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Traders work at the kiosk that trades Time Warner Cable on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday. Comcast Corp said it would buy Time Warner Cable Inc for $45.2 billion, in a mammoth deal that combines the two largest US cable operators. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Would Comcast purchase of Time Warner make it too powerful? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 02.13.14

Cable giant Comcast said Thursday it had agreed to purchase Time Warner Cable for $45 billion in stock, a deal that would merge the two biggest US cable companies into a titanic conglomerate. But would it be too big?

The enormous deal – if it passes regulators’ inspections – would produce an Internet and cable service empire, spanning some 30 million subscribers and folding in some of the biggest US markets, from New York to Los Angeles.

“This merger is unprecedented,” says Seth Bloom, a former general counsel of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee and current president of Bloom Strategic Counsel. “There has never been a cable merger of this size – we’re talking here about the number one and number two cable companies in the US.”

And it’s that jumbo size that could trouble regulators reviewing the merger for adherence to antitrust laws, analysts say. The deal, before it can close, will have to be reviewed by federal antitrust inspectors at the Department of Justice for whether it gathers up an unfair expanse of the Internet/cable market, disadvantaging consumers and putting other media companies on the slip and slide. Then, in a separate process, the merger will also have to clear the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which will investigate if the deal is in the public’s interest.

Seeking to head off possible antitrust concerns, Comcast said in its announcement of the deal that it planned to drop about 3 million subscribers before taking aboard about 8 million more after the merger, putting its total subscriber count at about 30 million.

That means that the provider would hold just under 30 percent of the US market for pay television subscribers, an unofficial threshold for mitigating media antitrust concerns, Comcast said, in the release. The FCC used to have a formal 30 percent ownership limit on the cable industry, but a D.C. court tossed out that cap in 2009.

Comcast also noted that its current market overlaps little with Time Warner’s purview and that the two are not direct competitors.

"Significantly, it will not reduce competition in any relevant market ... because our companies do not overlap or compete with each other," Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts said of the deal, in a conference call with financial analysts, according to Reuters. "In fact, we do not operate in any of the same zip code."

Mr. Roberts called the deal “pro-consumer” and “pro-competitive,” according to CNBC (Comcast owns CNBC).

Still, the deal is sure to attract concerns about the considerable leverage a Brobdingnagian cable provider could have over programmers. Of particular concern is Comcast’s ownership of NBCUniversal: Comcast purchased the media behemoth in 2011 for $17 billion, becoming the umbrella organization to that company’s rolodex of enterprises, from NBC broadcast network, to Universal Studios, to cable channels like MSNBC. That might raise concerns among regulators about how the relationship could bias a colossal, more powerful Comcast against NBC’s competitor programmers.

“The question is, what does this deal mean for programmers that aren’t affiliated with NBC Universal,” says Mr. Bloom.

The deal could also be noteworthy to regulators for the amount of power it might give one cable company to influence the fate of the still fledgling online television programming market, he says. Cable providers, including Time Warner, have in recent years been accused of negotiating contracts with networks that limit when and if their shows can be provided to online distributors – like Netflix – in an effort to hit back against online companies’ burgeoning edge against them in millennials’ mobile/laptop world.

The Obama administration’s record on antitrust cases offers few clues to how the DOJ might handle the Comcast-Time Warner deal.

In his first campaign, President Obama said that aggressively blocking uncouth corporate mergers would be among his administration’s top priorities, a revision from the outgoing Bush administration’s light regulation of the matter.

In one of the highest-profile cases since then, the DOJ rejected AT&T’s proposed union with T-Mobile in 2011, saying that the deal would monopolize markets in cities across the US. In a speech in New York on Jan. 30, Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer highlighted the cancellation of the deal as spurring a highly-competitive mobile service market that has advantaged consumers.

Still, just a few months ago, in a reversal of its original opinion, the DOJ cleared a mega-merger between United Airways and American Airlines, an industry that has in recent years been whittled of competitors as more airlines coalesce.

On the whole, the DOJ appears to be interested in working with companies to fine-tune their deals, rather than outright blocking the mergers, says Bloom. In the 2011 Comcast-NBCUniversal merger, the DOJ agreed to terminate its investigation into the deal by issuing a consent decree, which introduced into the deal measures assuaging concerns that the takeover would disadvantage NBC’s network competitors.

Concerns over the latest deal, including those about biases against non-NBC programmers and attacks on online media providers, could also be resolved in the DOJ with consent decrees, says Bloom.

He said that the FCC is somewhat of a “wild card,” since its chairman, Tom Wheeler, has been in the post for just over three months. He added, though, that the FCC is unlikely to strike down the deal if it passes federal antitrust regulators’ review. 

Eric Holder, attorney general of the United States, speaks at a reception earlier this month in Washington. At a conference Feb. 11 at Georgetown Law School, Mr. Holder called for the reinstatement of ex-felons' voting rights upon their release from prison. (Nick Wass/AP)

Eric Holder: Barring ex-felons from voting is unfair, counterproductive (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.11.14

Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday called upon states to repeal laws that bar ex-felons from voting after they complete their sentences, saying such laws are "unjust” and “counterproductive,” as well as disproportionately excluding black Americans from the polls.

Mr. Holder can't force states that withhold voting rights from ex-felons to amend their laws, but his remarks, made at a criminal justice conference at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, could help prompt reconsideration of such laws. 

“Whenever we tell citizens who have paid their debts and rejoined their communities that they are not entitled to take part in the democratic process, we fall short of the bedrock promise – of equal opportunity and equal justice – that has always served as the foundation of our legal system,” said Holder, in his speech.

