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Wednesday's surprise

Like everyone else, I expected the Senate's impeachment trial of President Trump to end with a whimper. But then came one loud bang: Mitt Romney's announcement that he would vote to convict Trump.

This was a first-line-of-his-eventual-obit decision. And he rolled it out accordingly, through interviews with The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Fox News. All of the interviews were embargoed until he formally broke ranks during a Senate floor speech.

"It was a deft public-relations move" by Romney "that apparently caught the White House off guard," the NYT's Michael Grynbaum wrote.

The W.H. and its media boosters have been pummeling Romney ever since. If you were watching CNN's New Hampshire town halls, here's some of what you missed on Fox News and on talk radio:

 -- Lou Dobbs said "Romney is going to be associated with Judas, Brutus, Benedict Arnold forever."

 -- Tucker Carlson said Romney "shall go unnamed" on his show, "on the grounds that silly moral preening should not be rewarded with the publicity it is designed to garner."

 -- One of the banners on Carlson's show evoked Romney's Bain Capital history: "PRIVATE EQUITY GUY VOTES GUILTY ON 'ABUSE' CHARGE"

 -- Breitbart's home page led with a column accusing Romney of stabbing American workers in the back "long before he stabbed Trump."

 -- Laura Ingraham called him "the ultimate selfish, preening, self-centered politician," but allowed that he has a good head of hair.

 -- Sean Hannity's take: "Clearly, losing a presidential election ruins people."
 -- On Hannity's show, Rep. Louie Gohmert wore a "Quit, Mitt" button.

 -- Donald Trump Jr. called Romney a "coward" who "blew his chance – bigly"

 -- Radio host Sebastian Gorka called Romney a "skirt-wearing little pajama boy Millennial snowflake."


Proving Sherrod Brown right

The Democratic senator from Ohio's op-ed for the NYT was titled "In Private, Republicans Admit They Acquitted Trump Out of Fear."

He said GOP lawmakers "are afraid that Mr. Trump might give them a nickname like 'Low Energy Jeb' and 'Lyin' Ted,' or that he might tweet about their disloyalty. Or — worst of all — that he might come to their state to campaign against them in the Republican primary. They worry: 'Will the hosts on Fox attack me?' 'Will the mouthpieces on talk radio go after me?' 'Will the Twitter trolls turn their followers against me?'"

In Romney's case, the answer to all three of those questions is yes. Victory in the Senate evidently wasn't enough for the pro-Trump media machine. They're now on a destroy mission...


"Trump will never forgive you"

Fox interviewer Chris Wallace said Romney's office called on Tuesday to set up the sit-down. "You realize this is war," Wallace said during the interview. "Donald Trump will never forgive you for this."

"There is a hymn that is sung in my church," Romney responded, "it's an old Protestant hymn which is, 'Do what is right and let the consequence follow.' I know in my heart that I'm doing what's right. I understand there's going to be enormous consequence. And I don't have a choice in that regard. That's why I haven't been anxious to be in the position I'm in..."

 >> Romney said "there's not been a morning since this process began that I slept beyond 4." Will he get a good night's sleep tonight? 

 >> It occurs to me that many right-wing media figures have faced the same pressures Romney felt, albeit to a lesser degree...


Utah paper defends Romney

One of Utah's main newspapers, The Salt Lake Tribune, is out with a pro-Romney editorial. And it's the most-read item on the Tribune's website right now. "All Utahns, all Americans, regardless of politics, ideology or religion should be duly impressed with Romney’s decision to follow his heart and his conscience — and his God — in doing the right thing when doing the right thing was difficult," the editorial states. I haven't seen Salt Lake City's other daily, the Deseret News, post an editorial yet...


"He deserves credit..."

Pete Buttigieg, who's currently leading in the never-ending Iowa caucus count, taped with Stephen Colbert on Wednesday... The interview will air on Thursday, but in this newly released bite, Buttigieg said "I do think he deserves credit -- I think he's been on the wrong side of a lot of issues, but I think he deserves credit for having followed his conscience on this... And the fact that he's the only Senate Republican to do it, I think more than anything that says a lot about what's happening in the Senate GOP today."

