Will media stay on gun story?


  • Howard Kurtz: Conventional wisdom is that media will lose interest in guns

  • He says that's been the pattern of media behavior after Columbine, other shootings

  • This time seems like it might be different, he says

  • Kurtz: Reporters profoundly shaken by story, should stay on it

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- The conventional wisdom is that Newtown has just a few more days to run as a major media story.

The reporters are pulling out of the grief-stricken Connecticut town, which means no more live shots every hour. The White House press corps responded to President Obama's announcement Wednesday of a task force on gun control with the first three reporters asking about the impending fiscal cliff. And after every previous mass shooting, from Columbine to Aurora, the media's attention has soon drifted away.

But I believe this time will be different.

Howard Kurtz

Howard Kurtz

I believe the horror of 20 young children being gunned down has pricked the conscience of those in the news business, along with the rest of America.

I could be wrong, of course. The press is notorious for suffering from ADD.

But every conversation I've had with journalists has quickly drifted to this subject and just as quickly turned intense. Most have talked about how their thoughts have centered on their children, and grandchildren, and the unspeakable fear of anything happening to them. All have spoken about how hard it is to watch the coverage, and many have recalled crying as they watch interviews with the victims' families, or even when Obama teared up while addressing the nation.

Watch: Blaming Jon Stewart for the Newtown Shootings?

I've watched Fox's Megyn Kelly choke back tears on the air after watching an interview from Newtown. I've heard CNN's Don Lemon admit that he is on the verge of crying all the time. I've seen MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, say that day in Connecticut "changed everything" and prompted him to rethink his longstanding opposition to gun control, which earned him top ratings from the NRA.

Maybe Newtown will be the 9/11 of school safety.

Watch: Media Fantasy: Touting Ben Affleck (Uh Huh) for the Senate

The media paid scant attention to gun control in the past, in part because of a conviction that the NRA would block any reform on Capitol Hill. At the same time, they took their cue from the fact that officeholders in both parties were avoiding the issue at all costs—Republicans because they mainly support the status quo, Democrats because they mostly deem it political poison.

But since when is it our job solely to take dictation from pols? When it comes to subjects like climate change and same-sex marriage, the press has been out ahead of the political establishment. Given the carnage in Newtown as the latest example, journalists should demand whether we can do better. The fact that Obama now promises to submit gun legislation to Congress will help the narrative, but it shouldn't be a mandatory requirement for coverage.

Watch: From Joe Scarborough to Rush Limbaugh, the conservative media meltdown

This is not a plea for a press-driven crusade for gun control. In fact, it's imperative that journalists be seen as honest brokers who are fair to all sides. MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, in an interview with Republican Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, who opposes gun restrictions, said: "So we need to just be complacent in the fact that we can send our children to school to be assassinated." That is demonization, just as some conservative pundits are unfairly accusing liberal commentators who push for gun control of "politicizing" a tragedy or of pushing God out of the public schools.

The question of school safety extends beyond guns to mental illness and societal influences. With even some NRA supporters asking why law-abiding hunters need automatic rifles with high-capacity magazines, it's time for a nuanced debate that goes beyond the usual finger-pointing. Bob Costas got hammered for using an NFL murder-suicide to raise the gun issue during a halftime commentary, but he was right to broach the subject.

Here is where the media have not just an opportunity but a responsibility. The news business has no problem giving saturation coverage to such salacious stories as David Petraeus' dalliance with Paula Broadwell. Isn't keeping our children safe from lunatics far more important by an order of magnitude?

I think the press is up to the challenge. Based on what I've heard in the voices of people in the profession, they will not soon forget what happened in Newtown. And they shouldn't let the rest of us forget either.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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Ridley Scott, Paul Attanasio Working on “Vatican” Pilot for Showtime

LOS ANGELES (TheWrap.com) – Showtime is once again preparing to go papal.

The network, which already has a Pope-centric hit in the form of “The Borgias,” has given the green light to pilot tentatively titled “The Vatican,” from Ridley Scott and Paul Attanasio, Showtime said Thursday.

A contemporary exploration of the politics and power plays within the Catholic church, “The Vatican” will be written by Attanasio and directed by Scott, marking the first pilot that Scott has directed.

“The Vatican” is described as “a provocative contemporary genre thriller about spirituality, power and politics – set against the modern-day political machinations within the Catholic church” that will “explore the relationships and rivalries as well as the mysteries and miracles behind one of the world’s most hidden institutions.”

Production on “The Vatican,” which is being produced by Sony Pictures Television in association with Showtime, will begin next year.

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Our Best Photos of 2012


Posted on December 21, 2012

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The 20 extraordinary images selected here represent the very best of this year’s photography in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. From Platon’s arresting portrait of Apple CEO Tim Cook to photographs of tin mines in Indonesia and Bahnhof’s bunker in Sweden, our photographers have been creating beautiful, surprising and memorable images week after week, all year long. – Brent Murray

In his most wide-ranging interview since succeeding Steve Jobs, Tim Cook talks about how the company now works, the view that he’s “robotic,” and the return of Apple manufacturing to the U.S.

Read the story here.

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Don’t be fooled by January pay _ higher taxes loom

WASHINGTON (AP) — Workers probably won’t feel the full brunt of next year’s tax increases in their January paychecks, but don’t be fooled by the temporary reprieve.

No matter what Congress does to address the year-end fiscal cliff, it’s already too late for employers to accurately withhold income taxes from January paychecks, unless all the current tax rates remain unchanged, which is an unlikely scenario.

Social Security payroll taxes are set to increase on Jan. 1, so workers should immediately feel the squeeze of a 2 percent cut in their take-home pay. But as talks drag on over how to address other year-end tax increases, the Internal Revenue Service has delayed releasing income tax withholding tables for 2013.

As a result, employers are planning to withhold income taxes at the 2012 rates, at least for the first one or two paychecks of the year, said Michael O’Toole of the American Payroll Association.

If employers don’t withhold enough taxes in January, they will have to withhold even more taxes later in the year to make up the difference. Otherwise, taxpayers could get hit with big tax bills, and possibly penalties, when they file their 2013 returns.

The tax increases could be steep. If Congress fails to act, workers at every income level face significant tax increases next year as part of the year-end “fiscal cliff.”

A taxpayer making between $ 50,000 and $ 75,000 would get an average tax increase of $ 2,400, according to the Tax Policy Center, a Washington research group. If the worker is paid every two weeks, that’s about $ 92 a paycheck, on average.

Someone making between $ 75,000 and $ 100,000 would get a tax increase averaging nearly $ 3,700. If the worker is paid every two weeks, that’s about $ 142 a paycheck.

O’Toole said it would take most employers two weeks to four weeks to update their payroll systems, once new tax withholding tables are released. For some small businesses, it could take longer.

“Employers can’t really just come up with withholding tables on their own, depending on what the rates are,” O’Toole said. “The smaller companies that do not use a payroll processing service probably would have more problems than anyone else.”

On Friday, the IRS said it plans to issue guidance by the end the year, though it won’t be early enough to affect paychecks in early January.

“We are aware that employers have questions with respect to 2013 withholding,” the agency said in a written statement. “Since Congress is still considering changes to the tax law, we continue to closely monitor the situation. We intend to issue guidance by the end of the year on appropriate withholding for 2013.”

About three-quarters of taxpayers got tax refunds this year, averaging $ 2,707, according to the IRS. That gives most taxpayers some leeway to manage their income tax withholding. However, many people rely on tax refunds to pay bills or make major purchases.

“The reality is, the vast majority of Americans do live paycheck to paycheck and that tax refund is their most significant payday of the year,” said Bob Meighan, vice president of TurboTax, an online tax preparation service.

Most of the expiring tax breaks were first enacted under President George W. Bush and extended under President Barack Obama. Obama campaigned for re-election on extending the tax cuts on incomes below $ 200,000 for individuals and $ 250,000 for married couples. Obama would let the tax cuts expire on incomes above those amounts.

In negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner, Obama offered to raise the income threshold, limiting tax increases to those making more than $ 400,000. Boehner, who has argued for years that the tax cuts should be made permanent for everyone, responded by trying to push a bill through the House that would have let many of the tax cuts expire on incomes above $ 1 million.

Many Republicans revolted and Boehner, R-Ohio, shelved the bill, sending lawmakers home for the Christmas holiday and leaving the outcome of talks in doubt as the new year approaches.

If Congress and the White House cannot reach a deal, income tax rates would go up, estate taxes and investment taxes would increase and the alternative minimum tax would hit millions of middle-income people. A temporary payroll tax cut that has benefited nearly every wage earner in 2011 and 2012 expires, costing the average family an additional $ 1,000 a year by itself.

In addition, dozens of other tax breaks for businesses and individuals that are routinely renewed each year already expired at the end of 2011. Congress was expected to renew many of them by January, so taxpayers could still claim them on their 2012 tax returns.

If Congress doesn’t act on those tax cuts, businesses would lose a popular tax credit for research and development as well as generous tax breaks for investing in new plants and equipment. Individuals would lose federal tax breaks for paying local sales taxes, buying energy efficient appliances and using mass transit.

In all, taxes would go up by about $ 536 billion next year.


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Wall Street Week Ahead: A lump of coal for "Fiscal Cliff-mas"

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wall Street traders are going to have to pack their tablets and work computers in their holiday luggage after all.

A traditionally quiet week could become hellish for traders as politicians in Washington are likely to fall short of an agreement to deal with $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts due to kick in early next year. Many economists forecast that this "fiscal cliff" will push the economy into recession.

Thursday's debacle in the U.S. House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner failed to secure passage of his own bill that was meant to pressure President Obama and Senate Democrats, only added to worry that the protracted budget talks will stretch into 2013.

Still, the market remains resilient. Friday's decline on Wall Street, triggered by Boehner's fiasco, was not enough to prevent the S&P 500 from posting its best week in four.

"The markets have been sort of taking this in stride," said Sandy Lincoln, chief market strategist at BMO Asset Management U.S. in Chicago, which has about $38 billion in assets under management.

"The markets still basically believe that something will be done," he said.

If something happens next week, it will come in a short time frame. Markets will be open for a half-day on Christmas Eve, when Congress will not be in session, and will close on Tuesday for Christmas. Wall Street will resume regular stock trading on Wednesday, but volume is expected to be light throughout the rest of the week with scores of market participants away on a holiday break.

For the week, the three major U.S. stock indexes posted gains, with the Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> up 0.4 percent, the S&P 500 <.spx> up 1.2 percent and the Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> up 1.7 percent.

Stocks also have booked solid gains for the year so far, with just five trading sessions left in 2012: The Dow has advanced 8 percent, while the S&P 500 has climbed 13.7 percent and the Nasdaq has jumped 16 percent.


Equity volumes are expected to fall sharply next week. Last year, daily volume on each of the last five trading days dropped on average by about 49 percent, compared with the rest of 2011 - to just over 4 billion shares a day exchanging hands on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and NYSE MKT in the final five sessions of the year from a 2011 daily average of 7.9 billion.

If the trend repeats, low volumes could generate a spike in volatility as traders keep track of any advance in the cliff talks in Washington.

"I'm guessing it's going to be a low volume week. There's not a whole lot other than the fiscal cliff that is going to continue to take the headlines," said Joe Bell, senior equity analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research, in Cincinnati.

"A lot of people already have a foot out the door, and with the possibility of some market-moving news, you get the possibility of increased volatility."

Economic data would have to be way off the mark to move markets next week. But if the recent trend of better-than-expected economic data holds, stocks will have strong fundamental support that could prevent selling from getting overextended even as the fiscal cliff negotiations grind along.

Small and mid-cap stocks have outperformed their larger peers in the last couple of months, indicating a shift in investor sentiment toward the U.S. economy. The S&P MidCap 400 Index <.mid> overcame a technical level by confirming its close above 1,000 for a second week.

"We view the outperformance of the mid-caps and the break of that level as a strong sign for the overall market," Schaeffer's Bell said.

"Whenever you have flight to risk, it shows investors are beginning to have more of a risk appetite."

Evidence of that shift could be a spike in shares in the defense sector, expected to take a hit as defense spending is a key component of the budget talks.

The PHLX defense sector index <.dfx> hit a historic high on Thursday, and far outperformed the market on Friday with a dip of just 0.26 percent, while the three major U.S. stock indexes finished the day down about 1 percent.

Following a half-day on Wall Street on Monday ahead of the Christmas holiday, Wednesday will bring the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index. It is expected to show a ninth-straight month of gains.

U.S. jobless claims on Thursday are seen roughly in line with the previous week's level, with the forecast at 360,000 new filings for unemployment insurance, compared with the previous week's 361,000.

(Wall St Week Ahead runs every Friday. Questions or comments on this column can be emailed to: rodrigo.campos(at)thomsonreuters.com)

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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Douglas wins AP female athlete of the year honors

When Gabby Douglas allowed herself to dream of being the Olympic champion, she imagined having a nice little dinner with family and friends to celebrate. Maybe she'd make an appearance here and there.

"I didn't think it was going to be crazy," Douglas said, laughing. "I love it. But I realized my perspective was going to have to change."

Just a bit.

The teenager has become a worldwide star since winning the Olympic all-around title in London, the first African-American gymnast to claim gymnastics' biggest prize. And now she has earned another honor. Douglas was selected The Associated Press' female athlete of the year, edging out swimmer Missy Franklin in a vote by U.S. editors and news directors that was announced Friday.

"I didn't realize how much of an impact I made," said Douglas, who turns 17 on Dec. 31. "My mom and everyone said, 'You really won't know the full impact until you're 30 or 40 years old.' But it's starting to sink in."

In a year filled with standout performances by female athletes, those of the pint-sized gymnast shined brightest. Douglas received 48 of 157 votes, seven more than Franklin, who won four gold medals and a bronze in London. Serena Williams, who won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open two years after her career was nearly derailed by a series of health problems, was third (24).

Britney Griner, who led Baylor to a 40-0 record and the NCAA title, and skier Lindsey Vonn each got 18 votes. Sprinter Allyson Felix, who won three gold medals in London, and Carli Lloyd, who scored both U.S. goals in the Americans' 2-1 victory over Japan in the gold-medal game, also received votes.

"One of the few years the women's (Athlete of the Year) choices are more compelling than the men's," said Julie Jag, sports editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Douglas is the fourth gymnast to win one of the AP's annual awards, which began in 1931, and first since Mary Lou Retton in 1984. She also finished 15th in voting for the AP sports story of the year.

Douglas wasn't even in the conversation for the Olympic title at the beginning of the year. That all changed in March when she upstaged reigning world champion and teammate Jordyn Wieber at the American Cup in New York, showing off a new vault, an ungraded uneven bars routine and a dazzling personality that would be a hit on Broadway and Madison Avenue.

She finished a close second to Wieber at the U.S. championships, then beat her two weeks later at the Olympic trials. With each competition, her confidence grew. So did that smile.

By the time the Americans got to London, Douglas had emerged as the most consistent gymnast on what was arguably the best team the U.S. has ever had.

She posted the team's highest score on all but one event in qualifying. She was the only gymnast to compete in all four events during team finals, when the Americans beat the Russians in a rout for their second Olympic title, and first since 1996. Two nights later, Douglas claimed the grandest prize of all, joining Retton, Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin as what Bela Karolyi likes to call the "Queen of Gymnastics."

But while plenty of other athletes won gold medals in London, none captivated the public quite like Gabby.

Fans ask for hugs in addition to photographs and autographs, and people have left restaurants and cars upon spotting her. She made Barbara Walters' list of "10 Most Fascinating People," and Forbes recently named her one of its "30 Under 30." She has deals with Nike, Kellogg Co. and AT&T, and agent Sheryl Shade said Douglas has drawn interest from companies that don't traditionally partner with Olympians or athletes.

"She touched so many people of all generations, all diversities," Shade said. "It's her smile, it's her youth, it's her excitement for life. ... She transcends sport."