Holder’s comments join a chorus of calls from his Justice Department, human rights activists, and – in a reversal – some Republican lawmakers that the disenfranchisement of ex-felons disproportionally bars racial minorities from voting. Most such laws date from the late 1800s, when lawmakers across the US were pushing for legislation that would keep African-Americans, newly enfranchised, from voting nonetheless, Holder said.

"At worst, these laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America's past – a time of post-Civil War discrimination," he said. “And they have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear."

Eleven states restrict a felon’s voting rights after prison and either probation or parole, Holder said, in his speech. Those states are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming.

In total, about 5.8 million people nationwide are barred from voting because of current or past convictions for serious crimes, according to The Sentencing Project, a prison reform advocacy group in Washington. Some 2.2 million of those people are black, or about 1 in 13 African-American adults nationwide, according to the group. In Florida, that ratio is much higher, with 1 in 5 black state residents banned from the polls, Holder said Tuesday.

It’s unclear how an effort to restore voting rights to ex-felons and bring millions of additional people to the polls might be received in the states with such laws. Studies show that felons are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than for Republicans: A 2002 report from two universities reported that the 2000 presidential election “would almost certainly have been reversed” had felons nationwide been allowed to vote, according to The New York Times.

Meanwhile, tea party-backed Sens. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky and Mike Lee (R) of Utah, both of whom were at the conference, echoed Holder's call that felons be reenfranchised on the grounds that current laws unfairly affect black men. Senator Paul said he considered it a miscarriage of justice that 1 in 3 black men in his state, which has one of the harshest disenfranchisement policies, is banned from voting.

"People think conservative Republicans just want to put people in jail,'' he said, according to The Wall Street Journal. "There are Republicans on our side who will work with Democrats who will do the right thing on this.”

Some GOP-controlled state governments recently reformed their voting laws to restore ex-felons' voting rights. Holden offered particular praise in his speech to former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell (R), who amended his state’s policies last year to return voting rights to people with nonviolent felony convictions, although those convicted of violent felonies still lose the right to vote for life.

(Holder’s encouraging shout-out to the ex-Virginia governor was somewhat curious, since Holder last month indicted Mr. McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges.)

Laws on disenfranchisement after conviction of a serious crime vary among states. In three states – Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky – ex-felons are disenfranchised for life, unless they receive clemency from the governor. Other states, including Arizona, Nevada, and Wyoming, restore voting rights to certain kinds of felons, but not to others.

Vermont and Maine are the only states that do not practice any kind of disenfranchisement of convicted criminals, letting felons vote by absentee ballot while incarcerated. Other states restore voting rights after completion of the prison sentence or after completion of probation or parole.

The US is not unique in the developed world in restricting voting rights of ex-felons: Finland bans felons from recouping their voting rights for seven years after their release.

Most developed countries, though, have either no restrictions or selective restrictions on felons voting while in prison, or allow felons to reclaim those rights upon completion of sentences.

Holder’s calls for the repeal of disenfranchisement laws come amid his broader push for reforms of the US criminal justice system, including leading a fight to restore federal oversight of state voting laws, following a US Supreme Court decision last summer striking down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He has also made pushing for ways to legally encode marriage equality for gays and lesbians a priority during his time in office. 

The HMS Bounty, seen sailing in Lake Erie off Cleveland in July 2010, was lost during superstorm Sandy in 2012, killing the captain and a deckman, as well as injuring three others. (Mark Duncan/AP)

The Bounty finding: Captain's bid to sail into superstorm was 'reckless'

By Staff writer / 02.11.14

On Oct. 29, 2012, as superstorm Sandy spun hard and fast over the Atlantic Ocean, the crew members of a ship that looked curiously like one from 300 years ago – and that was, even more curiously, heading straight toward a hurricane – lobbied their captain to make for shore. He told them no, and he plowed the ship onward. That decision was a fatal one.

This is the finding of the National Transportation Safety Board’s inquiry into the sinking of The Bounty, a replica of an 18th-century British sailing ship, which killed the captain and one of his deckhands, as well as wounded three other crew members. In a 16-page report, the board pinned blame for the loss of life and ship on The Bounty’s captain, Robin Walbridge, who the report said made a "reckless" decision to plunge the ship into the path of a monster hurricane, a move that “compromised the safety of everyone on board."

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the sinking of tall ship Bounty was the captain’s reckless decision to sail the vessel into the well-forecasted path of Hurricane Sandy,” the report said, “which subjected the aging vessel and the inexperienced crew to conditions from which the vessel could not recover.”

The report, based in part on the testimony of surviving crew members at a US Coast Guard hearing last February in Portsmouth, Va., also attributed some fault to the boat’s owner, Robert Hansen, and his company, The HMS Bounty Organization. It found that Mr. Hansen had not intervened in the captain’s plans to take the ship out, despite well-publicized warnings of extreme weather, and had maintained inadequate oversight of the ship’s upkeep.

The Bounty, a three-masted, 108-foot ship, was built for MGM Studio’s “Mutiny on the Bounty” in 1962, and had since been moored as a tourist attraction at ports along the East Coast. It did not do much traveling, except for brief trips to appear as a prop in celebrations.

And it was moored for good reason: Its wooden hull was rotting, and the blight had been badly sealed with a household sealer. Its pumps, not properly inspected, were not in prime working condition, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said.

On Oct. 25, 2012, alarm bells were ringing up and down the East Coast that a major hurricane was due to whirl along the coastline. That evening, Captain Walbridge called The Bounty’s crew to a meeting and announced plans to sail the ship from its then-port at New London, Conn., to St. Petersburg, Fla., for a Nov. 10 appearance at an event there.

He told his crew that anyone could opt out of the trip but also said that an opt-outer would have to pay his or her own way to meet the ship in Florida and would be leaving his or her colleagues in a lurch, with a bigger workload. He also said the trip was safe, the report said. Crew members later testified that Walbridge believed that a ship was safer at sea in a storm than in port, according to The Associated Press.