 >> In Colbert's Wednesday night monologue, he says a better title for Senator Susan Collins would be "former Senator..."


Media notes and quotes

 -- This "Hannity" banner summed up the mood of the MAGAsphere as well as anything did on Wednesday: "IMPEACHMENT FAILS, TRUMP APPROVAL UP, CAUCUS IN CHAOS: DEMS' WORST NIGHTMARE BECOMES A REALITY."

 -- Chuck Todd: "I think of this like the Iraq war vote – you don't know today how this is going to play tomorrow."

 -- Peter Baker's must-read in Thursday's paper: "The Vote Is Over. Let the Contest Begin." (NYT)

 -- And here's the Thursday edition of USA Today... I'll be buying a couple of copies...

Lowry's note about MSNBC's coverage

Brian Lowry emails: Not all politicians seamlessly make the transition to TV, but Claire McCaskill has been a significant asset to MSNBC's coverage of the impeachment trial, from her insights about the Senate's inner workings and former colleagues to her analysis of the politics. And it was striking to see her tear up on Wednesday as she discussed Romney's speech and expressed gratitude for the principle that it exhibited...

SOTU as reality TV apotheosis

Marina di Marzo emails: SOTU night averaged 37.17 million TV viewers, "down about 21 percent from the total of 46.79 million in 2019," per THR. Trump's reality TV tactics were unmissable. NYT chief TV critic James Poniewozik called it "an 'Apprentice' finale wrapped in an Oprah episode stuffed inside a viral YouTube video and dropped into the middle of a WrestleMania match." Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik wrote that "if you want to understand how Mr. Trump's approval rating could be at his all-time high of 49% this week, the economy surely is one factor. But so is what he's doing onscreen..."


The Rush divide

The president's presentation of the Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh "energized Republicans and horrified Democrats," ABC's Jon Karl said Wednesday. That pretty much summed it up.

Limbaugh's surprise appearance at the SOTU came on the same week he announced his lung cancer diagnosis and his plans for treatment. He's been off the air since Monday afternoon, but he will return on Friday following treatment, a spokeswoman says.



Nancy Pelosi's shredding of Trump's SOTU speech? Feels like that happened a year ago. But let me make three quick points about it:

 -- The move was ripped (ha ha) right from Trump's playbook. It was unprecedented behavior for a speaker, aggressively rude and unapologetically meant to rile up her base. Divisive, but effective. "He shredded the truth, so I shredded his speech," Pelosi told her caucus...

 -- Fox covered the tear more than CNN and MSNBC combined, according to the anti-Fox group Media Matters. As Fox's Steve Doocy said, "She gave us something to talk about. She knew exactly what she was doing..."

  -- All of those segments reflected choices about how and where to exert attention. Ripping up a piece of paper is only a big story if members of the media decide to make it a big story, and if members of the public respond by reading and watching and reacting...


 -- On a related note, re: the meme wars: Clarissa-Jan Lim recapped how Mike Pompeo attempted and failed to "roast" Pelosi’s speech-ripping moment by using a Simpsons meme on Twitter... (BuzzFeed News)

 -- ICYMI from Meridith McGraw: "Meet Trump’s teleprompter man," Gabe Perez, who "was hired after a 2016 Google search for 'teleprompters...'" (Politico)

 -- Click here to get caught up on CNN's town halls with Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang, and Tom Steyer... (CNN)

 -- Yang was asked about FB, and responded with a blunt message for Mark Zuckerberg: "Your company is contributing to the disintegration of our democracy. If you are an American and a patriot… you need to have Facebook step up, and say there will not be untrue political ads on your platform." (Twitter)


NYT reports earnings before the bell...

POTUS will make a public statement re: the end of the trial at 12pm ET...

CNN's two-night town hall event continues at 8pm with Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Deval Patrick...

AOC is back on Showtime's "Desus & Mero" at 11pm...

