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The Raymond Davis Case

Rick Moran:

Raymond Davis, the alleged CIA contract employee who was charged with murder in Pakistan after gunning down two would be robbers, has been freed by a Pakistani court.

Pakistan’s English language daily Dawn reports:

A Pakistan court on Wednesday freed CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who was accused of murdering two men in Lahore, after blood money was paid in accordance with sharia law, the Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said.“The family members of the slain men appeared in the court and independently verified they had pardoned him (Davis),” provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah told a private television.

“He has been released from jail. Now it is up to him. He can go wherever he wants,” he added.

The lawyer representing the victims, Asad Manzoor Butt, said he was not allowed to appear for the hearing. The lawyer alleged that Davis possibly escaped from the prison with the consent of the authorities, DawnNews reported.

The lawyer further claimed that he was kept in unlawful confinement, according to DawnNews.

PML-N spokesman Pervez Rasheed the Punjab government was not involved in the release of Davis, DawnNews reported.

Could all of that be true? Anything is possible but Dawn is not the most reliable media outlet. At the time of Davis’ arrests, they reported that the two street thugs he shot were “commuters.”

Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room at Wired:

All it took was cash to end an acrimonious spy standoff between the U.S. and its Pakistani frenemy.

Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor held in a Pakistani jail since late January, is a free man. He reportedly left Kot Lakhpat prison after family members of the two men Davis allegedly killed agreed to accept $700,000 per family in compensation for their losses.  (The exact total is in some dispute.) Blood money: it works.

To say the case inflamed Pakistan is an understatement. Some 47 people signed up to give witness statements in Davis’ scheduled trial, including cops and hospital workers. Little wonder: while Pakistan’s government and military tolerates the CIA’s drone strikes in the tribal areas, popular sentiment is outraged by the presence of American spies roving Pakistani streets, as Davis apparently was.

A Pakistani court charged him with murder — Davis claims he shot the two men in self-defense when they attempted to rob him — and declined to rule on his claims of diplomatic immunity, something Washington insists Davis possesses. But that’s now overtaken by events: the Guardian’s Declan Walsh tweets that Davis is “en route to Kabul, landing shortly.”

Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, praised Davis’ release and blasted Pakistan for detaining him in the first place. “If Pakistan wants to be taken seriously as a state based on the rule of law, it must respect its international obligations,” Rogers said in a statement. “Pakistan and the U.S. cooperate on many levels because it is in our mutual interest. Irresponsible behavior like this jeopardizes everything our two nations have built together.”

Huma Imtiaz at Foreign Policy:

As March 16th dawned over Pakistan, perhaps no one except for the powers-that-be realized that Raymond Davis would soon be free.

Earlier in the morning, the Lahore Sessions Court had indicted Davis, a CIA contractor, for murder, after he allegedly shot dead Faizan Haider and Mohammad Faheem in Lahore this past January 27.

Hours later, the news broke that Davis was a free man, after he paid blood money to the families of Faizan and Faheem. According to Geo News, Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah announced that the families had forgiven Davis, and been paid blood money under the Shariah law of Qisas and Diyat.  Another report aired on the channel said that 18 members of both families had announced in front of the judge in Kot Lakhpat jail that they had forgiven Raymond Davis, after which cash was handed over to the families. However, the families’ lawyer Asad Manzoor Butt told Geo News that they were forcibly made to forgive Davis, after being led to jail by a man without identification.

Munawar Hasan, leader of the right-wing religious party Jamaat-e-Islami, reacted to the news by accusing the government of being slaves of the United States. “They should know that traitor governments do not last for very long,” he said. “They have mocked the law, and the families were forcibly made to sign the Diyat document. Davis was involved with terrorist organizations, and yet they have let him go. The ISI claims to love the country, but they sell people to the States in exchange for dollars, they have failed in their love for the nation today.” Hasan says protests against the release of Raymond Davis will be held in the major cities of Pakistan.

Conflicting reports have emerged about how much money has been paid to the families. Sources on various TV channels aired figures ranging from Rs. 60 million to Rs. 200 million (approximately $700,000 to $2,350,000). Davis’ whereabouts are also unknown – Dunya News said he had flown to the United States, whereas Geo News claimed he had flown to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Another story attributed to “sources” on Geo News also said that Faizan’s widow Zehra had allegedly left for the United States.

Omar Waraich at Time:

Under Pakistani law, “blood money” is a legal means of securing forgiveness from the victims. Under the qasas and diyat laws, derived from Islamic jurisprudence, a court can release an accused person if the victim’s family agrees to a satisfactory cash settlement. The Shari’a-based laws are invoked in the majority of murder cases, Pakistani legal experts say. According to government officials in Punjab, Davis was charged with murder on Wednesday but then acquitted after the families of the two victims said in court that they forgave the CIA contractor and submitted documents attesting to that. Senior Pakistani officials told TIME that each victim’s family received $700,000 in compensation — for a total of $1.4 million.

David Ignatius at WaPo:

This deal had four principal architects: Hussein Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, who shared the “blood money” idea with Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry then traveled to Pakistan, where me met with President Asif Ali Zardari, with the leaders of the Punjab government that was holding Davis, and with top officials of the ISI. Haqqani also visited CIA Director Leon Panetta the evening of Feb. 28 to share the “blood money” idea with him, according to a U.S. official. The final details were worked out by Panetta and ISI Director-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha.