No one opted out; the ship sailed at 5 p.m., the report said. All went well for a day and a half. But on Oct. 27, for reasons to which crew members said they were not privy, Walbridge turned the ship southwest, despite forecasts that the storm was to the west. The NTSB said the captain might have misjudged the width of the storm – more than 1,000 miles in diameter – or might have believed that the aging, ailing ship “could outrace the storm.”

By the time the captain sent out a belated distress call to the Coast Guard at about 9 p.m. on Oct. 28, the ship’s high masts had been ripped up and the engine room was flooded in water four feet deep; winds had also reached highs of 90 knots, and seas were between 25 and 30 feet, the report said. At about 4 a.m., some 110 nautical miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., the ship tipped on its side, spilling its crew into the water.

Walbridge went down with the ship, and his body was never found. Claudene Christian, a deckman, was also killed, and her body was found 10 hours after the ship sank. Coast Guard helicopters picked up the 14 surviving crew members.

Hansen’s HMS Bounty Organization faces a $70 million negligence lawsuit from the mother of Ms. Christian, according to AP. The Bounty’s former engineer, Christopher Barksdale, who sustained injuries in the disaster, is also suing Mr. Hansen and HMS for an unspecified amount, the AP reports. 

Georgia Emergency Management Director Charley English, left, speaks as Gov. Nathan Deal looks on during a press conference Monday in Atlanta. Deal issued a state of emergency Monday morning in advance of winter weather that is forecast for the area. (Brant Sanderlin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)

Georgia governor gears up to avoid another stormy fiasco in Atlanta

By Staff writer / 02.10.14

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) announced on Monday a state of emergency for 45 counties ahead of a winter storm projected to surge into the state on Tuesday evening. The measure appeared to be the governor’s response to the blistering criticism he weathered last month over lackluster preparation for a snowstorm that produced epic scenes of gridlocked traffic across Atlanta.

"The ice-age-zombie-doomsday apocalypse has come to Atlanta," quipped late-night comedian Jon Stewart. For a governor facing voters in November, Mr. Deal would no doubt want to avoid another run as the brunt of late-night-TV jokes.

Deal’s announcement comes after the National Weather Service issued a winter weather warning from Monday evening through Tuesday evening for northern Georgia, as well as a winter weather watch for the both northern Georgia and the metro Atlanta area from Tuesday evening until Thursday morning. The storm is projected to begin with about 1 to 2 inches of snow and then follow up with a mix of sleet and rain, making travel dangerous, the service said.  

Parts of the Carolinas and Virginia are also under the same watch, and a winter weather advisory has been issued for a long sliver of the South, from Alabama to Texas.

After hearing the weather alerts, the governor met Monday morning with Operations Command, which includes emergency preparedness, transportation, health, and electrical officials, to draft a strategy for handling Georgia’s coming showdown with snow and for ensuring that the state comes out of it less bruised and battered than last time.

“I have directed the State Patrol, Department of Transportation, and Department of Natural Resources to begin moving assets toward areas where the snow and ice are expected,” Deal said, in a statement.

The governor also called upon all residents to stay off the roads after early Monday evening. He said he had reached out to health-care facilities to clarify backup plans in the event of power failures and asked the National Guard to be prepared for a possible call-up to Georgia, according to the statement. 

Atlanta Public Schools also announced that schools would be closed on both Tuesday and Wednesday, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported.

The governor’s promise that the state will be prepared to meet the coming storm, and the flurry of activity to ready the state for what would count as mere flurries in Minnesota or Michigan, are a departure from the state’s last brush with winter weather, when Deal’s administration appeared to wing it – an approach that did not go well.

Last month, what began as a light dusting of snow on a Tuesday morning throughout the Southern states escalated when a lacquering of ice slicked up the region’s roads just as commuters were throttling for home and school bells were ringing the end of the day.

Cities in six Southern states were stymied, but Atlanta smarted the most as the storm blustered through it. There, in what drew darkly comic comparisons to “The Walking Dead,” commuters were trapped in standstill traffic on the state’s interstates for upwards of 12 hours. Cars were abandoned as drivers and passengers set off in search of food and warmth. At least two babies were born in cars stopped in the huge traffic jam.

As the city began to thaw out, officials came under fire from residents who said the disaster could have been prevented but that leaders failed to prepare. State and city officials in snow-stung Georgia defended their choices to minimize advanced preparation, saying that some forecasts had predicted a storm of much smaller proportions and that hastening to close down the Atlanta area seemed a wasteful gamble of time and resources.

“We don’t want to be accused of crying wolf,” Deal told reporters, at the time.

But many doubted that officials did all that they could, or should, have done. The National Weather Service had issued a major winter storm warning for the entire Atlanta metro area at 3 a.m. on the morning of the storm.

Nine hours after that warning was issued, though, Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (D) were at a champagne awards brunch, the Monitor reported. Schools were still open, and a state of emergency had yet to be declared.

Deal’s administration did not issue a state of emergency until 5 p.m. on Tuesday, long after the state’s interstates had clogged with immobile traffic and the scale of the drama had become apparent.

Weeks after the storm, Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) spokesman Ken Davis told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that GEMA had a mass alert system in place – the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System – that could have been used to issue a mass weather and traffic alert, but had never tested or configured it.

The governor later amended his tone, saying his state should have been better prepared – and that it would be, next time.

"I'm not going to look for a scapegoat," Deal told reporters. "I am the governor. The buck stops with me. I accept the responsibility for it, but I also accept the responsibility of being able to make corrective actions as they come into the future."