Iran-linked hackers pose as journalists in email scam

Reuters reporters Raphael Satter and Christopher Bing uncovered an "effort to impersonate journalists in hacking attempts that three cybersecurity firms said they have tied to the Iranian government, which rejected the claim," discovered "in the wake of the U.S. air strike that killed Iran’s second most powerful official, Major-General Qassem Soleimani."

>> Among those impersonated: CNN national security analyst Samantha Vinograd; veteran Iranian-American journalist Farnaz Fassihi; and Azadeh Shafiee, anchor for London-based satellite broadcaster Iran International. Keep reading...


 -- Reza Moradi and Farhad Souzanchi for Poynter: "Four stories show that disinformation has a home on Iran's State Television..." (Poynter)

 -- Jenny Singer interviewed seven women "covering the impeachment, the election, or both, about how they're handling their workload during one of the craziest months in American history:" Dana Bash, Jessica Dean, Alexi McCammond, Courtney Beesch, Eileen Sullivan, Kasie Hunt, and Rachel Stassen-Berger... (Glamour)

 -- Kevin Roose's latest NYT column shows how pro-Falun Gong publication The Epoch Times "has shifted its budget over to YouTube" after an advertising ban from Facebook last year, where it "continued its advertising blitz." Roose reports "the outlet has spent more than $1 million on YouTube ads, according to a person familiar with its spending..." (NYT)

WSJ: DOJ Ramps Up Google Probe, With Heavy Focus on Ad Tools

"The Justice Department has reached out to more than a dozen companies in its antitrust probe of Google, including publishers, advertising technology firms and advertising agencies, as the company’s online ad tools become a major focus of the investigation," WSJ's Keach Hagey and Rob Copeland reported Wednesday. The DOJ "has been posing increasingly detailed questions -- to Google’s rivals and executives inside the company itself -- about how Google’s third-party advertising business interacts with publishers and advertisers..."


 -- ‪Ezra Klein's "Why We're Polarized" debuts at No. 5 on this week's NYT list... "Profiles in Corruption" is No. 1 and "A Very Stable Genius" is No. 2... ‬(Twitter)

 -- What's going on with the Chicago Tribune reporters who are trying to free their paper from Alden Global Capital's grip? It looks like finding realistic buyers isn't proving to be very easy. Joe Pompeo has an update in a lengthy piece on the hedge-fund-ization of newspapers ... (VF)

 -- Fox Corp earnings: "Net income soared to $314 million, compared to $24 million in the comparable year-ago quarter," but higher costs took a toll, Cynthia Littleton notes... (Variety)

 -- Lachlan Murdoch told analysts that "our advertising market, local and national, is buoyant," with a big bump expected from the 2020 race both for Fox News and local stations... (THR)

Spotify buys The Ringer

Kerry Flynn emails: Bill Simmons' The Ringer is joining Spotify, the streaming service announced on Wednesday, timed with its Q4 earnings report. With The Ringer's 30+ podcasts, Spotify is continuing to expand beyond music and build an audio empire. No immediate layoffs, and Spotify is expected to negotiate in good faith with The Ringer's union. Read more from the full story here...

>> Simmons tweeted to Ringer fans that the brand "will remain Ringer in every respect." The Spotify bosses "appreciate what we do and they want us to be us..."

Protocol's debut

Kerry Flynn emails: Robert Allbritton's new publication focused on the people, power and politics of tech launched on Wednesday. Day one came with some great coverage including Issie Lapowsky's report on the Iowa caucus tech debacle and Janko Roettgers' profile of Quibi's chief product officer Tom Conrad. (Disclosure: My boyfriend works there.)

>> Adweek's Sara Jerde reports "several unique offerings" from the new Politico sister, "including a Slack app." Read on...