U.S. and Pakistani sources said the process that led to Davis’s release Wednesday included a series of steps: First, the U.S. agreed to pay compensation to the families of the two Pakistanis Davis killed on Jan. 27. A Pakistani lawyer quoted by the Associated Press said the total payments amounted to $2.3 million. Another Pakistani source told me the payments were less than $1 million for each family. According to a U.S. official, the actual negotiations were conducted by Pakistanis, but the U.S. has agreed to pay the bill.

After the families reached the private financial agreement and formally forgave Davis, the settlement was recognized by the trial court in Punjab, which could then dismiss the murder charges under what is described as a standard process in Pakistani murder cases. With the murder charges dismissed, the Punjabi court resolved lesser charges against Davis, and he was freed.

An important aspect of the settlement, for the U.S., was that the principal of diplomatic immunity was never formally challenged in Pakistani courts. The Pakistani High Court refused to rule on the question and the trial court didn’t make a finding, either. That was crucial for the U.S., which feared that a legal challenge to its claim of immunity for Davis would expose hundreds of other undercover agents around the world who rely on the legal protection of their formal status as “diplomats.

John Ellis at Business Insider:

The ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, emerged the winner in the show-down over the fate of CIA operative Raymond Davis.

The US position was that Mr. Davis was in Pakistan on a diplomatic passport, that he enjoyed all the privileges of that status and that the charges of murder lodged against him (he shot two Pakistanis, he says, in self-defense, which is almost certainly true) were therefore null and void.

[…]

Officially, Pakistan gets nearly $2 billion annually in foreign aid from the US.  And that figure is the public number. The actual number is much higher.  How it is that the American government can get jerked around by a government that enjoys such vast US support is a mystery.  But that’s what happened.

Lisa Curtis at Heritage:

Despite years of working closely to target al-Qaeda and other terrorists in Pakistan, the ISI and CIA had seen their relationship begin to fray, partly over Pakistan’s handling of terrorist group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), which was responsible for the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. Pakistani-American David Headley, who was arrested in Chicago in October 2009 and later charged by a U.S. court with facilitating the Mumbai attacks as well as a planned terror attack in Denmark, revealed to interrogators that he was in close contact with Pakistani intelligence. As a result, the families of the six American victims of the Mumbai attack filed charges in a New York court against the head of Pakistan’s intelligence service, General Shujah Pasha, for involvement in the attacks. Pasha’s tenure as Director General of the ISI was recently extended by one year by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.

Adding fuel to the fire, the CIA station chief in Islamabad was forced to leave the country last December after his cover was blown in the Pakistani media.

While resolution of the Davis case may help to cool tempers between the ISI and CIA in the immediate term, so long as Pakistan resists taking serious action against terrorist groups like the LeT, tensions in the relationship will persist.

Washington is increasingly and rightly concerned about the global reach of the LeT and the potential for the group to conduct a Mumbai-type of attack on U.S. soil. It is highly likely that the CIA had recently sought to develop independent sources of secret information on the group in Pakistan to avert such a possibility. Many analysts argue that the LeT is focused primarily on India and thus has little motivation to attack the U.S. directly. However, the skill with which U.S. citizen David Headley operated in close collaboration with the LeT for so many years has raised concern about the LeT’s level of sophistication and its potential capability to conduct an attack in the U.S. if it so chooses.

The Pakistani authorities must now brace for the public reaction to the release of Davis. The religious parties held numerous protests over the past several weeks against Davis’s release. Whether the Pakistani security establishment will be able to use their links to the religious parties to temper their response remains to be seen. Following the Pakistani military storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007, the religious parties strongly criticized the operation, but their public protests were muted. The Pakistani Taliban, which has conducted numerous suicide attacks inside Pakistan over the last three years, will almost certainly react with further violence in retaliation for Davis’s release.

While the release of Raymond Davis is indisputably good news for the U.S and may temporarily improve ties between our two intelligence agencies, it could also heighten anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, especially if the initial news reports that the families were pressured into accepting the blood money gain traction. While one diplomatic dispute between the U.S. and Pakistan has found resolution, the fundamental challenges to the relationship certainly remain.

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The Death Of Shabaz Bhatti

Ray Gustini at The Atlantic:

Minority affairs minister Shabaz Bhatti was assassinated Wednesday outside his parents’ house in Islamabad. Bhatti–Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet member–is the second critic of the country’s blasphemy laws to be killed this year. Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer was murdered in January by Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a member of his security detail. Qadri told authorities he killed Taseer because the governor considered the country’s strict blasphemy law a “black law.”

Fasih Ahmed at The Daily Beast:

“Bhatti’s ruthless and cold-blooded murder is a grave setback for the struggle for tolerance, pluralism, and respect for human rights in Pakistan,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, country representative for Human Rights Watch. “An urgent and meaningful policy shift on the appeasement of extremists that is supported by the military, the judiciary and the political class needs to replace the political cowardice and institutional myopia that encourages such continued appeasement despite its unrelenting bloody consequences.”

News of the attack broke shortly before noon. And two hours after his death was confirmed, it was back to business for the country’s boisterous TV channels, which focused instead on the cricket World Cup, political intrigue in the Punjab, and the fate of incarcerated CIA contractor Raymond Davis. Bhatti and Taseer had both advocated reforming the country’s blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse, and both had been declared apostates by the jihadists and tens of thousands of their mainstream supporters. If the celebratory reaction to Taseer’s assassination finally put paid to the notion that Pakistan’s militants are a vocal but fringe group (the Senate refused to offer prayers for Taseer), Bhatti’s seems to confirm growing national fatigue over the blasphemy-laws controversy.