Missouri senior defensive lineman Michael Sam speaks to the media during an NCAA football news conference in Irving, Texas. Mr. Sam told the media that he is gay on Sunday. If drafted into the NFL, he could become the first openly gay player in the league. (Brandon Wade/AP)

NFL hopeful Michael Sam comes out: Is football ready for an openly gay player? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.10.14

The announcement by Michael Sam, an All-American defensive lineman at the University of Missouri, that he is gay comes just as drafting season begins for the National Football League and as a national conversation about intolerance in professional sports is heating up.

If Mr. Sam is drafted into the NFL this May, his announcement – made in interviews with The New York Times and ESPN – could make him the first openly gay player in the league, a sporting giant that has so far shown little interest, if not outright resistance, to bringing openly gay players into its ranks but might now be prepared to change, some experts say.

Sam’s teammates and coaches had known he was gay since August, when he told them during a preseason training session. His teammates, who by all accounts had no problem with Sam’s sexual orientation, had kept quiet. But he decided to go public as he became aware that rumors about his sexuality were floating in NFL drafting circles, according to Outsports.

“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” Sam told The New York Times. “I just want to own my truth.”

Sam, a 6-foot-2, 255-pound senior, has had a strong 2013-14 season: He helped his team, the Tigers, to finish 12-2 and win the Cotton Bowl, was named the Associated Press defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, was honored as a first-team All-American, and was voted, by his teammates, as Missouri’s most valuable player.

He is, in other words, widely considered to be a likely candidate for the NFL, for which he will be eligible this spring. Analysts have said that he might be drafted as early as the third round. He'll participate in the NFL Scouting Combine Feb. 19-24 in Indianapolis, during which NFL prospects run a gauntlet of tests to gauge their readiness for the league.

But it is now unknown if Sam’s unprecedented announcement might mar his otherwise good chances of making the NFL.

There are no openly gay players in the NFL, NBA, NHL, or MLB – though that does not mean the leagues have never had, or do not currently have, gay athletes. Professional athletes have instead waited to announce their sexual orientation until leaving the sports scene.

Former NFL player Dave Kopay came out as gay in 1975, three years after he had retired from football. Jason Collins, who played in the NBA for 12 years, announced his sexual orientation in a first-person narrative for Sports Illustrated last year, only to not be signed by any team this season.

Robbie Rogers, a midfielder for MLS’s Los Angeles Galaxy, also came out after announcing his retirement, but returned to soccer in May 2013 to become the first openly gay male athlete to be signed to a team in a major US sports league.

The NFL, the hard-beating pulse of American sports, has in particular been beset with allegations that it has remained a stalwart of anti-gay culture, even as the gay rights movement has sped onward, with more states approving gay marriage and with unprecedented changes taking place in the military, another longtime bastion of hetero-normative culture.

Those allegations include reports that recruiters have in multiple instances asked prospective players if they liked women, despite the league’s official policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Chris Kluwe, ex-punter for the Minnesota Vikings, alleged last month that his team had let him go over his vocal support for same-sex marriage in California; the Vikings’ coach, he said, has built a team culture around homophobia. And last week Jonathan Vilma, a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, said he would not welcome a gay player onto his team.

Indeed, in a Sports Illustrated article published after Sam’s statement, eight anonymous NFL executives and coaches said that – in no uncertain terms – Sam’s NFL stock is projected to plummet, possibly ousting him from the draft boards altogether. 

"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," an NFL player personnel assistant said in the article. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game."

On the whole, the officials quoted said that an openly gay athlete would be a “distraction,” upsetting a team’s uniformly macho culture.

"There's nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room,” one official said. “If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It's going to be a big distraction.

“That's the reality,” the official said. “It shouldn't be, but it will be."

One official said he estimated that about "90 percent of teams" – there are 32 NFL franchises – had been aware before the public announcement that Sam was gay and had scrubbed him from their draft boards.

Still, there were high notes of optimism after Sam's announcement Sunday that the NFL might indeed be ready to bring an openly gay player into its fold.

In a statement released Sunday night, the NFL said Sam’s sexual orientation would have no bearing on his chances with the league.

“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the statement read. “Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL.”

“We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014,” it said.

Twitter was also flush with support for Sam, with gay rights activists, US government officials, fans, and Missouri teammates all expressing hope that change in the sports industry could be imminent. A number of current NFL players also reacted positively on Twitter, saying they would be more than willing to have a gay player on their team.

“I could care less about a man's sexual preference! i care about winning games and being respectful in the locker room!” tweeted DeAngelo Williams, a running back for the Carolina Panthers.

“There is no room for bigotry in American sports,” tweeted Malcolm Smith, Super Bowl MVP and linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks. “It takes courage to change the culture.”

Former members of Pussy Riot, Maria Alekhina (l.) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, speak at Amnesty International's 'Bringing Human Rights Home' concert at the Barclays Center on Wednesday in Brooklyn, New York. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP )

Pussy Riot activists storm New York. What do the two Russians hope to achieve?

By Staff writer / 02.07.14

They have shared a stage with Madonna, joked with Stephen Colbert, and met the US ambassador to the United Nations. They have visited Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, The New York Times newsroom, and City Hall. To each, and everywhere, they have repeated the same message: President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, however well-dressed for Olympic pageantry, still wants for progress on human rights issues.

Punk rockers Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, formerly of the Russian Pussy Riot collective, are in New York this week, as part of a world tour after their release from a Russian prison, where they served almost two years. Their tour does not exactly come at a good time for Mr. Putin, undoubtedly by design.