Douglas' story is both heartwarming and inspiring, its message applicable those young or old, male or female, active or couch potato. She was just 14 when she convinced her mother to let her leave their Virginia Beach, Va., home and move to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with Liang Chow, Shawn Johnson's coach. Though her host parents, Travis and Missy Parton, treated Douglas as if she was their fifth daughter, Douglas was so homesick she considered quitting gymnastics.

She's also been open about her family's financial struggles, hoping she can be a role model for lower income children.

"I want people to think, 'Gabby can do it, I can do it,'" Douglas said. "Set that bar. If you're going through struggles or injuries, don't let it stop you from what you want to accomplish."

The grace she showed under pressure — both on and off the floor — added to her appeal. When some fans criticized the way she wore her hair during the Olympics, Douglas simply laughed it off.

"They can say whatever they want. We all have a voice," she said. "I'm not going to focus on it. I'm not really going to focus on the negative."

Besides, she's having far too much fun.

Her autobiography, "Grace, Gold and Glory," is No. 4 on the New York Times' young adult list. She, Wieber and Fierce Five teammates Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney recently wrapped up a 40-city gymnastics tour. She met President Barack Obama last month with the rest of the Fierce Five, and left the White House with a souvenir.

"We got a sugar cookie that they were making for the holidays," Douglas said. "I took a picture of it."

Though her busy schedule hasn't left time to train, Douglas insists she still intends to compete through the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.

No female Olympic champion has gone on to compete at the next Summer Games since Nadia Comaneci. But Douglas is still a relative newcomer to the elite scene — she'd done all of four international events before the Olympics — and Chow has said she hasn't come close to reaching her full potential. She keeps up with Chow through email and text messages, and plans to return to Iowa after her schedule clears up in the spring.

Of course, plenty of other athletes have said similar things and never made it back to the gym. But Douglas is determined, and she gets giddy just talking about getting a new floor routine.

"I think there's even higher bars to set," she said.

Because while being an Olympic champion may have changed her life, it hasn't changed her.

"I may be meeting cool celebrities and I'm getting amazing opportunities," she said. "But I'm still the same Gabby."


AP Projects Editor Brooke Lansdale contributed to this report.

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Goodbye, U.S. Postal Service?

This Christmas could be the Post Office's last, says John Avlon.


  • The U.S. Postal Service is bleeding money and heading toward insolvency

  • John Avlon: Congress can save the postal service in deal on the fiscal cliff

  • He says the urgency is clear, let's hope for a Christmas miracle

  • Avlon: But be prepared that Washington dysfunction can doom the postal service

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- It's the time of year for dashing through the snow to the crowded post office, with arms full of holiday gifts for family and friends.

Not to break the atmosphere of holiday cheer, but this Christmas could be the last for the U.S. Postal Service. It is losing $25 million dollars a day and staring down insolvency -- unless Congress steps in to pass a reform package that reduces its costs.

With just a few days left in the congressional calendar, there is still some small hope for a Christmas miracle -- maybe the Postal Service can be saved as part of a deal on the fiscal cliff. But with even Hurricane Sandy relief stalled, skepticism is growing.

John Avlon

John Avlon

The real question is, what's taken them so long? After all, back in April the Senate passed an imperfect but bipartisan bill by 62-37. It would have saved some $20 billion, cut some 100 distribution centers, and reduced head count by an additional 100,000 through incentives for early retirement, while reducing red tape to encourage entrepreneurialism and keeping Saturday delivery in place for at least another two years. At the time, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware said, "The situation is not hopeless; the situation is dire. My hope is that our friends over in the U.S. House, given the bipartisan steps we took this week, will feel a sense of urgency."

To which the House might as well have replied, "Not so much."

In August, the Postal Service defaulted for the first time, unable to make a $5.5 billion payment to fund future retirees' health benefits. The headline in Government Executive magazine said it all: "Postal Service defaults, Congress does nothing."

The usual suspects were at fault -- hyperpartisan politics and the ideological arrogance that always makes the perfect the enemy of the good.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa greeted the news of the Senate bill by calling it a "taxpayer-funded bailout." His primary complaint was that the Senate bill did not go far enough. He was not alone -- Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe also expressed disappointment at the scope of the Senate bill, saying that it fell "far short of the Postal Service's plan."

But Issa's alternative couldn't even get to a vote in the Republican-controlled House. And so nothing happened. Even after the USPS defaulted on a second $5.5 billion payment, the response was crickets.

Washington insiders said that action would be taken after the election, when lawmakers would be free to make potentially unpopular decisions. But despite a series of closed-door meetings, nothing has been done.

It's possible that the nearly $20 billion in savings could be part of a fiscal cliff deal. Sen. Joseph Lieberman has suggested that ending Saturday delivery, except for packages, could be part of a compromise that could save big bucks down the road. Another aspect of a savings plan could be suspending the USPS' onerous obligation to fully fund its pension costs upfront, a requirement that would push many businesses into bankruptcy. And last fiscal year, the post office posted a record $15.9 billion loss.

"As the nation creeps toward the 'fiscal cliff,' the U.S. Postal Service is clearly marching toward a financial collapse of its own," says Carper. "The Postal Service's financial crisis is growing worse, not better. It is imperative that Congress get to work on this issue and find a solution immediately. ... Recently key House and Senate leaders on postal reform have had productive discussions on a path forward, and while there may be some differences of opinion in some of the policy approaches needed to save the Postal Service, there is broad agreement that reform needs to happen -- the sooner the better."

The urgency couldn't be clearer -- but even at this yuletide 11th hour, signs of progress are slim to none. If Congress fails to pass a bill, we'll be back to square one in the new year, with the Senate needing to pass a new bill which will then have to be ratified by the House. There is just no rational reason to think that lift will be any easier in the next Congress than in the current lame duck Congress, where our elected officials are supposedly more free to do the right thing, freed from electoral consequences.

So as you crowd your local post office this holiday season, look around and realize that the clock is ticking. The Postal Service is fighting for its life. And Congress seems determined to ignore its cries for help.

"Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor gloom of night" can stop the U.S. Postal Service from making its appointed rounds -- but congressional division and dysfunction apparently can.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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‘Zero Dark Thirty’ One of Biggest Mid-Week Limited Debuts Ever

LOS ANGELES (TheWrap.com) – “Zero Dark Thirty” has been slammed by several senators for its depiction of torture, but the issue only appears to have helped it at the box office.

Director Kathryn Bigelow‘s dramatization of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden racked up an estimated $ 124,848 in five theaters in New York City and Los Angeles on Wednesday. That’s an average of $ 24,969, making it one of the biggest limited mid-week openings in history.

Other Oscar-bait films in limited release scored far less in their debuts. “American Beauty” grossed $ 73,000 in 6 theaters and “Little Miss Sunshine” grossed $ 66,000 in 7 showings on their opening days.

The film arrives in theaters boasting four Golden Globe nods, including a nomination for Best Motion Picture – Drama, and a boatload of strong reviews.

In Slate, Dana Stevens praised the film for its unflinching depiction of the global manhunt.

“Zero Dark Thirty, as single-minded and emotionally remote as its heroine, plays its cards so close to its vest that it’s impossible to tell,” Stevens wrote. “But this is a vital, disturbing, and necessary film precisely because it wades straight into the swamp of our national trauma about the war on terror and our prosecution of it, and no one – either on the screen or seated in front of it – comes out clean.”

Not everyone has loved “Zero Dark Thirty”s’ moral ambiguity, however. Senators John McCain, Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin have criticized the film for seeming to argue that torture helped the CIA locate bin Laden.

In a letter to Sony Pictures chairman and CEO Michael Lynton, the senators said that the studio should state that the film is a work of fiction and its depiction of torture’s role in the operation to find bin Laden is fictitious.

In a statement provided to TheWrap, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal said critics were taking the torture scene out context.

“This was a 10-year intelligence operation brought to the screen in a two-and-a-half-hour film. We depicted a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding bin Laden,” the statement reads. “The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes.”