Before they sped off, the assassins dumped pamphlets at the scene of the crime. “This is a warning from the warriors of Islam to all the world’s infidels, Crusaders, Jews and their operatives within the Muslim brotherhood,” it reads, “especially the head of Pakistan’s infidel system, [President Asif Ali] Zardari, his ministers, and all the institutions of this evil system.” This document from the Punjabi Taliban continues: “In your fight against Allah, you have become so bold that you act in favor of and support those who insult the Prophet. And you put a cursed Christian infidel Shahbaz Bhatti in charge of [the blasphemy laws review] committee. This is the fate of that cursed man. And now, with the grace of Allah, the warriors of Islam will pick you out one by one and send you to hell, God willing.”

Gus Lubin at Business Insider:

Al Jazeera has posted a chilling interview from Pakistani Christian Shahbaz Bhatti from before he was assassinated by the Taliban (via @allahpundit).

Bhatti, the federal minister for minorities, had received death threats for supposedly deriding Islam. He said in this interview, “I am ready to die for a cause. I am living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights.”

Aryn Baker at Time:

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are a colonial holdover put in place by British administrators seeking to calm the subcontinent’s fractious religious groups. They were sharpened under the reign of dictator Zia ul Haq, who added a clause calling for death to anyone found guilty of slandering the Prophet Mohammad. Since then some 1000 blasphemy cases have been registered. Though roughly half have been applied to religious minorities the others have been registered against muslims, in what is widely assumed to be the pursuit of personal vendettas. In one recent example a schoolboy from Karachi is being held in jail for allegedly writing insults against the on a school exam paper (because repeating what the boy wrote would in itself be considered blasphemy, the accusation  is enough to keep him in detention. Though considering what happened to Taseer, it could also be construed as keeping him safe). In another example, a religious leader and his son have been accused of committing blasphemy because they tore down a poster promoting an upcoming religious conference.

Yet any attempts to amend these laws to stem such abuse has been met with intense outrage by both religious leaders and Pakistani citizens, who hold that the law is divine, and cannot be changed. The blasphemy cases have become a boon for Pakistan’s religious parties, who have seldom done well at the polls. But with the country’s current government on the brink of collapse, religious group may be gambling that the issue of blasphemy could leverage them into power if new elections are called. Their gamble may well pay off. Qadri, Taseer’s assassin, was feted as a hero in Pakistan. In his confession, he said he had been inspired by the teachings of his local mullah Hanif Qureshi, who condemned anyone standing against the blasphemy law, saying they were worthy of death. At a rally a few days later, Qureshi claimed credit for motivating Qadri. “He would come to my Friday prayers and listen to my sermons.” Then he repeated his point: “The punishment for a blasphemer is death.”

Joe Carter at First Things:

Bhatti is the second Pakistani official in the past two months to be killed after publicly opposing the draconian blasphemy laws. How many others in that country will be willing to take his place and speak up for religious freedom?

Joe Klein at Swampland at Time:

Once again, Pakistan is the most dangerous country of the world. It has 100 nuclear weapons and it seems to be slipping into anarchy. No one is sure how much of its military favors the Islamist path. Several Pakistani friends of mine, people closely associated with the government, are despairing. I truly hope that the U.S. has contingency plans for taking control of Pakistan’s nukes if the Islamist coup that everyone fears come to pass (if we don’t, I expect that India won’t be shy about taking military action).

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Weekend At Bernie’s Jail Cell

Diana Henriques at NYT:

Bernard L. Madoff said he never thought the collapse of his Ponzi scheme would cause the sort of destruction that has befallen his family.

In his first interview for publication since his arrest in December 2008, Mr. Madoff — looking noticeably thinner and rumpled in khaki prison garb — maintained that family members knew nothing about his crimes.

But during a private two-hour interview in a visitor room here on Tuesday, and in earlier e-mail exchanges, he asserted that unidentified banks and hedge funds were somehow “complicit” in his elaborate fraud, an about-face from earlier claims that he was the only person involved.

Mr. Madoff, who is serving a 150-year sentence, seemed frail and a bit agitated compared with the stoic calm he maintained before his incarceration in 2009, perhaps burdened by sadness over the suicide of his son Mark in December.

Besides that loss, his family also has faced stacks of lawsuits, the potential forfeiture of most of their assets, and relentless public suspicion and enmity that cut Mr. Madoff and his wife Ruth off from their children.

In many ways, however, Mr. Madoff seemed unchanged. He spoke with great intensity and fluency about his dealings with various banks and hedge funds, pointing to their “willful blindness” and their failure to examine discrepancies between his regulatory filings and other information available to them.

“They had to know,” Mr. Madoff said. “But the attitude was sort of, ‘If you’re doing something wrong, we don’t want to know.’ ”

Matt Schneider at Mediaite:

Bernie Madoff, the con artist who pleaded guilty two years ago to a series of financial crimes, gave his first jailhouse interview to The New York Times and was angry with a lot of his critics. Most notably, he attacked the news media for their “disgraceful” coverage of his son’s suicide.Appearing “noticeably slimmer,” “frail” and “agitated,” Madoff disclosed that banks and hedge funds were complicit all along and “had to know” about his schemes. He again claimed that his family was unaware of his crimes until the very end. In reporting on the interview, ABC’s Brian Ross quotes a prosecutor who concludes “Madoff is incapable of telling the truth still to this day.”

Uri Friedman at The Atlantic:

Madoff’s statements are particularly relevant at a time when Irving Picard, the trustee for Madoff’s victims, has accused JPMorgan Chase of harboring serious concerns about Madoff’s investment business but not notifying authorities or halting business with him. Yet, as Henriques notes, federal prosecutors have yet to accuse the major banks and hedge funds that dealt with Madoff “of knowingly investing in his Ponzi scheme.”