The two activists’ New York visit joins a list of seemingly incongruous subjects, from Chobani yogurt to toothpaste, that have been stand-ins this week for weightier concerns about the Sochi Olympics – from Russia’s human rights record, to its provisions for athletes and visiting journalists, to its security measures. It also coincides with the Russian government's bid to deflect criticism of its politics and to focus on the show of sportsmanship – and of modern Russian proficiency – that opened Feb. 7 in Russia.  

“Everything is uncomfortable for Putin right now,” says Nina Khrushcheva, a professor in the Graduate Program of International Affairs at The New School. “This is just one of many things that aren’t going well for him.”

“Russia looks increasingly like an international clown that is just pretending to be an international king,” she says.

On Feb. 12, 2012, five members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot staged a flash mob “punk prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, in Moscow. It was as much a concert as it was a political protest, a high-octane call for improved rights for woman, homosexuals, and political dissidents.

The Russian government moved aggressively to silence it. Three women in the group – Ms. Tolokonnikova and Ms. Alekhina, as well as Yekaterina Samutsevich, who was released from prison in October 2012 – were hastened through a trial, convicted, and sent to separate penal colonies.

Tolokonnikova and Alekhina spent almost two years in prison before their release on Dec. 23, under a new amnesty law. Human rights advocates characterize that law as a brushstroke attempt by Putin to head off criticism ahead of the forthcoming Olympic pomp.

Since then, the two performers have been on a world tour that included stops in Asia and Europe before their visit to New York in February. The women are no longer Pussy Riot members, though. In a statement, current group members, all of them anonymous, said they are distancing themselves from Tolokonnikova and Alekhina, explaining that the ex-band members’ public personas didn’t jibe with the band’s underground motif.

But for the two women, fame seems to be a fitting platform on which to build a human rights campaign that takes aim at Putin just as Russia opens the 2014 Olympic Games.

On Tuesday, the two lampooned Putin during an appearance on "The Colbert Report," using acerbic wit – through a translator, no less – to comment on Russia’s antigay laws and treatment of political dissidents.

“We sang a fun song in a church,” is how Alekhina described the crime that put her and her band-mate in penal colonies.

On Wednesday, the activists appeared at Amnesty International’s benefit concert at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, not to sing but to draw world attention to what they see as Russia’s blighted human rights record.

“For Putin, the Olympic Games are an attempt to inflate the inflatable duck of a national idea, as he sees it,” Tolokonnikova told The New Yorker, before the concert. “In Russia today, there are no real politics, no real discussion of views, and meanwhile the government tries to substitute for this with hollow forms of a national idea – with the Church, with sports, and the Olympics.”

The women have also met with, or are due to meet with, high-profile figures in the US, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by Russian officials. After the former Pussy Rioters met with Ms. Powers, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, bitingly asked reporters if Powers had invited the two women “to perform at the National Cathedral in Washington” and whether she had joined the band.

Even as Tolokonnikova and Alekhina travel the world to decry Putin as a human rights violator, it's entirely possible that Russia's president could yet be a beneficiary of their crusade, some observers of geopolitics note.  

Putin has worked to shape his battered image into one of benign kindliness, and by freeing the ex-band members and saying nothing as they tour New York, he appears to be gesturing to the world that he is not an autocrat, says Janet Johnson, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College.

At the same time, the women’s appearance in New York, on a Brooklyn stage brimming with American pop culture, also buttresses the view in Russia that Pussy Riot is a fringe group whose liberal, feminist message is a foreign one – thus helping Putin cement favor with his nationalist fan base, she says.

“It allows him to have it both ways,” says Johnson. “He can play the kindly father who has liberated these ‘girls,’ while also currying favor with the nationalists.”

The ex-Pussy Riot activists are expected to meet with Mayor de Blasio at 5:30 p.m. Friday. Their visit to the US will also include tours of American prisons; the two have said they hope to learn how Russia's prison system could be improved.

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond plays a 300-year-old Stradivarius violin during a concert in Milwaukee. The instrument was stolen from him in late January, and police said Thursday that the violin, appraised for insurance purposes at $5 million, had been recovered in a Milwaukee attic. (Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra/AP)

Violin found: Stolen $5m Stradivarius recovered in Milwaukee, apparently unharmed (+video)

By Staff Writer / 02.06.14

A Stradivarius violin stolen from the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in an armed robbery last month was recovered early Thursday, apparently unharmed.

The violin, worth some $5 million and almost 300 years old, was found overnight Wednesday in a suitcase in a Milwaukee resident’s attic, police told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Thursday. Milwaukee police had a day earlier arrested three people, one of whom had a record of art theft-related arrests, in connection with the theft.

The stolen violin, known as the Lipinski Strad, after one of its earlier virtuoso owners, Karol Lipinksi, is an original Stradivarius violin, built in 1715 by Antonio Stradivari and one of a famed group of string instruments built in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Stradivari family.

The Stradivarius violins, of which there are fewer than 650 left, are distinguishable from each other to in-the-know dealers. That makes them difficult for thieves to sell without arousing suspicion, and police said on Thursday that the suspects’ motives were still unclear.

“It emphasises the fact that you cannot get rid of these instruments,” Bruno Price, a New York-based expert on rare instruments, told The Guardian. “It’s impossible to resell them – so it’s a silly crime to even try.”

The Lipinski Strad had come to Frank Almond, the Milwaukee concertmaster, in 2008, on permanent loan from an anonymous owner.

“An instrument like this is part of the cultural inheritance of us all and should be enjoyed by as many people as possible,” the donor said, in a statement to the Journal Sentinel at the time.

All went well for a while. Stefan Hersh, a Chicago-based violin curator who helped restore the Lipinski after it was given to Mr. Almond, told the AP that the concertmaster had kept the violin under close watch.

"He had a special case made for it, he kept it highly protected in his car, he never let it out of his sight," Mr. Hersh said.

