the Tensor Processing Unit — have left to join a startup also focused on new silicon chips to power machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies, CNBC reports. The startup, called "Groq," was founded by Chamath Palihapitiya, a well-known Silicon Valley venture capital investor.

Why it matters: Today's chips aren't efficient or powerful enough to handle the increasing data-processing demands of advanced computing. Intel, Qualcomm and Nvidia are already creating their own chips that can process data more efficiently, and Google said this month that AI applications running on its TPUs run 15-30 times faster than contemporary processors.

Uphill battle: Creating a new breed of silicon chip is extremely capital intensive with research-and-development costs alone. And finding manufacturing partners to use untested chips over those made by established brands is a daunting task.


Top 10 app makers generated 2/3 of all revenue

When it comes to the app economy, it's clear that the spoils are not divided evenly. In fact, new data from Sensor Tower suggests that the top 10 publishers generated 67 percent of all revenue for the first quarter.

Why it matters: Just as on the free apps side, where Google and Facebook dominate, the riches are increasingly concentrated in the hands of just a few companies on the paid side.

Sensor Tower


Murdoch's Fox/Sky TV deal faces a British delay

Evan Agostini / AP

British regulatory agencies will delay the investigation into 21st Century Fox's $14.5 billion bid for Sky TV until after the election on June 20.

  • What changed: The E.U. greenlighted 21st Century Fox's acquisition of Sky TV last week during the height of Fox's Bill O'Reilly controversy. U.K. regulators said they would initially respond by May 16, but will extend the period of time regulators can review the merger due to the close proximity of the general election.
  • Why it matters: While regulators were mostly weighing the monopoly factor in the acquisition, they also considered Murdoch's ownership style while determining whether he and his son James Murdoch (chief executive of Fox and Chairman of Sky) could handle another major acquisition responsibly. It's likely the Murdochs' handling of the O'Reilly situation in the U.S. will play into the extended investigation.