Madoff Has Helped Trustee

Madoff claimed he’s met with his victims’ trustee, Irving Picard, and provided him with information about the banks and hedge funds he did business with, though he says he hasn’t shared this information with federal prosecutors working on criminal cases.

Family Crisis Unforeseen

Madoff said he didn’t foresee the extent of the suffering his fraud would inflict on his family. His relations are confronting a barrage of lawsuits and his son, Mark, committed suicide in December. Madoff called some of the press coverage of Mark’s death “disgraceful” and stated that he didn’t attend Mark’s funeral because of prison regulations and because he didn’t want to turn the funeral into a “media circus.”

Mets Owner ‘Knew Nothing’

Picard alleges that New York Mets Owner Fred Wilpon and his brother-in-law, Saul Katz, knew or should have known from their financial dealings with Madoff that he was defrauding investors, but Madoff vehemently denies this: “They knew nothing. They knew nothing,” he asserted.

Andrew Leonard at Salon:

Should we trust him? After all, if there is one thing we know about Bernie Madoff, it is that he is one hell of a liar. But as evidence emerges that bank executives were exchanging e-mails wondering about Madoff’s amazing investment record, the possibility that the banks were purposefully looking the other way is not inconceivable.

The question is: What to do about it?

How about: Make sure government regulatory agencies entrusted with oversight over financial markets are adequately funded and staffed for the job?

Wouldn’t you know it — Obama wants to boost the budget for the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the two key government agencies watching over Wall Street

Jacob Heilbrunn at The National Interest:
As Frank Rich recently observed, Madoff was a “second-tier player.” But he could lead to bigger fry. The Wilpons, who own the New York Mets, are already in big financial trouble for their extensive dealings with Madoff–Donald Trump is angling to buy a majority stake in the team. Then there are the hedge funds and banks that were linked to, or in cahoots with, Madoff.

At this point Madoff has little to lose. President Obama shows little appetite for curbing the excesses that led to the last financial crash. Madoff cannot achieve redemption. His historical role as the biggest Ponizi schemer (so far) in history is set. He became the type-cast bad guy. For awhile Madoff took all the credit, if that’s the right phrase, for the malversation he oversaw. That’s changed. Now he seems to be interested in ensuring that his collaborators, witting or unwitting, also take the fall (though he is notably exempting his own family members from any knowledge of his transgressions).

Madoff’s own crediblity is shot. But if the information that he’s apparently providing to Picard pans out, then he may get his own measure of revenge for the humiliations he has suffered, and is suffering.  Balzac said that behind every great fortune is a crime. Madoff now seems intent on demonstrating the truth of that axiom. One thing seems clear: Madoff is not going to go down quietly. The aftershocks from his exposure may well continue to roil the financial world.

Joe Weisenthal at Business Insider

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Our Bubbles Keep Bursting

David Streitfeld in NYT:

Few believed the housing market here would ever collapse. Now they wonder if it will ever stop slumping.

The rolling real estate crash that ravaged Florida and the Southwest is delivering a new wave of distress to communities once thought to be immune — economically diversified cities where the boom was relatively restrained.

In the last year, home prices in Seattle had a bigger decline than in Las Vegas. Minneapolis dropped more than Miami, and Atlanta fared worse than Phoenix.

The bubble markets, where builders, buyers and banks ran wild, began falling first, economists say, so they are close to the end of the cycle and in some cases on their way back up. Nearly everyone else still has another season of pain.

“When I go out and talk to people around town, they say, ‘Wow, I thought we were going to have a 12 percent correction and call it a day,’ ” said Stan Humphries, chief economist for the housing site Zillow, which is based in Seattle. “But this thing just keeps on going.”

John Ellis at Business Insider:

Everyone thought that when the housing crisis hit, it wouldn’t hit hard in “stable” US cities like Seattle and Minneapolis.  No one thinks that anymore

David Leonhardt at NYT:

When we last listed the price-to-rent ratios in major metropolitan areas, Seattle’s was near the top of the list. Only in the Bay Area of Northern California and in Honolulu were house prices higher, relative to rents.

A sky-high price-to-rent ratio is perhaps the single best sign that an area is in a housing bubble. Real-estate agents, homeowners and even home buyers can tell a lot of stories to justify the bubble — stories about central cities or good school districts being immune to bubbles — but eventually people will realize that renting is a much better deal and more will do so.

There is no such thing as a market price that cannot fall.

Matthew Yglesias:

David Streitfeld writes that “The rolling real estate crash that ravaged Florida and the Southwest is delivering a new wave of distress to communities once thought to be immune — economically diversified cities where the boom was relatively restrained.”

First see David Leonhardt on whether the boom really was all that restrained in Seattle. But the other examples are better and I think this is a reminder that the relationship between the housing market and the economy is push and pull. There was, in fact, an unsustainable bubble in house valuations across much of the country that led to localized unsustainable booms in home building and related activities. That process came to an end in 2006-2007 and we were in recession all throughout 2008 as the unemployment rose and the construction boom unwound. But then came the really giant collapse of aggregate demand in fall of 2008 continuing through the subsequent winter. Now we’re way below the long-term trend level of overall nominal spending:

Overall nominal spending equals overall nominal incomes. And we live in an economy where lots of us have contractual obligations that are nominally denominated. That’s my cable bill, it’s my cell phone bill, and it’s my mortgage, and it’s probably your mortgage too. Fortunately for me, my nominal income isn’t below its pre-crisis trend growth path. But America’s collective income is. So if our nominal income is below where we expected it would be when we signed the contracts, people are going to be unable to pay bills. That means, among other things, serious housing problems even in jurisdictions that never suffered from noteworthy construction booms.

