Vladimir Putin Just Replaced Russia's Best State-Run News Outlet With a State-Run PR Firm
Of all the state-owned media outlets in Russia, RIA Novosti stood largely alone in its willingness to challenge the Kremlin. I use the past-tense there because, as of today, the well-known and relatively well-respected news wire is no longer. In a surprise move even by Russian standards, Vladimir Putin announced this morning that the government is shuttering RIA Novosti and replacing it with a new state-run outlet that will serve largely as a PR firm for the government—or, in Putin's own words, "to highlight abroad the state policy and public life of the Russian Federation."
Healthcare.gov Joins New Coke, BP Spill as Case Studies in PR Mismanagement
Politico's Hadas Gold has an interesting-if-insidery look this morning at healthcare.gov's troubled rollout as a PR case study in how not to manage a crisis:
Far from the world of government and politics, the botched launch of Healthcare.gov has become an instant classic. It has replaced such notorious bungles as New Coke and the BP oil spill as a real time example in the crisis management world of how not to respond when everything goes wrong. Experts are eagerly cashing in on the administration’s missteps, offering critiques in private interactions with clients, as well as publishing blog posts and op-eds on the basic rules of crisis management that were not followed.
“I have to believe there are lots of people in our business who are looking at this and saying, ‘Gee, these are the five things they did wrong. Here are the things I would’ve done differently,’ ” Marlin Collingwood, the president of CHT, told POLITICO. “This will be taught in a lot of business and marketing courses, and probably just as importantly in a lot of technology courses on how do you launch a new product. You certainly don’t do it like this.”
The near consensus of those PR pros the paper spoke to was that the White House's cardinal crisis-management sin was failing to more quickly own up to the fact that there were very real problems with the site, instead largely brushing them off as "glitches." Other missteps included: setting expectations too high, not touting success stories enough, and failing to have a single, effective spokesperson for Obamacare and the website.
You can check out the full story here. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that the article—like the majority of the current Obamacare-focused debate and coverage since the Oct. 1 rollout—is about the failures of healthcare.gov, the website, not the law itself.
Ukraine Protesters Topple Lenin Statue in Kiev
Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Kiev Sunday for what was the largest protest in the country since the 2004 Orange Revolution. Some 500,000 people, according to the Associated Press estimates, flooded the streets to angrily demand that President Viktor Yanukovich go back on his plans to forge close ties with Russia while turning away from Europe. The crowds pulled down a statue of Vladimir Lenin in Kiev, decapitating it and hitting it with hammers in what Reuters calls “a symbolic rejection of Moscow’s power.” Protesters allegedly took turns hitting the statue while those around them chanted, “Glory to Ukraine!” Numerous Lenin statues have been removed from Kiev in previous years, notes CNN.
The protesters crowded into Independence Square on Sunday with the rallying cry, “Ukraine is Europe!” Opposition leaders called on Yanukovich to resign and said they gave him 48 hours to get rid of his prime minister or otherwise they would march on his residence outside Kiev and shut him inside, reports the Guardian. The demonstrations began last month but the protests keep growing in a sign of “just how deeply roiled this nation of 46 million people has become in the weeks since Mr. Yanukovich said he would not complete political and free-trade agreements with the European Union that he had been promising to sign for more than a year,” reports the New York Times. It is unclear how the government will respond. So far its apparent strategy of hoping things die down on their own seems to have failed, but a crackdown by security forces could galvanize protesters. Still the opposition is hardly united and there appears to be little agreement among leaders on what they should do next.
CIA Spy Program Has Been a “Colossal Flop”
After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the CIA began a big push to expand its spy program. Specifically, the agency wanted to increase the number of operatives working under what’s called “non-official cover,” meaning they do not work inside an embassy but rather as undercover agents in businesses and universities. The whole effort “was a colossal flop,” a former CIA official tells the Los Angeles Times. After spending at least $3 billion on the program, the Agency has little to show for the effort that increased the number of deep undercover spies from dozens to hundreds. Only a few of the deep undercover officers have actually been successful.
The program suffered from numerous shortcomings, including bureaucratic hurdles. Although the CIA paid a lot of attention to Iran, Tehran was always good at exposing operatives. But mostly the deep-undercover agents suffered from “some of the same shortcomings as other CIA officers—too few spoke Urdu, Pashto, Dari or other necessary languages, or could disappear in local cultures,” notes the Times.