“Zero Dark Thirty” stars Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pine. It opens in wide release on January 11.

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He’s 28, and Here to Take Over Your Company

Ryan Morris spent a week steeling himself for the showdown. Then 27 years old, he was in his first campaign as an activist investor, trying to wrest control of a small company named InfuSystem (INFU), which provides and services pumps used in chemotherapy. In the meeting, Morris would confront InfuSystem’s chairman and vice chairman, two men in their 40s, and tell them that as a shareholder, he thought the company was heading in the wrong direction.

Morris is competitive—his high school rowing teammates nicknamed him “Cyborg,” and he took a semester off college to race as a semi-pro cyclist—but face-to-face confrontation wasn’t something he relished. “I like the thrill of the hunt, but not the kill,” he says. To prepare, Morris outlined questions, guessed potential responses, and tried to anticipate what tense “pregnant moments” could arrive. He built his clout by lining up support from InfuSystem’s largest shareholder as well as a veteran activist investor. Morris knew his own looks—he resembles a sandy-haired Mitt Romney—could help mask his youth, and decided he’d wear a tie, much as he hates to.

The company, with just $ 47 million in revenue, was spending too much money, and in the wrong places. In the previous year, InfuSystem’s board and CEO earned more than $ 11 million combined. This was for a company whose stock had lost 40 percent of its value over the previous three years. Morris figured that as a shareholder voice on the board, he could help cut expenses—including the high pay—and, once it was clean enough to sell, reap a return for his own small hedge fund.

On Dec. 13, 2011, he finally sat at a conference table across from the two directors. After 45 minutes of discussion, he still didn’t think his concerns were being acknowledged. So he got to the point: He wanted three board seats.

When an activist investor like Carl Icahn tries to take over a household brand, it plays out on CNBC. Most shareholder struggles occur when little-known investment funds try to take over little-known companies like InfuSystem. Of the more than two dozen activist battles in 2012, most involved companies with a market value under $ 50 million. In the smallest face-off this year, Georgetown Law student Daniel Rudewicz, 29, tried and failed to gain control of a $ 2.2 million company that makes microwave filters.

9cba1  investing activist52  02inline  405b Hes 28, and Here to Take Over Your Company

Many of the fights are being waged by a younger generation of activists, according to Ron Berenblat, Morris’s attorney at Olshan Frome Wolosky. Among the firm’s clients is a 24-year-old about to start his first activist campaign, trying to take over a technology company. Morris’s experience, says Berenblat, puts him “on the new forefront of 30-and-younger activist investors who are ​intelligent, patient, and highly methodical.” After the financial crisis exhausted even the most seasoned investors, young activists like Morris are bringing new energy to the hunt, shining light into dark corners of the market that are often overlooked.
Growing up in Toronto, Morris dreamed of becoming a nuclear physicist, obsessed with the idea that nuclear fusion could create infinite, clean energy—that was, until his father let him in on some bad news. “Even if you become the best scientist in the world, you will not make fusion happen,” Ryan recalls him warning. “If you want to make something happen, you need to be in charge of capital. It’s the resource allocation that gets things done.”

Morris started reading Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (BRK/A) shareholder letters. To the 12-year-old Morris, it seemed so easy: With hard work and a clear mind, an independent thinker could spot an undervalued company, buy it cheap, and hold on until other investors recognize the company’s true worth. “Something where you can do well while being a loner was kind of appealing,” he says.

Using money from a summer job laying lawn sprinklers, Morris soon bought his first stock, a company that made fuel cells. He kept investing when he moved to upstate New York to study operations research at Cornell University and later as he extended his undergraduate degree into a master’s in engineering. Alongside classes and cycling, Morris worked with fellow student Paul George to found a profitable company called VideoNote that made it easy for Cornell to stream lectures online. As graduation loomed, Morris decided he didn’t want to take a job on Wall Street, where he could earn millions in the algorithm-driven world of quantitative finance. The financial models that drive the market’s split-second trades were “dumb” in Morris’s eyes, George says. “His whole position is take long-term positions on companies and don’t try to trade on noise. You can’t predict anything.”

He still wanted to be an investor, though. In the fall of 2008, with the stock market in freefall, and lots of companies at historic lows, Morris saw an opportunity. By early 2009 he was talking with George about managing his money, with a compelling pitch: “He said, ‘Cast aside your emotions. … People are overreacting, so I can come in and be rational,’ ” George recalls. George handed over some of their payout from VideoNote and a small inheritance, becoming Morris’s first investor. With their combined $ 50,000, Morris opened his fund on Feb. 24, 2009, naming it Meson Capital Partners after a subatomic particle. His timing was perfect: The stock market bottomed in March and has more than doubled since.

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Over the coming months, Morris sent some close friends and professors a 10-page letter detailing his value approach, which embodied Buffett’s idea of investing in companies that have strong business prospects and are not simply hot stocks. A few gave him money, and a single question Morris asked of Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger at Wesco Financial’s annual meeting helped him pull in more. He asked whether it’s harder to pursue a “buy and hold” strategy when businesses seem to evolve faster and faster. Ben Claremon, a blogger who circulated a transcript of the meeting, noted next to Morris’s name: “Watch out for this guy: Some very smart people think he is going to be a star fund manager.”

Morris didn’t start out as an activist. At first he looked for sound companies that had been swept up in the market panic and noticed that some small aircraft leasing companies had taken a beating. “If you think of a headline for an investment that involves ‘airlines’ and ‘finance’ you can imagine there was not much competition in buying these stocks,” Morris would write to investors. He invested about 40 percent of his fund in three companies and the stocks soared. By the end of the year, Morris’s fund had gained 753 percent before fees—17 times the return of the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. In his first annual letter, he told his investors this was “embarrassingly far off our target” of beating the S&P by 10 percent annually over three to five years. “This was not a sustainable performance.”

The returns attracted great interest, some of which Morris calls “the wrong kind of attention.” One potential investor asked, “OK, I will get 50 percent a year, right?” Morris says he turned away several of these hot money types. His letters, which laid out his strategies, started making the rounds among well-known value investors and eventually landed in the hands of Whitney Tilson, founder of hedge fund T2 Partners. “There’s this young guy who looks off the beaten path for interesting, misplaced situations,” Tilson says. And those returns? “That catches anyone’s eye.” In 2010, Tilson and Zeke Ashton, founder of Centaur Capital Partners, became seed investors in Morris’s partnership, providing a bit of capital and a regular source of advice.

Morris’s second year didn’t match his first. In the words of his next annual letter, it was “marked by frustration and underperformance.” There were some bright spots when he “coat tailed” the work of other activist investors. One forced a bloated pharmaceutical company to sell itself, and another managed to wring some money for shareholders out of an industrial laser business reorganizing in bankruptcy. Reflecting on the year, Morris told his investors that the success of those activists made him optimistic about his own future, writing, “Hopefully, as we grow in the future, we can be the ones to save the day.”
“Why did he become an activist investor? Because he got screwed,” George says. In early 2011, Morris invested in a hearing aid provider called HearUSA, which he thought was undervalued after it signed a long-delayed deal with AARP. Then HearUSA’s largest supplier, Siemens (SI), forced the company to file for bankruptcy protection over a contract dispute. Morris says he was caught totally off guard—he’d seen no warning signs in the hundreds of pages of filings he’d read—and sold 80 percent of his shares at a loss.

After reading more documents from the case, Morris decided that HearUSA’s business was sound and that Siemens acted because it was at odds with the company’s management. As HearUSA’s stock fell in the wake of the bankruptcy filing, Morris began buying shares, paying on average a third of what he paid for his original stake. He then joined other investors in persuading the bankruptcy trustee to establish an equity committee to represent shareholders. Morris and the rest of the committee helped negotiate a deal for Siemens to buy HearUSA, avoiding liquidation and doubling Meson’s total investment.