Calculated Risk:

Leonhardt writes:

When we last listed the price-to-rent ratios in major metropolitan areas, Seattle’s was near the top of the list. Only in the Bay Area of Northern California and in Honolulu were house prices higher, relative to rents.

A sky-high price-to-rent ratio is perhaps the single best sign that an area is in a housing bubble. Real-estate agents, homeowners and even home buyers can tell a lot of stories to justify the bubble — stories about central cities or good school districts being immune to bubbles — but eventually people will realize that renting is a much better deal and more will do so.

There is no such thing as a market price that cannot fall.

I agree completely with that last sentence – no place is immune.

Price-to-rent is a great indicator, but some areas have high price-to-rent ratios because of the mix of housing units (rentals units are not perfect substitutes for buying). I prefer tracking price-to-rent over time for a particular city (as opposed to comparing cities), but a high price-to-rent ratio is definitely a warning flag.

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Turn Off The Spiderman Musical

Ray Gustini at The Atlantic:

With a history of sending spandex-clad stunt doubles hurtling towards earth and terrible buzz, there was little suspense about how the nation’s top theater critics would review Julie Taymor’s latest musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. On Monday night, they posted their reviews, breaking an embargo that was supposed to last until the show opens on March 15, and it became clear that the true contest was to see which critic could craft the most withering put-down.

Patrick Healy at NYT:

“Spider-Man” has not even officially opened yet. The date has been delayed five times to fix myriad problems, with Sunday afternoon being preview performance No. 66 and the opening planned for Monday night being pushed back five more weeks to March 15. But this $65 million musical has become a national object of pop culture fascination — more so, perhaps, than any show in Broadway history.

Starting with Conan O’Brien’s spoof of Spider-Man warbling in rhyme on Nov. 30, two nights after the musical’s problem-plagued first preview, the show has been lampooned on every major late-night comedy show and by The Onion, which portrayed the producers as still being optimistic about the show despite a nuclear bomb’s detonating during a preview. Recently, Steve Martin slyly referred to it in a series of tweets about watching the “Spider-Man” movies at home.

“Settling in to watch Spiderman 3 on deluxe edition DVD, but I fell from hanging cables in screening room. 2 hour delay,” he wrote.

Media celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Glenn Beck and the hosts of “Morning Joe” have all raved about the musical, especially Mr. Beck, who said in an interview on Friday that he had seen it four times.

Mr. Beck has framed its appeal on his radio broadcast as a face-off between regular Americans and cultural snobs (i.e., liberals). In the interview, however, he was more fanboy than fire breather, rattling off plot points and design elements with the practiced eye of a Sardi’s regular.

“The story line is right on the money for today, which is to be your better self, that you can spiral into darkness or — ” here he quoted one of the show’s anthemic songs — “you can rise above,” said Mr. Beck, who estimated that he sees a dozen shows a year. “In fact, I just wrote an e-mail to Julie” — Ms. Taymor — “about how much I loved the new ending.”

Last month, “Spider-Man” became the first Broadway show since “The Producers” to land on the cover of The New Yorker; the cartoon, by Barry Blitt, who also did “The Producers” cover in 2001, showed several injured Spider-Men in a hospital ward.

“For our cover we always ask ourselves, would our one million readers know what we were making reference to?” said Francoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker. “But in no time at all, ‘Spider-Man’ has gotten enough notoriety that we knew the cover would make people laugh. Even the show’s producers laughed; they’ve been hounding us to buy copies of the artwork.”

Nina Shen Rastogi at Slate:

Reading through the reviews this morning, it became clear that the main character in this drama isn’t Peter Parker—it’s Julie Taymor. Theater directors rarely receive the kind of mainstream attention that their Hollywood brethren do. (Do you know who Daniel Sullivan is?) But in this case, the specter of steely, uncompromising Taymor looms large over the critical discussion.

There’s a reason for this: Spider-Man is very clearly Taymor’s production, stamped with her trademark mix of spectacle and folklore. (She first gained widespread fame for her shadow-puppets-on-the-savannah production of The Lion King.) And she seems to have created a proxy for herself with Arachne, Spider-Man‘s ancient, eight-legged antagonist.

Scott Brown at New York Magazine:

Some of my colleagues have wondered aloud whether Spider-man will ever be finished — whether it is, in fact, finishable. I think they’re onto something: I saw the show on Saturday night, and found it predictably unfinished, but unpredictably entertaining, perhaps on account of this very quality of Death Star–under–construction inchoateness. Conceptually speaking, it’s closer to a theme-park stunt spectacular than “circus art,” closer to a comic than a musical, closer to The Cremaster Cycle than a rock concert. But “closer” implies proximity to some fixed point, and Spider-man is faaaar out, man. It’s by turns hyperstimulated, vivid, lurid, overeducated, underbaked, terrifying, confusing, distracted, ridiculously slick, shockingly clumsy, unmistakably monomaniacal and clinically bipolar.