Susan Boyle Reveals She Has Asperger’s Syndrome
Scottish Singer Susan Boyle, who shot to worldwide fame in 2009 when she sang I Dreamed a Dream on Britain’s Got Talent, says she was relieved to learn she has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. Boyle tells the Observer newspaper that she was told she had “brain damage” as a child. “It was the wrong diagnosis when I was a kid,” Boyle said, adding that “I always knew it was an unfair label. Now I have a clearer understanding of what’s wrong and I feel relieved and a bit more relaxed about myself.”
Boyle has become one of the bestselling British female artists, and Fox Searchlight is reportedly interested in doing a movie about her life, but her stardom has been accompanied by “reports of volatile behavior and emotional outbursts,” notes the Observer. Asperger’s impacts a person’s social and communication skills, often making it difficult for someone to know how to behave appropriately in different social contexts. It had long seemed that maybe success had been too much to bear for the woman who was bullied and called “Susie Simple” as a child. She discovered though that there was nothing wrong with her intelligence: “I was told my IQ was above average.”
Sen. Rand Paul: Extending Unemployment Benefits Would Be Disservice to Jobless
President Obama’s push to extend unemployment benefits set to expire for 1.3 million workers on Dec. 28 is a bad idea because it would end up hurting those it purports to help, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky told Fox News Sunday. Although Paul took pains to emphasize that “I support unemployment benefits for the 28 weeks they’re paid for” he added that he wouldn’t agree to extend them any further.
"While it seems good, it actually does a disservice to the people you're trying to help," Paul said, adding that employers prefer to hire workers who have been on unemployment for a shorter period of time. "You're causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy."
Whether to extend benefits has become a key part of discussions on the 2014 budget bill that lawmakers have to pass by Jan. 15. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin suggested Sunday that the issue would likely not be a deal-breaker. "I don't think we've reached that point where we say this is it, take it or leave it," Durbin told ABC News, emphasizing that he hoped the extension would be a part of negotiations, according to the Washington Post.
On Saturday, President Obama used his weekly address to push Congress to extend unemployment insurance. “The holiday season is a time for remembering the bonds we share, and our obligations to one another as human beings,” Obama said. “But right now, more than 1 million of our fellow Americans are poised to lose a vital economic lifeline just a few days after Christmas if Congress doesn’t do something about it.” Obama also emphasized that extending benefits wouldn’t just help individual job seekers and their families, but also the economy as a whole.
South Africa Announces Weeklong Memorial to Mourn Mandela
As South Africans continue to flock to Nelson Mandela’s home to pay tribute to the late anti-apartheid leader, the government outlined a weeklong series of events that will culminate with the funeral and burial of the anti-apartheid leader on Dec. 15 in his home village of Qunu, reports the Wall Street Journal. Mandela’s family issued the first statement since his death: “The pillar of the royal Mandela family is no more with us physically, but his spirit is still with us.” The family went on: “We have lost a great man, a son of the soil whose greatness in our family was in the simplicity of his nature in our midst — a caring family leader who made time for all and on that score we will miss him dearly.”
President Obama and First Lady will be travelling to South Africa this week “to participate in memorial events,” the White House said, without specifying whether they would attend the Dec. 15 state funeral. Obama’s two immediate predecessors and their wives will travel with Obama on Air Force One, reports the New York Times. Although many South Africans are already paying their respects in diverse ways, the week of mourning begins Sunday with a national day of prayer, followed by an official memorial service at a Johannesburg 90,000-seat stadium on Tuesday. "We will spend the week mourning his passing. We will also spend it celebrating a life well lived," South African President Jacob Zuma said.
Starting Tuesday, people will be able to view Mandela’s body lying in state in an open casket for three days in Pretoria. The casket will be transported daily and the government is encouraging mourners to line the route “and form a public guard of honor,” details Reuters. "This will give ordinary people and the public an opportunity to celebrate Madiba's life," Collins Chabane, a member of Zuma’s cabinet, said.
Errors Could Plague 25 Percent of Healthcare.gov Enrollments Before December
Approximately one out of every four people who signed up for health insurance through healthcare.gov in October and November may not have been properly enrolled due to the errors in files that the site is supposed to send to insurers to confirm coverage. Errors in these forms could keep people from getting coverage when 2014 begins. “The problems center around three types of enrollment reporting errors,” notes McClatchy, “the failure to generate an 834 form; issuance of duplicate forms and forms with incorrect data.”