As that foray ended, a HearUSA shareholder tipped Morris off to InfuSystem. The company had a steady, recurring revenue stream. After all, “cancer treatment services are totally economically insensitive,” says Morris. “If Europe crashes, you still need this service.” But that cash flow was obscured by what Morris politely calls “nonessential costs.” In 2010 the board awarded $ 7.2 million in salary, stock, and other compensation to Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Sean McDevitt, gave $ 1.3 million to Vice Chairman Pat LaVecchia, and awarded at least $ 400,000 to almost every other member of the board, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. It let the stock awards vest immediately and had InfuSystem pay the personal income taxes they triggered. That meant InfuSystem’s board earned six times the median compensation for other micro-cap companies, according to data from the National Association of Corporate Directors. Reading the filings, Morris questioned how the board, which included pharmaceutical executives and an astronaut, could approve the largess. “These don’t seem like bad people,” he thought. (Members of the board did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)

Fresh off his experience with HearUSA, Morris thought if he could get a voice on the board, he could help investors. He says he called the largest shareholders and learned they were irked too. That’s when Morris began laying the groundwork for battle. He bought 2 percent of InfuSystem’s shares and persuaded Kleinheinz Capital Partners, the company’s largest shareholder, and veteran small-cap activist Chuck Gillman to join him in an official group of concerned shareholders. On Dec. 6, 2011, Morris filed a form called a Schedule 13D with the SEC, declaring the group controlled 11.4 percent of InfuSystem’s shares and intended to influence the board.

In the face-to-face meeting a week later, Morris says McDevitt and LaVecchia defended the stock awards, explaining that the board wanted to boost the company’s market capitalization so it could move from trading on over-the-counter exchanges to the NYSE Amex. Morris says that when he raised the prospect of joining the board, McDevitt’s face reddened as he sarcastically retorted, “Oh, we’d love to spend more time with you.”

Five days later, Morris learned the board rejected the shareholders’ request for three seats. He scoured InfuSystem’s bylaws and decided to demand a “special meeting,” which management must call within 75 days after a majority of all shareholders demand one. Morris was confident he could get the support he needed, and on Jan. 18, 2012, filed a preliminary proxy statement calling for the special meeting to replace the board.

This is about the time when many shareholder activists would start firing off nasty press releases attacking current management as corrupt or incompetent in an effort to rally shareholder support. Such battles can escalate quickly and end up in court. Morris says, “as much as I love lawyers, I don’t really love paying them.” Instead, he issued what he calls “gentlemanly” press releases that announced his SEC filings.

When Morris called shareholders, some said, “Thank God you’re here.” Others were skeptical. How did they know that Morris wouldn’t raid the company for himself? “I was like, ‘I’m 27. I would be ending my career right now if I was going to do that,’ ” he recalls. By March 5, Morris’s group had more than the 50 percent support needed. The InfuSystem board now had until May 7 to call the special meeting.

McDevitt and the board began negotiating. In the final deal, McDevitt, LaVecchia, and all but two of the board members were out. “I fired an astronaut,” Morris says now with a slight smile. McDevitt waived the 2 million shares he was entitled to under his employment contract and instead took a $ 1 million payout. “If we had had nasty press releases, there’s no way we would have settled that severance thing,” Morris says. InfuSystem would get a new CEO and seven new board members, with Morris as the chairman, one of the youngest on the NYSE. “I am two months younger than Zuckerberg,” he says. “But he’s about a zillion dollars richer.”
On a November afternoon in Manhattan, Morris sat at a desk stacked with moving boxes and explained that he was closing InfuSystem’s New York office. InfuSystem had leased the office for McDevitt and a team of financial analysts to use as they looked for other biotech firms to buy. “They had these investment bankers to make acquisitions, but we don’t have capital to do acquisitions,” Morris says.

After the takeover, Morris and the board laid off the New York staff and sublet the midtown office space, saving InfuSystem about $ 1 million a year, Morris estimates. When he visits New York, Morris crashes on George’s couch rather than charge the company for a hotel. These cost-cutting moves helped InfuSystem post its first quarterly profit since 2010 in November. Yet Morris has more work to do—shares are still down since he bought them.

Morris now spends about a third of his time on InfuSystem and the rest on other investments. Knowing he’s not likely to see another market like 2009, he views activism as a way to get a persistent advantage in normal times. “I think now he is struggling to say, How do I apply this? What will allow me to be my own catalyst and allow me to find another edge?” says Ashton. “Not in terms of size of return, but where I have an edge that is somewhat durable.” Chris Cernich, executive director for proxy contest research at Institutional Shareholder Services, has found that companies with an activist investor on the board typically outperform their peer groups by 16.6 percentage points. But activism, with its patience and strategizing and expense, isn’t for most people, and the battles don’t always end well.

In August, Morris saw a different activism project fall apart. He’d tried to take over Pinnacle Airlines, a regional carrier, which later fell into bankruptcy. After a judge denied Morris’s requests for more shareholder input, Morris decided it wasn’t worth appealing the ruling. “Investing isn’t a crusade, it’s about making money,” he says. Pinnacle became the 28-year-old’s biggest loss to date.

Around the same time, a friend who runs another small hedge fund tipped Morris off to Lucas Energy (LEI), a small energy producer with rights to drill on oil-rich properties but not enough capital to get the crude out of the ground. It also had a CEO and co-founder who was “not a great communicator,” Morris says. “I’m being polite here.” After acquiring 11 percent of the company’s shares, Morris flew to Texas to meet the CEO and chairman. He headed back the next day with an invitation to have two seats on the board, with no strings attached. Within three weeks, he and the rest of the board brought on a new CFO, and in December they replaced the CEO.

Morris says he’s getting used to the ups and downs that are part of long-term investing. He works out of a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco he shares with his “really supportive fiancĂ©,” a blonde Belarussian he met at a coffee shop in Santa Monica. “So that keeps me sane,” he says. Plus: “My investors are very patient with me. I’m very grateful.” Morris now has 33 investors and about $ 15 million under management.

His long-term plan is to “cut my teeth with these small ones that I fix up and sell, and then you can start doing more interesting strategic stuff once you get bigger.” Eventually, he wants to merge companies, change operations, and make the big plays. But to get there, Morris needs more money, and more experience sitting across the table from executives and demanding a seat on a board. It may require a new tie.

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Title Post: He’s 28, and Here to Take Over Your Company

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LPS’ “First Look” Mortgage Report: November Month-End Data Shows Slight Increase in Delinquencies, Decline in Foreclosures

JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Dec. 21, 2012 /PRNewswire/ — Lender Processing Services, Inc. (LPS), a leading provider of integrated technology, data and analytics to the mortgage and real estate industries, reports the following “first look” at November 2012 month-end mortgage performance statistics derived from its loan-level database representing approximately 70 percent of the overall market.

(Logo: http://photos.prnewswire.com/prnh/20120802/FL50731LOGO )

Total U.S. loan delinquency rate (loans 30 or more days past due, but not in foreclosure):



Month-over-month change in delinquency rate:


Year-over-year change in delinquency rate:


Total U.S. foreclosure pre-sale inventory rate:


Month-over-month change in foreclosure presale inventory rate:


Year-over-year change in foreclosure presale inventory rate:


Number of properties that are 30 or more days past due, but not in foreclosure: (A)


Number of properties that are 90 or more days delinquent, but not in foreclosure:      


Number of properties in foreclosure pre-sale inventory: (B)


Number of properties that are 30 or more days delinquent or in foreclosure:  (A+B)


States with highest percentage of non-current* loans:


States with the lowest percentage of non-current* loans:


*Non-current totals combine foreclosures and delinquencies as a percent of active loans in that state.

(1) Totals are extrapolated based on LPS Applied Analytics’ loan-level database of mortgage assets.
(2) All whole numbers are rounded to the nearest thousand.

The company will provide a more in-depth review of this data in its monthly Mortgage Monitor report, which includes an analysis of data supplemented by in-depth charts and graphs that reflect trend and point-in-time observations. The Mortgage Monitor report will be available on LPS’ website, http://www.lpsvcs.com/LPSCorporateInformation/CommunicationCenter/DataReports/Pages/Mortgage-Monitor.aspx by Jan. 9, 2012.