But never, ever boring. The 2-D comic art doesn’t really go with Julie Taymor’s foamy, tactile puppetry, just as U2’s textural atmo-rock score doesn’t really go with the episodic Act One storytelling. Yet even in the depths of Spider-man‘s certifiably insane second act, I was riveted. Riveted, yes, by what was visible onstage: the inverted Fritz Lang cityscapes, the rag doll fly-assisted choreography, the acid-Skittle color scheme and Ditko-era comic-art backdrops. But often I was equally transfixed by the palpable offstage imagination willing it all into existence. See, Spider-man isn’t really about Spider-man. It’s about an artist locked in a death grapple with her subject, a tumultuous relationship between a talented, tormented older woman and a callow young stud. Strip out the $70 million in robotic guywires, Vari-lites, and latex mummery, and you’re basically looking at a Tennessee Williams play.

Kamelia Angelova at Business Insider:

We loved the show, and here is why we think people will see it:

• Flying is awesome.

There are aerial acrobatics; airborne fight scenes; the actors fly up and land among the audience. The wires are visible but don’t obstruct any of the view or movements of the actors.

• The story is familiar, yet fresh.

It is based on the classic comic books, and the movie, so the audience knows what to expect — nerdy Peter Parker gets bit by a mutating spider and acquires superpowers. After his uncle is killed, he becomes a crusader against crime. And, of course, Peter is in love aspiring actress Mary Jane who is in love with Spiderman.

Spiderman faces off with a bunch of villains, most notably the Green Goblin.

There are only two new story elements that the writers have introduced: the Geek Chorus — four teenagers that are obviously creating/narrating the story of Spiderman that unfolds before our eyes; and a new villain — Arachne, a character from Greek mythology, that tempts Spiderman to give in to his powers and cross over to some abstract dimension to become her boyfriend.

These new elements make Spiderman: The Musical fresh and different that the usual Spiderman adaptation. And who is to complain about an old-fashion love triangle plot?

• The sets are creative.

Unfolding backdrops, huge video screens; most of the set invokes the theme that this is a comic book story. The sets move surprisingly quickly, given how massive and detailed they are.

• The music is by Bono and The Edge.

The songs are very U2 and very rock at times, and it’s loud. As it should be.

• The cast

My favorite were the villains — the Green Goblin and Arachne.

• The choreography

Cool slow motion sequences.

• It’s the most expensive show ever.

With a price tag of $65 million, this is indeed the most expensive Broadway show ever produced — which is another reason why tourists and locals alike would flock to see it and judge it for themselves.

The show needs to make about $1 million a week to break even, and should run about 2-3 years to be profitable. Since the start of the previews in December 2010, Spiderman’s weekly gross earning have been about $1.2 million on average.

So if there are no more injuries, and the production irons out the technical glitches that do occur and are tolerable during previews but will be unacceptable once the show opens, Spiderman should pull through for its investors (who include theater veterans like James Nederlander and Terry Allan Kramer, as well as Disney via its acquisition of Marvel, the franchise for the Spiderman comics.)

Sorry, esteemed Broadway critics, but we are with Glenn Beck on this one.

Brian Clark at Movieline:

And so, while we usually reserve our “Most Scathing Reviews” feature for movies, we’ll make an exception for this Broadway production that seems to wish it was a movie.9. “Never mind turning off the dark. I spent much of this dreadful new musical muttering Please, Lord, make it stop.” — Charles Spencer, The Telegraph

8. “For without a book with consistent rules that a mainstream audience can follow and track, without characters in whom one can invest emotionally, without a sense of the empowering optimism that should come from time spent in the presence of a good, kind man who can walk up buildings and save our lousy world from evil, it is all just clatter and chatter.” — Chris Jones, The Chicago Tribune

7. “Spider-Man is chaotic, dull and a little silly. And there’s nothing here half as catchy as the 1967 ABC cartoon theme tune.” — David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

6. “More dispiriting is the music… [Bono and the Edge] transformed their sound into stock Broadway schlock pop—sentimental wailing from the early Andrew Lloyd Webber playbook, winceable lyrics and the kind of thumpa-thumpa music that passes for suspense in action flicks.” — Linda Winer, Newsday

5. “Or wait, maybe the bottom of the barrel is a weird on-the-runway sequence, in which a cadre of second-tier villains with names like Swiss Miss and Carnage do a bit of high-fashion sashaying. In the running, too, is a bizarre military number, as well as the first-act closer, a rip-off of a Rodgers and Hart song. The latter is sung by – get out your score cards – the other main-event evildoer, the Green Goblin, a former scientist played by the talented classical actor Patrick Page.” — Peter Marks, The Washington Post

4. “Who exactly is “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” for anyway? The only answer I can come up with is an audience of Julie Taymor types who care only about panoramic sensibility— a bit of slow-mo choreography here, a smattering of diabolical mask work there. Much as I enjoyed the clever shifts in perspective during the skyscraper scenes, it was hard for me to picture adults or young people yearning for a second visit, never mind critics who may feel obliged to check back in with the production when (or should I say if?) it officially opens. Nothing cures the curiosity about “Spider-Man” quite like seeing it.” — Charles McNulty, The LA Times

3. “After all this expenditure of talent and money, “Spider- Man” is probably unfixable because too much has gone into making humans fly, which is not what they are good at. It imitates poorly what the “Spider-Man” movies do brilliantly with computer graphics — and without putting live actors in jeopardy.” — Jeremy Gerard, Bloomberg

2. “This production should play up regularly and resonantly the promise that things could go wrong. Because only when things go wrong in this production does it feel remotely right — if, by right, one means entertaining. So keep the fear factor an active part of the show, guys, and stock the Foxwoods gift shops with souvenir crash helmets and T-shirts that say “I saw ‘Spider-Man’ and lived.” Otherwise, a more appropriate slogan would be “I saw ‘Spider-Man’ and slept.” — Ben Brantley, New York Times

1. “It’s by turns hyperstimulated, vivid, lurid, overeducated, underbaked, terrifying, confusing, distracted, ridiculously slick, shockingly clumsy, unmistakably monomaniacal and clinically bipolar…At this point, I honestly hope they never fix the (non-injurious) glitches: They puncture the show’s pretense and furnish meta-theatrical opportunities that can’t be staged. We’ve had Epic Theater, we’ve had Poor Theater — is this the dawn of Broken Theater?” — Scott Brown, From his review in New York Magazine, which is actually neither negative, positive or even neutral, but seems to sum up the irrationality of the whole enterprise better than any other.