But that could be no match for an armed thief. Around 10:20 p.m. on Jan. 27, as Almond walked to his car following a chamber concert with the instrument at Wisconsin Lutheran College, someone assaulted him with a stun gun, scooped up the violin, and slipped into a getaway van with another person. Alarmingly, the violin’s case was found hours later, dumped in northern Milwaukee, police told the Journal Sentinel. But the violin was nowhere to be found.

At first, Milwaukee authorities had expressed concern that the high-profile art theft was an international orchestration, and agents from Interpol and the FBI's Art Theft Program were called into the investigation, The New York Times reported. It appeared to have turned out, though, that the heist episode was a local one, opening and closing in Milwaukee. Police said much of the information leading to the violin had related to the stun gun that the robber had used, the Journal Sentinel reported.

At a news conference Thursday, police told reporters that the violin would be returned to Almond in the evening. Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra president Mark Niehaus also told press at the conference that the violin appeared to be unharmed.

"We have pretty strong confidence that the violin is fine," Mr. Niehaus said.

Stradivarius instruments – multimillion-dollar objects that, given the demands of a musician’s job, must be hauled from place to place – have had bad run-ins before.

In 2004, a $3.5-million Stradivarius cello was stolen from the front steps of a Los Angeles Philharmonic cellist's home and not found until three days later, left near a dumpster. The young woman that happened on the abandoned instrument, not recognizing what she had found, had asked her cabinet-maker boyfriend if he thought the cello’s wood could be repurposed, fashioned into an ornamental compact disk case.

The couple matched the cello to a police report before doing so, though, and the cello – one of just 60 Stradivari cellos in existence – was returned to its owner as a cello, not a CD holder.

"Thank God my boyfriend doesn't work too quickly on things of mine," the woman said, according to The Los Angeles Times.

In 1999, world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma forgot his $2.5 million Stradivarius cello in a taxi, after an 18-minute ride from 86th Street to 55th in New York. An army of police officers returned it to him that afternoon.

''I made a stupid mistake," he told reporters that afternoon, “and I just left without it.''

Greek yogurt is seen at the Chobani plant in South Edmeston, N.Y. The Russian government is refusing to allow a shipment of Chobani yogurt, bound for US athletes, to enter the nation, in a proverbial cold war that has come to involve New York lawmakers with big stakes in the success of the Greek yogurt. (Mike Groll/AP)

Russia says 'nyet' to Chobani yogurt for US athletes. Trade politics?

By Staff writer / 02.06.14

“Let them have yogurt,” said the US.

Nyet,” said Russia.

The Russian government is blocking a shipment of 5,000 little cups of Chobani yogurt to the US Olympic team in Sochi, saying that the yogurt – the official yogurt brand for the US Olympic delegation – lacks the correct paperwork to clear Russian customs. The United States, though, says that the papers for which Russia is asking are impossible for US officials to obtain.

Since then, things have gotten downright cold.

“At a time when the focus should be on our athletes, this seems to be a bureaucratic issue and we appreciate the support and efforts to do right by our athletes,” read a statement from Chobani.

The yogurt war comes at a time when the two powers are already finding it tough to play nice, ahead of one of the world’s greatest shows of sportsmanship, no less: US officials have been none too pleased about the Russian government's decision to give Edward Snowden temporary asylum, or its case against the punk group Pussy Riot (two of whose members are now in New York on a tour, much to Russian officials' dismay), or its response to international calls to curb anti-gay legislation, cut corruption, and bolster political freedoms.

Now, the latest frostiness is over yogurt – and that’s a battle that New York lawmakers, for whom Chobani yogurt has been a political darling, are determined to win. The company has created jobs for and heaped profits into the state.

The disputed yogurt, in strawberry, blueberry, and peach flavors, is now waiting out the diplomatic spat in temperature-controlled storage at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.

Greek yogurt has become a sweet spot, if an unexpected and even an incongruous one, these past few years in New York’s otherwise somewhat threadbare industrial sector.

Chobani, the bestselling Greek yogurt brand in the US, was founded in 2007 in South Edmeston, N.Y., and turned out to be heraldic of a boom in production of the thick, creamy stuff in New York State. Fage, a major retailer based in Greece, opened its first plant in Johnston, N.Y., in 2008. The town of Batavia, the recipient of a federal grant to bring Greek yogurt production – and lots of jobs – to the municipality, in the past two years got two new plants producing the treat. In total, the dairy industry accounts for more than half of the state’s agricultural profits, according to the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, the state's senior senator and lead policy spokesman for Senate Democrats, is also pushing to boost Greek yogurt sales by adding it to public school lunches. The US Department of Agriculture is weighing the option.

So, it was little surprise on Wednesday that Senator Schumer sent a letter to Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Federation's ambassador to Washington, calling for an end to the latest version of a cold war: Let US Olympians eat yogurt and let New York promote its yogurt industry, too.

The US Department of Agriculture is asking that Russia approve a sanitary certificate for a one-time, noncommercial shipment of Greek yogurt to Russia for the consumption of just US citizens, Schumer wrote.

In a separate statement released by his office, Schumer was more blunt: “Unfortunately, this protein-packed, New York-made food has met a serious roadblock in the Russian government, thanks to an unreasonable customs certificate, and they will not allow the yogurt into the country,” he said.

“Chobani yogurt is safe, nutritious and delicious and the Russian Authorities should get past ‘nyet’ and let this prime sponsor of the US Olympic Team deliver their protein-packed food to our athletes,” he added.

He also noted that Chobani yogurt was provided to US athletes during their training and that their bodies have become accustomed to the protein in the food, which is light on sugar. The Olympic opening ceremonies are Friday.

But the senator’s pleas might not be enough to move Russian officials, who have so far indicated that the US – and its little cups of yogurt – will get no goodwill from Russia.

