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Men rule the red carpet these days, and this celebrity stylist showed them how

By Robin Givhan
Men rule the red carpet these days, and this celebrity stylist showed them how
Fashion stylist Ilaria Urbinati, pictured at her studio in Los Angeles, has transformed how men present themselves on the red carpet. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Brinson+Banks

Sometimes, when Ilaria Urbinati gets stuck in Los Angeles traffic, she'll look out of her car window at some anonymous guy on the street dressed in a baggy suit; and she will despair. She will say to herself, "You have no idea how much better I could make you look."

This isn't idle bragging. It's a statement of fact. The evidence will be on the red carpet Sunday at the 91st Academy Awards.

Urbinati is Hollywood's premier men's stylist, with a client list that includes best actor nominees Bradley Cooper and Rami Malek. John Krasinski, Armie Hammer, Donald Glover, Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson and Milo Ventimiglia are also in her care.

When it comes to red-carpet fashion, men have moved beyond the classic black tuxedo. They are wearing brown velvet, ruby-red velvet, orange silk, embroidered capes and bedazzled holsters. Some are heat-seeking missiles aiming for the flashing cameras and the center of the spotlight. Others are using fashion to deftly define - or redefine - their public persona. Either way, women no longer own the red carpet.

Urbinati has led the way by helping each of her clients express something personal and distinctive through his clothes. And other men - beyond the realm of Hollywood - have taken heed.

"It all changed in the last two years. There are parts that I don't like, where it's gotten a little silly and guys are peacocking and it's, 'Look at me!' I don't love that," Urbinati says. "I'm not trying to make them look interesting; I want them to be unexpected."

Men have "upped their game 400 percent," says New York-based stylist Brian Coats, who knows Urbinati's work well. "It's almost switched in a way, with a lot of actresses getting criticized for being too safe."

If there's a common thread with Urbinati's clients, it's that they all exude handsome. They possess a wow factor. They evoke that know-it-when-you-see-it ideal of a Hollywood leading man.

Urbinati doesn't have a signature look. Her clients wear Gucci, Armani, Louis Vuitton, Celine, Tom Ford, Dior. They also wear Strong Suit, the modestly priced brand with whom Urbinati collaborated. With an assist from Malek and Hammer, she put Strong Suit on the fashion map. "It doesn't impact sales, but it impacts the credibility of the brand," says Jamie Davidson, its founder.

Glover exudes creativity and adventurousness, with a brown velvet Gucci suit at the Golden Globes, an orange Dolce & Gabbana one at the "Black Panther" premiere. For Urbinati, working with Glover is akin to two musicians riffing off the same melody and riding the resulting energy. "He has such a natural sense of swagger and cool," Urbinati says. "I think we grew up with the same references in fashion and we get each other. His fittings are probably the most effortless. It flows, and we're having fun."

Malek is flashier, with more fashion edge. "Rami gets very meticulous," Urbinati says. "He has such an appreciation for each brand and who the creative directors are. He has relationships with these people. He goes to (fashion) shows. He has a real appreciation for the artistry."

Cooper was one of Urbinati's first clients. She was opening a clothing store with actor Danny Masterson. Masterson and Cooper were both in the 2008 film "Yes, Man." Cooper came to the opening of the shop. "'The Hangover' hadn't come out yet; it was about to. He was literally about to burst into being Bradley Cooper," Urbinati recalls. One conversation led to another in that Hollywood way, and then Cooper said: "I have my press tour in two days. Can you come over tomorrow and help me out?"

Urbinati, not quite sure what she was signing on to do, called in favors from designers she knew from her work in retail. Simon Spurr was reviving the once-popular three-piece suit. Urbinati borrowed a few and brought them for Cooper to try. He was skeptical: "A three-piece suit, really?" But he liked the look of it.

"Now, he has a very strong sense of what he wants to look like," Urbinati says. "I think he was still working it out back then."