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency in charge of the troubled website, gave estimates of errors, saying that they now affect only 10 percent of enrollee files. That certainly marks a substantial improvement but it still means tens of thousands of people could be affected. These latest figures illustrate how the administration is being selective about the data it releases on ObamaCare, making it difficult to know whether the revamped website is meeting the White House goals.
Although it’s common practice for politicians to only outline numbers that helps make their case, “strategists cautioned that the administration’s approach could backfire as the public remains skeptical about the healthcare law,” notes the Hill. In the latest example, CMS only gave estimates about problems on the back end of the website after stonewalling journalists for weeks on the issue.
Officials insist they’re working on resolving any errors in the forms but say those who are unsure about whether they were able to successfully sign up should get in touch with their insurer and pay the first premium in order to make sure coverage begins Jan. 1, 2014.
North Korea Frees 85-Year-Old U.S. Korean War Veteran
Merrill Newman is going home. North Korea freed the 85-year-old U.S. veteran of the Korean War on Saturday and he flew to China in the morning to transfer a few hours later to a United Airlines flight to San Francisco, reports the Washington Post. Newman had traveled to Pyongyang in October on a 10-day tour but as he was getting ready to return home he was pulled off the plane. Pyongyang released Newman a week after he released—and read—an oddly-worded four-page apology in which he apologized for his supposed crimes during the war.
When Newman was dragged off his flight home nearly seven weeks ago, many wondered why Pyongyang took issue with this particular veteran, considering many like him had returned to North Korea on organized tours in recent years. The answer may lie in what Newman actually did during the war, when he helped train guerrillas fighting behind enemy lines against the North, which called him a war criminal, notes Reuters. And the New York Times notes Newman worked with a unit “that was particularly despised by Pyongyang for its daring raids on North Korean territory.” It is easy for Americans to forget that what they often refer to as “the forgotten war” lies at the very “foundation of North Korean national identity,” an expert tells the Associated Press.
Vice President, who is in South Korea, welcomed Newman’s release, saying he had offered the retired veteran a ride home on Air Force Two, but he declined, noting he could get a direct flight to San Francisco from Beijing. “I don’t blame him,” Biden said. “I’d be on that flight too.”
Although Biden said it was “positive” that North Korea released Newman, he also emphasized the United States would continue pushing for the release of Kenneth Bae, a Korean American who worked as a Christian missionary and has been held for more than a year, serving a 15-year hard labor sentence. Yet getting him released may be a tougher challenge. Bae is being accused of trying to spread Christianity, which North Korea sees as a particular threat, notes the New York Times.
Slatest PM: Mississippi's Looming Intra-GOP Fight
Mississippi Primed For Intra-GOP Fight: New York Times: "Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican who was first elected to the Senate in 1978, set up a generational and ideological clash in the state’s Republican primary when he announced Friday that he would seek a seventh term in 2014. ... While Mr. Cochran, who turns 76 on Saturday, has the support of many leading Republicans in the state, he is already facing opposition from Chris McDaniel, 41, a state senator aligned with the Tea Party, who announced his candidacy in October and has won the support of some conservative groups. ... The primary could be the toughest race of his career. Mr. Cochran has faced little opposition in his 34 years in the Senate, routinely winning re-election by large margins over little-known Democrats. But the primary could offer insight into fundamental questions about the Republican Party: whether longevity and clout in a Deep South state that has venerated such qualities are enough to overcome national trends toward limited-government conservatism."
Keeping Secrets: Politico: "Cochran guarded his decision on whether to seek reelection so closely that even Senate leaders and top officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee didn’t know what he was planning until he shared it with the press. He kept the political world waiting for his decision throughout the fall: he originally said he’d make his decision by the end of November, but that deadline passed with no word from Cochran. ... State insiders largely expected Cochran to step down: campaign finance records show he raised just $53,000 in the third quarter of this year, not the kind of sum expected for a senator the fall before a reelection battle. Cochran had $804,000 on hand at the end of September. But Cochran also was reportedly getting pressure from state and national Republicans to stick around for one more term because, if the GOP were to take back the Senate next fall, Cochran could reclaim his position as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee."
Dems Watching and Waiting: Associated Press: "Republicans need to gain six seats in the Senate to regain control after the 2014 elections. Democrats would welcome a polarizing Republican primary in Mississippi because it could help the party compete in a state that has long backed Republicans in federal elections, but even they acknowledge Cochran would be difficult to beat. The last Democrat to win a U.S. Senate election in the state was John Stennis, who served more than 50 years before choosing not to seek re-election in 1988."