 -- Eleanor Cummins explores how the new coronavirus is "the latest disease outbreak to become racialized..." (The Verge)

 -- The NYT has an update on how "Chinese authorities are clamping down on negative news about the outbreak..." (NYT)

-- Vice News' David Gilbert goes inside "the world's biggest quarantine zone," showing how some citizens are using social media to circumvent Beijing's censors... (Vice News)

 -- "Aspiring social media star" James Potok was arrested Monday after he "forced a plane to turn around and fly back to the airport" by joking he might have the deadly coronavirus... (BI)

Warner to the Max

Warner Bros. and HBO Max, two parts of WarnerMedia, which also owns CNN, "are launching a new division that will specialize in making movies specifically for streaming," the LAT's Ryan Faughnder reported Wednesday. "The new division is expected to make eight to 10 films a year" for HBO Max, "which launches in May. Movies produced by the new label, dubbed Warner Max, will carry production budgets of $30 million to $60 million..." 
 >> More from Deadline's Anthony D'Alessandro: "Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema will continue to create midbudget fare for the traditional theatrical window, while Warner Max will create a new pipeline for filmmakers looking to make a particular type of film or connect with a specific audience that would be best reached in the streaming environment." Continue reading...


 -- Nearly nine months after Larry King suffered a near-fatal stroke, he tells People's Aili Nahas, "I feel positive -- and hopeful..." (People)

 -- The Knight Foundation announced a new batch of grants totaling $2 million to be awarded to 25 underserved newsrooms over three years "for the adoption or management of a digital publishing system..." (Knight Foundation)

 -- From Digiday's Max Willens: "Publishers are using a Starbucks Wi-Fi program to hunt for new readers..." (Digiday)

Remembering Kirk Douglas

CNN's Brian Lowry and Todd Leopold write: "Kirk Douglas, one of the great Hollywood leading men whose off-screen life was nearly as colorful as his on-screen exploits in movies like 'Spartacus' and 'Champion,' has died, according to his son, actor Michael Douglas. He was 103." The elder Douglas "was far more than just a leading man, although he was certainly that. The actor was a larger-than-life character, a titan of the entertainment industry, and someone -- by virtue of his longevity -- one of the last surviving links to a particular era of Hollywood's past..."

 >> Sandra Gonzalez is recapping some celeb tributes to Douglas here...

Lowry's Oscars predictions are here

Brian Lowry emails: Because there’s not much suspense surrounding the acting races, there's a higher emphasis than usual at this year's Academy Awards on what film walks away with best picture. And each of the nominees, if anointed, would tell us something about the present state of the movie industry, counting down from the most likely winner, "1917."

Read Lowry's full column here...

As Oscars near, "They've Gotta Have Us" looks at black history in the movies

Brian Lowry emails: A BBC documentary landing on Netflix in time for the Oscars, "They've Gotta Have Us," looks at black history in the movies -- from the pioneers and breakthroughs to the progress that still needs to be made.

>> A key takeaway: Despite the symbolism of who’s on screen, true change requires what happens off it and who’s in positions of power. As actor David Oyelowo says, "Who gets to call the shots matters." Read on...


 -- "The first trailer for Chris Rock's Saw reboot titled Spiral dropped Wednesday — and it looks twisted. Starring Rock (also the executive producer) and Samuel L. Jackson, Spiral is a reboot of the now iconic 2004 horror film Saw..." (THR)

"Birds of Prey" is a hit with critics

Frank Pallotta writes: Warner Bros.' latest film from the DC universe hits theaters this weekend, and it looks like its a hit with critics.

"Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)," which is just a great name, has an 89% score on Rotten Tomatoes. The film, which follows around Margot Robbie as the Joker's partner in crime after they break up, is "as tasty, chewy and disposable as bubble gum," according to Justin Change, the film critic for the L.A. Times.

This weekend could be a big one for WB's superhero unit. "Birds of Prey" is set to win the box office and "Joker," its blockbuster from last year, is up for multiple Oscars at Sunday's Academy Awards.


By Lisa Respers France:

 -- Jay-Z has explained that he wasn't protesting when he and his wife were sitting during the National Anthem at Super Bowl LIV -- he was working...

 -- "Pose" star Billy Porter delivered his "State of the LGBTQ Union" address on Tuesday...

 -- And last but not least, Robert Pattinson has been declared "the most handsome man in the world," according to "science..."
Send me your feedback -- the good, the bad, the ugly -- by emailing me.

See you tomorrow...
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