Urbinati spent a good portion of 2018 working with Krasinski, one of her newest clients, as he promoted his film "A Quiet Place"and the Amazon Prime series "Jack Ryan."

"I always imagined myself to be scientifically proven as one of the least fashionable people on the planet. I wore uniforms of jeans and T-shirts," Krasinski says in an email. "She has taken a world that I believed I was very much on the outside of and dropped me in with both feet. And somehow made it so damn fun along the way."

When award season kicked in, Cooper and Malek were each nominated for, well, seemingly everything. There were the SAG awards, BAFTAs, the Golden Globes and countless other events that involved hungry-eyed photographers. Always photographers. Urbinati has been working at a breakneck pace.

For the Oscars, her clients wear custom ensembles. For each one, she works with a design house to conceive a look that reflects the brand's identity, the actor's personality and, perhaps most important, Urbinati's current obsessions.

And when Urbinati gets obsessed, red carpet magic happens.

Lately, Urbinati has been engrossed by the 1970s. That has manifested in Johnson accessorized with pinkie rings and gold chains. Glover got brightly colored silk shirts worn mostly unbuttoned, and trousers with a bit of a boot cut.

He also ended up at Cannes in a powder blue Gucci tuxedo with a daisy boutonniere.

"I had been thinking about doing a '70s prom tux - like a powder blue tux - for a long time," Urbinati says. And the vintage photograph she had stored in her mind included a daisy pinned to the lapel. Daisies were out of season in Cannes and so an assistant was dispatched to call florist after florist. After florist.

A carnation would have been too earnestly authentic, a rose too groomsman. Nothing at all and he's a reject from Motown.

She once saw a photograph of the rock band Kiss dressed in outlandish three-piece striped suits. Malek ended up in a striped suit; so did Glover.

That's how fashion inspiration works. A picture, a scent, a movie. The mind keeps going back to it. It becomes an itch needing to be scratched.

Before Urbinati started dressing actors, she wanted to be a writer - a Hemingway, Tolstoy, serious kind of writer. She thinks about styling as building a narrative about an actor. Take the Rock. Before he came to her, he was the big guy in oversized clothes. But that made him look sloppy, disheveled. "What's the best way to dress a guy with arms the size of a building?" she asked herself. "We do all his suits custom. I approached a bunch of different brands and I said we want to change his fashion image. Trust me. You'll be glad you came on board."

Johnson's suits now are more body conscious. His trousers are more tapered. The story that Urbinati is telling is one of transition - from the Rock to Dwayne Johnson. "It makes you take him a little more seriously. It makes him look more like a movie star," Urbinati says. "Something about a guy who's better dressed - he looks smart," which is to say he looks both stylish and savvy.

She helped Krasinski turn the page from boyish comedic actor to acclaimed filmmaker and action star, from wearing a blazer thrown over a shirt to suits that are more considered and polished.

"I think putting your best foot forward is important in any situation. So when it comes to style I'm grateful to Ilaria - for showing me what the hell foot that is. She's very aware of how style changes the way people can see you and so is always pushing me to take chances but never at the risk of feeling uncomfortable," Krasinski says.

Urbinati is also indirectly leading regular guys to the fashion trough. First come the actors, then the athletes, then the guy in the cubicle down the hall.

"It's having a ripple effect," says Robert Triefus, chief marketing officer for Gucci. "There's a generation seeing what's happening on the red carpet and it's giving them confidence. They're asking themselves, 'Why can't I express myself?' "

Urbinati is precise. Coats believes this is partly because she's the rare celebrity stylist who also works on her clients' photo shoots for magazines, which gives her an art director's understanding of the overall picture. Editorial stylists work hard to see an image they've been staring at for hours from a fresh perspective (some will even tilt their head or use binoculars).

Urbinati also has "a great eye for fit," Coats says. "She's really good at getting the details right." Those details may be apparent only to other stylists, but the average person can still notice that one actor looks incredible on the red carpet and another just looks OK, even if they can't quite put their finger on why. Sometimes it's a daisy boutonniere. Oftentimes it's the impeccable tailoring of a suit.