For more information about gaining access to LPS’ loan-level database, please send an e-mail to [email protected].

About Lender Processing Services
LPS (LPS) delivers comprehensive technology solutions and services, as well as powerful data and analytics, to the nation’s top mortgage lenders, servicers and investors. As a proven and trusted partner with deep client relationships, LPS offers the only end-to-end suite of solutions that provides major U.S. banks and many federal government agencies the technology and data needed to support mortgage lending and servicing operations, meet unique regulatory and compliance requirements and mitigate risk. 

These integrated solutions support origination, servicing, portfolio retention and default servicing. LPS’ servicing solutions include MSP, the industry’s leading loan-servicing platform, which is used to service approximately 50 percent of all U.S. mortgages by dollar volume. The company also provides proprietary data and analytics for the mortgage, real estate and capital markets industries. Lender Processing Services is a Fortune 1000 company headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla., employing approximately 8,000 professionals. For more information, please visit www.lpsvcs.com.

Yahoo! Finance – Personal Finance | Loans

Title Post: LPS’ “First Look” Mortgage Report: November Month-End Data Shows Slight Increase in Delinquencies, Decline in Foreclosures

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Wall Street falls at open on "cliff" worry

Though Robert Pattinson stuck by her, Ben Affleck has left Kristen Stewart in the dust. Citing a schedule crunch, the actor has backed out of Focus, a con-artist movie set to costar Stewart and begin filming this spring. Stewart had just said in a recent interview that she was excited to start shooting, but now who knows what will happen. "Hi Kristen. We know that you were excited about working with Ben, but he dropped out, so we got you a replacement," a producer says to her the day she arrives on set. ...
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AP IMPACT: Big Pharma cashes in on HGH abuse

A federal crackdown on illicit foreign supplies of human growth hormone has failed to stop rampant misuse, and instead has driven record sales of the drug by some of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies, an Associated Press investigation shows.

The crackdown, which began in 2006, reduced the illegal flow of unregulated supplies from China, India and Mexico.

But since then, Big Pharma has been satisfying the steady desires of U.S. users and abusers, including many who take the drug in the false hope of delaying the effects of aging.

From 2005 to 2011, inflation-adjusted sales of HGH were up 69 percent, according to an AP analysis of pharmaceutical company data collected by the research firm IMS Health. Sales of the average prescription drug rose just 12 percent in that same period.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Whether for athletics or age, Americans from teenagers to baby boomers are trying to get an edge by illegally using anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, despite well-documented risks. This is the second of a two-part series.


Unlike other prescription drugs, HGH may be prescribed only for specific uses. U.S. sales are limited by law to treat a rare growth defect in children and a handful of uncommon conditions like short bowel syndrome or Prader-Willi syndrome, a congenital disease that causes reduced muscle tone and a lack of hormones in sex glands.

The AP analysis, supplemented by interviews with experts, shows too many sales and too many prescriptions for the number of people known to be suffering from those ailments. At least half of last year's sales likely went to patients not legally allowed to get the drug. And U.S. pharmacies processed nearly double the expected number of prescriptions.

Peddled as an elixir of life capable of turning middle-aged bodies into lean machines, HGH — a synthesized form of the growth hormone made naturally by the human pituitary gland — winds up in the eager hands of affluent, aging users who hope to slow or even reverse the aging process.

Experts say these folks don't need the drug, and may be harmed by it. The supposed fountain-of-youth medicine can cause enlargement of breast tissue, carpal tunnel syndrome and swelling of hands and feet. Ironically, it also can contribute to aging ailments like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Others in the medical establishment also are taking a fat piece of the profits — doctors who fudge prescriptions, as well as pharmacists and distributors who are content to look the other way. HGH also is sold directly without prescriptions, as new-age snake oil, to patients at anti-aging clinics that operate more like automated drug mills.

Years of raids, sports scandals and media attention haven't stopped major drugmakers from selling a whopping $1.4 billion worth of HGH in the U.S. last year. That's more than industry-wide annual gross sales for penicillin or prescription allergy medicine. Anti-aging HGH regimens vary greatly, with a yearly cost typically ranging from $6,000 to $12,000 for three to six self-injections per week.

Across the U.S., the medication is often dispensed through prescriptions based on improper diagnoses, carefully crafted to exploit wiggle room in the law restricting use of HGH, the AP found.

HGH is often promoted on the Internet with the same kind of before-and-after photos found in miracle diet ads, along with wildly hyped claims of rapid muscle growth, loss of fat, greater vigor, and other exaggerated benefits to adults far beyond their physical prime. Sales also are driven by the personal endorsement of celebrities such as actress Suzanne Somers.

Pharmacies that once risked prosecution for using unauthorized, foreign HGH — improperly labeled as raw pharmaceutical ingredients and smuggled across the border — now simply dispense name brands, often for the same banned uses. And usually with impunity.

Eight companies have been granted permission to market HGH by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which reviews the benefits and risks of new drug products. By contrast, three companies are approved for the diabetes drug insulin.

The No. 1 maker, Roche subsidiary Genentech, had nearly $400 million in HGH sales in the U.S. last year, up an inflation-adjusted two-thirds from 2005. Pfizer and Eli Lilly were second and third with $300 million and $220 million in sales, respectively, according to IMS Health. Pfizer now gets more revenue from its HGH brand, Genotropin, than from Zoloft, its well-known depression medicine that lost patent protection.

On their face, the numbers make no sense to the recognized hormone doctors known as endocrinologists who provide legitimate HGH treatment to a small number of patients.

Endocrinologists estimate there are fewer than 45,000 U.S. patients who might legitimately take HGH. They would be expected to use roughly 180,000 prescriptions or refills each year, given that typical patients get three months' worth of HGH at a time, according to doctors and distributors.

Yet U.S. pharmacies last year supplied almost twice that much HGH — 340,000 orders — according to AP's analysis of IMS Health data.

While doctors say more than 90 percent of legitimate patients are children with stunted growth, 40 percent of 442 U.S. side-effect cases tied to HGH over the last year involved people age 18 or older, according to an AP analysis of FDA data. The average adult's age in those cases was 53, far beyond the prime age for sports. The oldest patients were in their 80s.

Some of these medical records even give explicit hints of use to combat aging, justifying treatment with reasons like fatigue, bone thinning and "off-label," which means treatment of an unapproved condition. In other cases, the drug was used "for an unknown indication," meaning that the reason for treatment wasn't clear.

Even Medicare, the government health program for older Americans, allowed 22,169 HGH prescriptions in 2010, a five-year increase of 78 percent, according to data released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in response to an AP public records request. And nearly half the increase came in one year: 2007.

"There's no question: a lot gets out," said hormone specialist Dr. Mark Molitch of Northwestern University, who helped write medical standards meant to limit HGH treatment to legitimate patients.

And those figures don't include HGH sold directly by doctors without prescriptions at scores of anti-aging medical practices and clinics around the country. Those numbers could only be tallied by drug makers, who have declined to say how many patients they supply and for what conditions.

The AP approached every U.S.-authorized manufacturer to ask what efforts they make to market responsibly and prevent abuse. Only one HGH supplier, Novo Nordisk, agreed to an interview.

"We're doing our level best to make sure that the right patients are getting the right medicine at the right time," said company spokesman Ken Inchausti.

He said the company is aware of the abuse issue. He said if patients apply for assistance from the company's patient-support hub, prescriptions will be flagged for review if they are missing the most rigorous test or an endocrinologist's signature. He said the company won't sell HGH directly to doctors accused of bad practices and does not deal with anti-aging clinics.

Representatives of other FDA-approved HGH makers insist they do not encourage use by bodybuilders or athletes or wealthy baby boomers trying to recapture their youth. But some said they are largely powerless to control who uses their medications or why.

"Lilly cannot restrict the actions of distributors, pharmacies or doctors," Eli Lilly spokeswoman Kelley Murphy said in a written statement.