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Goldbook Or Facesachs?

Anupreeta Das, Robert Frank and Liz Rappaport and Wall Street Journal:

It was supposed to be Wall Street’s hottest tech deal in years: the private offering of as much as $1.5 billion in shares of Facebook Inc. And it was a coup for the company’s adviser, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., the most envied firm on the Street.

Goldman bankers burned up the phone lines in the first week of January, pushing many of their best American clients to invest in the deal. And then, on Sunday and Monday, those same advisers were on the phone with those same clients with some bad news. They wouldn’t be getting any Facebook shares after all.

Now, Goldman has a very different mission to execute: soothing a legion of irate investors.

Goldman Sachs experienced a slowdown in many of its divisions in the fourth quarter, and earnings dropped 53 percent, to $2.39 billion, or $3.79 a share.

While the per-share profit in the quarter was modestly higher than the $3.76 a share analysts polled by Thomson Reuters were projecting, it was a stark reminder of how challenging the markets had been for firms like Goldman during the last year.

David Viniar, Goldman’s chief financial officer, told analysts in a conference call on Wednesday that the revenue slowdown came amid client uncertainty about the economy and regulatory reform. With client activity down, fees dropped, too.

Revenue in its powerful fixed income, currency and commodities unit, known as F.I.C.C., fell 48 percent, to $1.64 billion, from the period a year earlier. Investment revenue, which includes equity and debt underwriting, fell 10 percent, to $1.51 billion.

Over all, net revenue in the quarter was $8.6 billion, off 10 percent from the period a year earlier. For the year, revenue minus interest expenses fell 13 percent, to $39 billion, compared with 2009. Full-year earnings were $8.35 billion, 38 percent lower than 2009.

“Market and economic conditions for much of 2010 were difficult, but the firm’s performance benefited from the strength of our global client franchise and the focus and commitment of our people,” Lloyd C. Blankfein, chairman and chief executive, said in a statement. “Looking ahead, we are seeing signs of growth and more economic activity, and we are well-positioned to help our clients expand their businesses, manage their risks and invest in the future.”

Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair:

As the bank was reminded earlier this week, though, money can’t buy Friends: Goldman’s abrupt inability to sell shares of Facebook to select American investors has not sat well with select American investors, or with Facebook. “They pushed me hard to get here and invest, and then they pull the rug out from under me,” one such spurned Goldman client told The Wall Street Journal. “The whole thing has left a bad taste in my mouth.” To describe the highly public, fruitless Facebook fiasco, one might even invoke a phrase from Goldman’s recent past: “shitty deal.”

Earlier this month, Goldman solicited certain investors with poorly written offers to purchase Facebook stock. However, given the round-the-clock, breathless coverage of the firm’s $450 million investment in Facebook, Goldman rescinded the offer to U.S. clients in deference to “rules limiting [the] marketing of private securities.” according to Bloomberg.com. “Goldman Sachs concluded that the level of media attention might not be consistent with the proper completion of a US private placement under US law,” the bank said in a statement on Monday. “We regret the consequences of this decision, but Goldman Sachs believes this is the most prudent path to take.”

Facebook executives were reportedly “miffed” about the public scrutiny surrounding the investment opportunity, according to the Journal. The offering “turned out to be far more public than they expected.” Should have checked the privacy settings!

John Cassidy at the New Yorker:

What does this mean? Over at Dealbook, Andrew Ross Sorkin fills in some details: “Federal and state regulations prohibit what is known as ‘general solicitation and advertising’ in private offerings. Firms like Goldman seeking to raise money cannot take action that resembles public promotion of the offering, like buying ads or communicating with news outlets.”

So Goldman couldn’t go ahead with the Facebook offering because it would be getting too many media inquiries? Come on. Only last week, Groupon, the group-buying Web site, raised $950 million in a private placement arranged by Allen & Co., the boutique investment bank. Extensive media coverage of that deal didn’t prevent some of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capital firms from plonking down almost a billion dollars, which Groupon is planning on using to fund its expansion prior to an I.P.O.

Goldman could easily have arranged a similar money-raising exercise for Facebook. However, it probably wouldn’t have been able to do such a deal at a valuation of fifty billion dollars—the price it has purportedly put on Mark Zuckerberg’s business. Despite Facebook’s rapid growth, many venture-capital outfits would have been reluctant to buy its equity at a multiple of thirty or forty times revenues. (Estimates of Facebook’s revenues range from one to two billion.) Rather than tapping the VCs at a lower valuation, Goldman decided to set up a special-purpose vehicle (i.e., a shell company) through which hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of wealthy individuals (American and foreign) would be offered the privilege of purchasing Facebook stock prior to an I.P.O.