We are a lawful country,” Yevgeniy Khorishko, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, told The New York Times. “You should follow the rules.”

Indeed, the yogurt war appears to be an attempt by the Russian government to make as plain as a cup of nonfat yogurt the downsides of the US government’s resistance to expanding its trade relationship with Russia, analysts say. 

“This is really the symptom of a broader issue that bilateral trade relations really still haven’t gotten off the ground,” says William Partlett, a fellow at Columbia Law School and an expert in Russian law.

Though Russia has expressed interest in undoing the red tape that ties up US-Russian trade, there has been little to no interest in doing so in the White House or on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers noting Russia’s checkered human rights record and other political dark spots, Mr. Partlett says.

“This is basically Russia making a point and saying, 'Look, this is what happens when you don’t have a trade relationship,' ” he says, adding that Russia has also used trade to make points to its Ukrainian, Georgian, and Moldovan neighbors, among others.

Moreover, the tussle could in part reflect America’s misjudgment of just how stringent Russian officials are about rules: “There seems to be an element of, ‘Who do you think you are that you think you can just send yogurt into our country?” Partlett says.

If US athletes have to go without Chobani yogurt, the absence will join other issues that have awaited US citizens in Sochi this week. 

Over the past few days, Twitter has become flush with reporters’ photos from their subpar hotel rooms in Sochi, most of them trending under the hashtag #SochiProblems: A Chicago Tribune reporter posted one of yellow-brown water running from her faucet; a CNN reporter pictured a shabby room with a downed curtain rod; and reporters from Yahoo Sports mused about their hotel rooms' absent doorknobs and working toilets.

“Yellow water, no shower curtain, small beds, bad hotels & now no ‪@Chobani in Sochi,” tweeted David Briggs, a sports reporter for NBC. “Enough is enough.” 

A pedestrian walks in the snow in Albany, N.Y, on Wednesday. Hundreds of schools across upstate New York are closed and authorities are advising against any unnecessary travel as a snowstorm moves across the region, scuttling travel plans and upending routines across the Northeast. (Mike Groll/AP)

Storm delivers another bout of snow and icy roads to winter-weary Northeast (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.05.14

The Northeast wrestled with yet another bout of snow on Wednesday, the latest in a series of snowstorms that have tumbled into the region this winter season, closing schools and muddling travel plans.

A winter storm that whirled through the country's mid-section on Tuesday – delivering especially big snowfalls across Kansas – slid into the Northeast Wednesday morning, bearing buckets of snow and freezing rain. The storm’s rain and sleet made for dangerous roads across the East Coast, even as the snowfall began to let up across the region around lunch-hour.

“Most of the storm is now in the rearview mirror,” says Brian Hurley, a meteorologist with the Weather Prediction Center at the National Weather Service, around 2 p.m. He added that some light snow accumulation is still predicted for eastern New York and parts of New England, in addition to the rain still expected for much of the Northeast, as the snowfall begins to ease.

In Massachusetts, where between six and ten inches of snow were expected in Boston, and up to 14 inches of snow were predicted for the state’s highest elevations, a winter-storm warning was in effect for most of the state until 6 p.m. Wednesday. The National Weather Service said that though the snow would let up around noon across the state, drizzle would continue throughout the day, keeping roads hazardous until evening.

Rhode Island, southern New Hampshire, and northern Connecticut were under the same winter storm warning, with each expected to get around half a foot of snow, as well an icing of freezing rain, according to The National Weather Service. In Connecticut, where up to 10 inches of snow were predicted for some parts of the state, Gov. Dan P. Malloy delayed the start of the General Assembly’s annual session, at which he will give his State of the State address, until Thursday at noon.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency Wednesday morning. In a conference call with reporters, he cautioned New Yorkers not to brave the state’s ice-lacquered, slick roads and said he had ordered closed NY’s Interstate 84 from the Pennsylvania to the Connecticut border.

In addition, Mr. Cuomo warned of a “dire” salt shortage in the state, after already having had to shell out thousands of tons of the stuff onto dangerous roads this winter, new outlets reported.

Last winter, New York City’s Department of Sanitation used 346,112 tons of road salt to clear icy roads, according to The New York Times. The department began this winter with roughly 250,000 tons and has already had to reach out to the state for a resupply this season, the Times said.

In New York City, public schools remained open, but three inches of snow, and a batch of freezing rain to boot, grated at New Yorkers’ morning commute.

Across the Northeast, thousands of residents had also lost power. In New Jersey, which is under a state of emergency, about 60,000 people did not have lights or heat, and about 2,500 New York City residents and 5,000 Long Islanders were without electricity, The New York Times reported. In central Pennsylvania, almost 500,000 people were without power, a PECO Energy spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal.

Vermont is expected to get between five and 10 inches of snow, and Ohio could get up to eight inches of the white stuff, according to the National Weather Service.

A total of 2,654 flights in the US had been cancelled as of about 1 p.m. on Wednesday, and another 2,325 US flights had been delayed, according to Flightaware.com. More than half of the flights out of Boston’s Logan Airport and NJ’s Newark Airport were canceled, and almost half were canceled out of New York’s LaGuardia and JFK airports.

A day earlier, the same storm had put Kansas in what Gov. Sam Brownback called a state of "disaster emergency," Reuters reported. The storm dropped an average of about 8 to 12 inches there, with the highest snowfall of the entire storm – 15.5 inches – in Eskridge, Kansas, according to the National Weather Service.

The storm also dumped snow on Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan Tuesday evening and overnight, and the Plains have since been left in unusually cold temperatures, as much as 40 degrees below average in some places, according to the National Weather Service.