That argument doesn't fly for critics like Dr. Peter Rost, a retired Pfizer executive who filed a whistleblower lawsuit over the HGH marketing practices of Pharmacia, which later merged with Pfizer. He said drug companies are simply looking the other way and betting that their profits will eclipse the cost of any fines.

They view it as "good business," he said.



Type "human growth hormone" into any Internet search engine, and it will spit back countless websites with overblown promises of smoother skin, better sex, weight loss and even renewed body organs.

Any doctor who actually prescribes the drug for those purposes is taking a legal risk.

FDA regulations ban the sale of HGH as an anti-aging drug. In fact, since 1990, prescribing it for things like weight loss and strength conditioning has been punishable by 5 to 10 years in prison.

Such marketing claims are routinely made at hormone clinics like Palm Beach Life Extension, whose owners are among 13 people now awaiting trial on federal charges in Florida in a steroids and HGH distribution case brought last year.

"Grow YOUNG with Us!" screamed a banner on the company's now-defunct website, which advertised that HGH can reduce body fat, improve vision, strengthen the immune system, aid kidney function, lower blood pressure and enhance memory and mood.

The clinic arranged to have its clients' prescriptions filled at Treasure Coast Pharmacy, in Jensen Beach, Fla.

In 2009, the FBI recorded a phone call between the pharmacy's owner, Peter Del Toro, and a doctor in Elkton, Md., who was cooperating with agents after being implicated in a related steroid-distribution case.

Their talk, documented in a court filing, illustrates how things often work in the networks of pharmacies and clinics that drive HGH sales.

Patients submitted a medical history form by mail and took a blood test. But in most instances, the indictment said, the evaluation was a sham: One doctor was charged with giving a clinic a pad of blank, signed prescriptions to save him the chore of signing off on each diagnosis. He got $50 for every drug order bearing his name, the indictment said.

Dr. Rodney Baltazar, the Maryland physician cooperating with the FBI, sometimes consulted briefly with patients via webcam. But he made it clear in the call that those evaluations were perfunctory at best.

Baltazar was a gynecologist, not an endocrinologist. He said he knew "a little bit" about HGH and testosterone, which are often prescribed in tandem, but he relied largely on clinic salespeople to set doses.

The pharmacist coached the doctor: Keep detailed medical charts documenting that patients are taking the drug for at least some kind of health problem, just in case the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration ever came calling.

"Because somebody questions you, you want to be able to say, 'Here, look at his chart. You know, he's got fatigue. He's got, you know, a decreased sex drive. He's got increased body fat. He has some -- some slight depression, probably.' Whatever his signs and symptoms are."

None of these conditions is a legal reason to prescribe HGH. But the pharmacist said that most investigators will be satisfied and move on "because there's guys that are just selling stuff basically like a boiler room."

Del Toro was arrested along with 12 other people in September 2011 on charges that they distributed steroids and human growth hormone to people who had no legitimate medical need. He is awaiting trial. His lawyer declined to comment. Baltazar was sentenced to six months in prison for involvement in steroid distribution schemes.

At the height of the crackdown in 2007, the federal government went after Pfizer in a case involving anti-aging clinics. The company paid $34.7 million in fines to settle the case — 11 percent of the company's annual revenue from the drug.



Blockbuster U.S. sales of HGH represent the latest frustration in 25 years of government efforts to control abuse of the growth drug made infamous by sports scandals.

First marketed in 1985 for children with stunted growth, HGH was soon misappropriated by adults intent on exploiting its modest muscle- and bone-building qualities. Congress limited HGH distribution to the handful of rare conditions in an extraordinary 1990 law, overriding the generally unrestricted right of doctors to prescribe medicines as they see fit.

Despite the law, illicit HGH spread around the sports world in the 1990s, making deep inroads into bodybuilding, college athletics, and professional leagues from baseball to cycling. The even larger banned market among older adults has flourished more recently.

For years, cheaper supplies from unauthorized foreign factories, particularly in China, fed the market via direct and Internet sales that sidestepped the medical establishment.

Though such shipments were banned under other law, the imports initially attracted little attention because they were usually labeled as raw pharmaceutical ingredients, which compounding pharmacies are allowed to bring into the country.

That flow began to be curtailed in 2006, when U.S. drug authorities stepped up efforts to block shipments at the border.

A handful of pharmacies across the country were hit with criminal charges over their handling of HGH. Federal prosecutors charged China's biggest HGH maker, GeneScience Pharmaceutical, with illegally distributing its Jintropin brand in the U.S. The company's CEO pleaded guilty in 2010.

With illicit supplies crimped, many pharmacies stopped selling unauthorized HGH. But tens of thousands of adult abusers began buying pricey U.S.-approved HGH that remained available in abundant supply, the AP found in its analysis of sales data.

Thus, pushed by a powerful demand, sales of U.S.-approved brands have swelled far beyond expected levels for a drug approved in just a handful of rare conditions.

Dr. Robert Marcus, a retired hormone specialist who left HGH manufacturer Eli Lilly and Co. in 2008, said that company was bent on stopping foreign counterfeits, not on cutting off abusers. "That's where their major level of frustration was — pharmaceutical fraud — rather than focusing on people who were using growth hormone illegitimately," he said.

Dr. Jim Meehan, of Tulsa, Okla., who has used HGH to treat aging problems and sports injuries, said the federal clampdown "never seemed to affect my patients and their ability to get Omnitrope, Tev-Tropin" and other government-approved brands.

The big drug companies have applauded the foreign crackdown and urged the government to do even more to combat sales of fake or fraudulently labeled HGH. In 2004, Bruce Kuhlik, speaking for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, told a federal task force that unauthorized drug importation "is inherently unsafe" and industry representatives used Chinese HGH imports as their poster child.

In 2007, as the HGH embargo gained momentum, authorized makers picked up 41 percent more HGH orders, raising their annual total from 245,000 to 345,000, according to the analysis of the IMS Health data. Similarly, most of the drug's sales boom happened in the first two years of the crackdown, with 46 percent inflation-adjusted growth in yearly sales to $1.1 billion.

Steve Kleppe, of Scottsdale, Ariz., a restaurant entrepreneur who has taken HGH for almost 15 years to keep feeling young, said he noticed a price jump of about 25 percent after the block on imports. He now buys HGH directly from a doctor at an annual cost of about $8,000 for himself and the same amount for his wife.

Despite higher prices, the business has expanded in recent years largely on the strength of sales to healthy adults who can afford to indulge their hope of retaining youthful vigor.



Many older patients go for HGH treatment to scores of anti-aging practices and clinics heavily concentrated in retirement states like Florida, Nevada, Arizona and California.

These sites are affiliated with hundreds of doctors who are rarely endocrinologists. Instead, many tout certification by the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine, though the medical establishment does not recognize the group's bona fides.

The clinics offer personalized programs of "age management" to business executives, affluent retirees, and other patients of means, sometimes coupled with the amenities of a vacation resort.

The clinics insist there are few, if any, side effects from HGH. Mainstream medical authorities say otherwise.

A 2007 review of 31 medical studies showed swelling in half of HGH patients, with joint pain or diabetes in more than a fifth. A French study of about 7,000 people who took HGH as children found a 30 percent higher risk of death from causes like bone tumors and stroke, stirring a health advisory from U.S. authorities.

For proof that the drug works, marketers turn to images like the memorable one of pot-bellied septuagenarian Dr. Jeffry Life, supposedly transformed into a ripped hulk of himself by his own program available at the upscale Las Vegas-based Cenegenics Elite Health. (He declined to be interviewed.)

These promoters of HGH say there is a connection between the drop-off in growth hormone levels through adulthood and the physical decline that begins in late middle age. Replace the hormone, they say, and the aging process slows.

"It's an easy ruse. People equate hormones with youth," said Dr. Tom Perls, a leading industry critic who does aging research at Boston University. "It's a marketing dream come true."

Some scientific studies of HGH have found modest benefits: some muscle and bone building, as well as limited fat loss, but nothing like the claims of the anti-aging industry. And some of the value credited to HGH may instead come from testosterone, which is routinely provided with HGH by anti-aging doctors and sports suppliers.