With all due respect to Goldman and its high-priced attorneys, it wasn’t a hostile media that upended this plan. It was the fact that it appeared to many people (not just reporters) to be a blatant effort to circumvent the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, which decrees that any company with more than five hundred shareholders is legally obliged to issue public financial statements, something that Facebook is keen to avoid, at least for now. Under Goldman’s scheme, all the investors in its special-purpose vehicle would be counted as a single “beneficial” shareholder, thereby excluding Facebook from this disclosure provision. (An illuminating discussion of the legal niceties can be found at Dealbook.)

Having been a keen observer of Goldman for some twenty-five years (sometimes as a critic but often as an admirer of its meritocratic culture and the quality of the people it employs), little that the firm does surprises me. But this entire imbroglio has left me puzzled and raised more questions in my mind about Goldman’s senior management.

It is surely fair to assume that the bright spark in Goldman’s investment-banking division who came up with the original Facebook proposal hadn’t seen the report of the Business Standards Committee. Let’s further stipulate that when somebody more senior asked him (her) if the deal was legit, he (she) said, a) Goldman’s top lawyers had signed off on it, and b) it would give Goldman a lock on Facebook’s I.P.O., which many bankers expect to be the biggest (and most lucrative) yet seen in the United States.

Felix Salmon:

In other words, Facebook has a speculative shareholder for the first time, now that it’s made its decision to get into bed with Goldman. And Goldman will think nothing of buying puts or selling calls on Facebook shares — or even dumping its shares outright, if it’s allowed to do so — if that’s what it needs to do to protect its $450 million investment.

As the same time, however, one of the main unwritten rules of IPOs of young companies is that they always need to be priced at a level above their last funding round. If Facebook can’t IPO at a valuation significantly north of $50 billion, then it probably won’t come to market at all. (That probably explains why bidders on SecondMarket are happy to buy at a $70 billion valuation: they’re betting that when Facebook goes public, it’ll be worth more than that.)

A lot of stuff can happen to Facebook between now and a 2012 IPO. And if Goldman is shorting Facebook rather than massaging its valuation and orchestrating an IPO which values the company at $70 billion or more, then maybe Facebook won’t go public at all next year. Maybe, indeed, Facebook will learn from this whole episode that dealing with investment banks is an unpleasant and expensive exercise, and will try to avoid doing so in future as much as it possibly can.

John Hudson at The Atlantic with a round-up.

John C. Abell at Wired

Joe Weisenthal at Business Insider:

The Facebook deal itself was already going to be controversial, because at first blush it came off like Goldman finding a way to skirt securities regulations (though later it was made clear that regardless of whether it did a real IPO, Facebook would report financials).

As for the current mess, it’s still a little unclear how it happened.

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Parker Spitzer: The Break-Up Of The Band

Sam Schechner at Wall Street Journal:

CNN is considering replacing Kathleen Parker, co-host of its new evening program “Parker Spitzer,” according to people familiar with the matter, as the network struggles to reverse a steep slide in its evening audience.

The conservative columnist could be replaced by a new co-host to serve alongside former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, as executives mull a shake-up of the show, the people said, adding that no decision has been made. “Parker Spitzer” hasn’t been able to significantly build its audience since its debut just over three months ago.

Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair:

Middling cable network CNN may dispose of one half of the Parker Spitzer team. Guess which half? “CNN is considering replacing Kathleen Parker,” according to today’s Wall Street Journal. Rumors of a Parker departure have been swirling since as early as December 1, when the New York Post reported that the conservative columnist simply did not care for Eliot Spitzer. At the time, we suggested some possible Parker replacements, including Christine O’Donnell, George W. Bush, and Julian Assange. As those options are under police investigation, presumably unwilling, and under police investigation, respectively, other speculators are now recommending a new roster of potential backups. For example, Gawker proposed that “a piece of string” fill in for Parker. We like it … but think big: what about several pieces of string fashioned together to create a doll?

Flashy replacements aside, a CNN spokesperson declined to confirm or deny the rumors, telling the Journal that “the show continues to improve.” Presenting a similar sentiment last week, Phil Kent, chief executive of Turner Broadcasting, which owns CNN, characterized Parker Spitzer as “a work in progress.”

Mark Joyella at Mediaite:

CNN’s primetime programs performed poorly in 2010, which marked the network’s worst ratings performance in fourteen years.

Max Read at Gawker:

But who could bring the same ability to sit there and not talk? Ashley Dupre? Piers Morgan? Ted Williams? A piece of string?

Glynnis MacNicol at Business Insider:

The problem of course isn’t all Parker.  While her mother hen-like clucking at Spitzer – likely conceived to make viewers feel safer with the disgraced ex-governor — is interminably annoying it is far from the only problem

The show, initially taped and edited ahead of time, often feels awkward and the terrible graphics that float behind the anchor’s heads throughout are irritating and distracting.

But the real problem continues to be that Spitzer never seems to be allowed to be Spitzer: the unpredictably, fiery person New Yorkers heard so much about when he was governor. Airing the show live, and capitalizing on the unpredictability that would come along with that would be the easiest way to grab some attention.

Meantime, who to replace Parker with.   The NYPost hears it may be E.D. Hill a former Fox News anchor and co-host of “Fox and Friends” who got booted for her “terrorist fist jab” remark.

But I think CNN needs to go big here in order to reconvince people to tune.  Someone like Michelle Malkin might work — she has a wide audience, could probably hold her own with Spitzer, but is not so extreme in her views (a la Ann Coulter) as to turn off mainstream viewers.

But perhaps she’s not mainstream enough to solve the problem.  Before Parker Spitzer first went on air CNN did the regular audience testing and discovered Spitzer wasn’t as nationally recognized as they had assumed.

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