Meanwhile, California and Oregon are expected to get some much-needed rain and snow beginning late on Thursday, says Mr. Hurley. The National Weather Service is also monitoring a potential snowstorm that could roll into New England over the weekend, he says. 

People stand near a CVS store in New York in February. CVS Caremark said on Wednesday that it would stop selling tobacco products at its 7,600 stores by October, becoming the first US drugstore chain to take cigarettes off the shelf. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

Why CVS decided to pull cigarettes, other tobacco products from its shelves (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.05.14

One major pharmacy is kicking the habit of leaning on tobacco sales profits at the expense of its increasingly health-focused mission.

CVS Caremark announced on Wednesday that it plans to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products at its stores by Oct. 1. That would make CVS, the second-largest drugstore chain in the United States, the first national pharmacy to pull tobacco products from its sales roster.

CVS’s announcement follows years of branding initiatives to retool the mega-retailer not just as a drugstore chain, but as a health-care clinic that is an active player in its customers’ healthful lives, offering flu shots and basic care at its 800 MinuteClinics within its 7,600 stores. That rebranding had proved incompatible with the message that the cigarettes behind the front counters in most of its stores had seemed to send, the company said on Wednesday.

"Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose," said Larry Merlo, president and CEO of CVS Caremark, in a statement.

"Ending the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products at CVS/pharmacy is the right thing for us to do for our customers and our company to help people on their path to better health," he said.

Though there is little doubt that tobacco users, rather than quit the habit, will get their fix and put their dollars elsewhere, CVS’s decision could put pressure on other retailers to follow its lead, setting off a gradual whittling of smokers’ options, CVS and antismoking advocates say.

“This action may not lead many people to stop smoking,” wrote Troyen Brennan, CVS’s chief medical officer, in an essay published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Wednesday. “But if other retailers follow this lead, tobacco products will become much more difficult to obtain.”

Not since 1996, when Target announced it would stop selling tobacco products, has a national retailer answered calls to go tobacco-free, in large part because tobacco is a moneymaker.

Indeed, tobacco-free will be an expensive ethical position, CVS says. Ceding tobacco revenues will cost CVS Caremark some $2 billion in annual sales, or about 1.6 percent of the company’s revenue in 2012.

Still, some say, cutting tobacco from its sales and staking out a health-care-first niche within the pharmacy business could in the long term help CVS do even stronger business than it did with cigarettes in its product lineup. 

"We believe the move will be viewed as a positive long-term decision by CVS, despite the near-term profit drag, as it paves the way for increased credibility with both healthcare consumers and payors," ISI Group analyst Ross Muken told Reuters.

The largest US pharmacy chain, Walgreens – which has also pursued rebranding as a healthcare provider – still sells tobacco. In 2008, the company sued the City of San Francisco over its ban on pharmacies selling tobacco. Walgreens won, but the city fought back two years later with a ban not just on pharmacies selling tobacco, but also on stores with in-house pharmacies selling the products, The New York Times reported. Several companies, including Safeway, took the San Francisco ban as notice to pull tobacco from all their locations with in-store pharmacies, but Walgreens did not do that.

“We have been evaluating this product category for some time to balance the choices our customers expect from us, with their ongoing health needs,” the company said in a statement released Wednesday, Politico reported. “We will continue to evaluate the choice of products our customers want, while also helping to educate them and providing smoking cessation products and alternatives that help to reduce the demand for tobacco products.”

Boston, as well as several other municipalities in Massachusetts, has enacted a ban similar to San Francisco’s on pharmacies selling tobacco. Other cities have gone after smoking not with retail bans, but with antismoking ad campaigns, tobacco tax hikes, and other measures. New York City, for example, raised the tobacco buying age from 18 to 21 last year, and Colorado, New Jersey, Vermont, and the District of Columbia are weighing similar measures.

Rite Aid, the third-largest US pharmacy chain, and Wal-Mart, which has in-house pharmacies, both continue to sell cigarettes.

On the whole, pharmacies represent just a sliver of tobacco sales. Of the some 290 billion cigarettes sold in the US in 2012, almost half were purchased at gas stations, about a fifth from specialty tobacco stores, and about 16 percent at convenience stores, according to Euromonitor International statistics quoted in The Wall Street Journal. Pharmacies sold just 3.6 percent of all cigarettes that year, according to the data.

Still, CVS’s announcement was received by health advocates as a decidedly positive sign in a fight against smoking that, at least in some ways, seems to have reached a plateau. Although smoking rates have declined dramatically over the past four decades or so – down from 42 percent in 1965 to 18 percent in 2012, according to government statistics – that decline appears to have stalled over the past decade. Last year, some 480,000 people died from causes related to smoking, according to the government.

“Today's CVS Caremark announcement helps bring our country closer to achieving a tobacco-free generation,” said Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Services secretary, in a statement. "I hope others will follow their lead."

President Obama, a former smoker who was recently described in a New Yorker article as applying a nicotine patch to his arm, also praised CVS.

“As one of the largest retailers and pharmacies in America, CVS Caremark sets a powerful example, and today’s decision will help advance my Administration’s efforts to reduce tobacco-related deaths, cancer, and heart disease, as well as bring down health care costs – ultimately saving lives and protecting untold numbers of families from pain and heartbreak for years to come,” the president said.

CVS’s decision also comes the same week as the Food and Drug Administration unveiled its new $115 million antismoking campaign, “The Real Cost,” which focuses on what many teens care about – their looks – to dissuade them from smoking.

“What’s a pack of smokes cost?” queries the voice-over in one ad, over an image of a teen girl’s skin curdling into wrinkles. “Your smooth skin.”

Each day, more than 3,200 US youths try their first cigarette, and almost 90 percent of adult smokers began smoking before they turned 18, according to the FDA.

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