Endocrinologists say it's natural for the body to produce less growth hormone as people age beyond their early 20s, because they aren't growing anymore. Only a tiny number of adults with extraordinarily low HGH levels — perhaps several thousand of them — are believed to suffer real deficiencies that can properly be treated with the hormone.

Still, anti-aging doctors routinely diagnose otherwise healthy middle-aged people with an HGH deficiency, simply because their levels are lower than in young adults. "Basically anyone going through midlife," can benefit from the drug, declared one prescriber, Dr. Howard Elkin, of Whittier, Calif., who has himself competed as a bodybuilder.

Dr. Kenneth Knott, of Marietta, Ga., said HGH helps his older patients feel "more vibrant" and look "more alive."

Like many anti-aging doctors, he diagnoses patients by testing for a blood component called insulin growth factor, which is indirectly tied to HGH. Endocrinologists use a more authoritative test that stimulates the pituitary gland to make HGH itself. Nearly all insurers insist on this stimulation testing, and that's why clinic patients almost always pay for HGH out of their own pockets.

Bob Vitols, a 50-year-old lab assistant at a veterinary medicine company in Lincoln, Neb., is a rare exception. His unusually generous health plan isn't allowed to challenge a doctor's prescription.

Four years ago, Vitols began feeling run down. So he Googled his symptoms on the Internet, decided he had a hormone deficiency, and sought out a clinic.

One doctor put him on testosterone replacement therapy. A second clinic added HGH after diagnosing him with osteopenia, a mild bone thinning common in aging adults. It is not, however, a condition that can properly be treated with HGH.

Despite the diagnosis, the treatments — which can cost $10,000 per year — have been covered by his health insurance, he said. He takes Genotropin, the HGH made by Pfizer. His prescriptions are filled via mail order by CVS Caremark Corp., one of the largest dispensers of prescription drugs in the U.S.

Vitols said the drug changed his life: his mood is better, and he isn't burning out every day at 2 p.m. "I feel like I could walk outside and just walk through a fence — and come out fine on the other side," he said.

His experiences with the drug haven't all been positive, though. Vitols said he initially developed elevated liver enzymes and went to a specialist, who told him to stop taking hormones immediately.

Instead, Vitols said, he adjusted his dosage, and the problem disappeared.

He also dumped the specialist:

"I could tell he was against hormones right at the start," Vitols said.


Associated Press Writer David Caruso reported from New York and AP National Writer Jeff Donn reported from Plymouth, Mass. AP Writer Troy Thibodeaux provided data analysis assistance from New Orleans.


AP's interactive on the HGH investigation: http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/hgh


The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate(at)ap.org

EDITOR'S NOTE _ Whether for athletics or age, Americans from teenagers to baby boomers are trying to get an edge by illegally using anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, despite well-documented risks. This is the second of a two-part series.

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On gun control, look to Biden

Rebecca Puckwalter-Poza says Vice President Joe Biden was a leader on gun control in the Senate.


  • Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza: Obama has apparently tapped Biden as gun control point man

  • She says he was leader in Senate on issue, shepherding 1994 gun control legislation

  • It banned manufacture of many semi-automatic guns,criminalized high-capacity magazines

  • Writer: Biden worked across aisle; he's adroit, determined statesman, right man for job

Editor's note: Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza served as deputy national press secretary of the Democratic National Committee during the 2008 election.

(CNN) -- President Obama's poignant speech at Sunday's interfaith vigil in Newtown, Connecticut, set the tone for our mourning. Now, America's path forward will be decided out of the spotlight. The question of whether the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School will linger only in memory or be memorialized by an enduring shift in gun policy can only be answered by the legislature.

Incoming Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Diane Feinstein has announced she will introduce an enhanced assault weapons ban on the first day of the new Congress, but the fate of that legislation is in the hands of Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden will reportedly lead the administration's political response.

Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza

Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza

No politician could be better suited to the challenge of passing federal gun control legislation than Biden. Over the past four decades, Biden has been one of the most consistent and effective advocates of gun control and violence prevention legislation. In 1994, Biden shepherded the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act through the Senate, a near miracle six years in the making.

After Biden wrote the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1988, Republicans quickly filibustered, blocking the bill for four years. He steered "the Biden crime bill" through the lengthy filibuster by negotiating with Republicans and making revisions. "Every single line in that bill was written with every single major Republican a part of it," Biden said in a September 12, 1994, interview on the Charlie Rose show.

The Clinton administration and then-Sen. Biden repeatedly refused to make concessions that would have jeopardized the substance of the act, even after debate over the amendment we know as the federal assault weapons ban imperiled the entire bill. Instead of backing down, Biden took on Republican Sens. Phil Gramm and Orrin Hatch and faced opponents attacking the bill as taxpayer-funded "dance lessons and midnight basketball for robbers and rapists."

France: Where fear and taboo control guns more than laws

Biden did not budge: "Make no mistake, this is about guns, guns, guns." The crime bill passed the Senate in November 1993.

When the bill foundered in the House, Biden persevered. It reached President Clinton's desk thanks to an unexpected, eleventh-hour push from a "Lost Battalion of Republicans" led by Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware. He'd been swayed during a series of meetings with the House Speaker and other House Republicans, at which Biden was the only Senator in attendance.

The resulting legislation banned the manufacture of 19 types of semi-automatic firearms and criminalized the possession of high-capacity magazines. The process taught a critical lesson: When otherwise "pro-gun'" lawmakers have to choose between a crime bill including a gun ban and inaction, it is more than possible for them to vote to protect Americans. Unfortunately, the assault weapons ban expired in 2004. Since then, numerous lawmakers, including Joe Biden, have tried and failed to get the ban renewed.

Congress now has a rare opportunity to take new action on gun control. After Newtown, proponents of stricter gun legislation are backed by public opinion and bolstered by a surge of political support. The "pro-gun" wing of the GOP and the National Rifle Association remain silent even as their supporters are defecting publicly.

Democratic Sens. Harry Reid and Joe Manchin, whose voting record earned them the NRA's "top rating," have backed off their "pro-gun" positions and declared that "everything must be on the table" for legislative debate. The 31 pro-gun senators have not spoken since Friday's tragedy, signaling the possibility that some of them might be changing their minds on guns, too.

Lawmakers are essentially being asked to consider an updated version of the 1994 assault weapons ban. On Sunday, Feinstein promised the legislation "will ban the sale, the transfer, the importation and the possession" of assault weapons and ban high-capacity magazines as well as "clips of more than ten bullets."

Biden will likely support a new ban on assault weapons and push for improvements. His 2007 Crime Control and Prevention Act would not only have renewed the ban but required background checks for all gun purchases, closing the "gun show loophole.'" Biden has also called on Congress to address the relationship of mental illness to violence in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings.

Was your gun banned?

The president cautioned Americans Sunday, saying "no single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. But that can't be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this."

In his first term, however, Obama practiced a policy of appeasement, failing to block the expansion of gun rights or promote gun control. To ensure Congress passes tough, comprehensive gun control laws rather than settling for a watered-down version, as with health care, Obama must let Biden lead.

Why? Biden has distinguished himself as an adroit and effective statesman in both the legislative and the executive branches. The former six-term senator has a deft touch with moderate and conservative counterparts: in 2008, he eulogized Strom Thurmond. As vice president, he has spearheaded the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Moreover, Biden has a particular passion for protecting students and educators. His wife, Jill Biden, has been teaching for more than 30 years.

The deaths of 20 first-graders and six adults compel all Americans as sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts, to consult their moral compasses. Legislators face a greater responsibility: a moral imperative to pass any legislation that could possibly prevent a future Newtown, Aurora, Oak Creek or Blacksburg.

Opinion: Gun violence is a national security issue

As Obama ministers to the American people and offers words of comfort, Biden must move lawmakers to action. In 1994, Biden warned his colleagues, "we simply can't let the gun lobby deny to the American people the vital benefits in this bill." Biden must once more appeal to Congress to enact gun control. If anyone can succeed in those chambers, it's Joe Biden.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza

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