"I'm a Virgo. It almost hurts my body how OCD I can be. Not that I have to wash my hands every five seconds but, well, tailoring satisfies that part of my personality," Urbinati says. Closefitting trousers have been the red carpet standard for years, but that doesn't mean actors love them. "For sure, they curse me for it, but when they see how good it looks and they get compliments, they don't complain."

Urbinati is fond of saying, "Looks matter if it matters how you look." Men are less likely to be taken to task for some style miscalculation, but they are not immune to insecurities.

"Guys aren't easy," says Coats, who styles Jimmy Fallon for "The Tonight Show." "They have just as many body issues as women and just as many neuroses." The short guys want to look taller, he says, and they all have vacation regret: "I spent six months at my beach house drinking wine and eating pie and now I have a belly!"

Urbinati, 39, was born in Rome and grew up in Paris before moving to Los Angeles as a fifth-grader. Her mother is an art dealer; her father is a photographer; her aunt is a fashion retailer. Urbinati was destined to have good taste.

When she moved to California, she didn't speak English. Italian is her first language, and she studied French. But she doesn't have an accent. Instead, she has the nonchalant inflections that are distinctively Southern Californian. She is slim with blond hair. She practices muay thai. "I have a bossy personality that I think works well with guys," she says.

Through high school, Urbinati thought fashion was silly. But it was always around her - copies of Vogue Italia, photographs by Irving Penn, beautiful clothes. Unconsciously, she absorbed it. She worked at Christie's auction house in Los Angeles, in retail at Fred Segal and then with her aunt. She went on buying trips to Europe, got to know the fashion hierarchy, met designers.

Her family had money, but she had to find her own way, and that path included doing some wardrobe work on the Showtime series "The L Word" and an on-camera stint in a McDonald's commercial.

Urbinati focuses on menswear essentially because she's one of the few people who can do it well. "I can be the best at this. I don't know if I could do that with women. I like being an expert at something."

There's less fashion politics with menswear. Less pressure for men to fit into an impossibly tiny runway sample. But sometimes, brands still require cajoling to take a chance on an actor. Gucci needed nudging before first dressing Glover. Now, he's practically a brand ambassador.

"There's something about men's that's simple and it's all in the details," she says. "I don't think you can fake it with menswear." Without the frippery, you can see every imperfection.

"I work better with parameters. How do I work within this box and make it different?" she adds. "It's why I could never be a designer but I like collaborations because you have to work within the DNA of the brand."

Last year, she worked with Armani on the red velvet tuxedo Armie Hammer wore to the Oscars. It could have gone very, very Vegas. Very wrong. But she asked for a jacket with notched lapels instead of the more dramatic peaked ones. The pants didn't have a side stripe. Every flourish was stripped away to create the most conservative silhouette. Only the color stood out.

On Oscar night, the brands will be watching the red carpet, waiting for their annual jolt of credibility. The fans will be armchair critics. Urbinati will have considered everything from bow tie to shoes. She will not be fretting. "Once they're out the door, it's out of my hands. Hopefully, it looks good," she says. "I'll know that I put everything into it."

Trust fails to recover from nuclear disaster

By Simon Denyer
Trust fails to recover from nuclear disaster
Fishermen leave a fishing boat at the port of Onahama in Iwaki, Japan. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Shiho Fukada.

FUKUSHIMA, Japan - Eight years after an earthquake, tsunami and one of the most severe nuclear accidents in history, the Japanese prefecture of Fukushima is getting back on its feet.

Officials say the area's fruits and vegetables are fine to eat. So is the catch from the Fukushima fishing boats.

Radiation levels in the prefecture's capital city, Fukushima, are comparable to the super-safe readings in places such as Hong Kong and London, monitors say. And a massive decontamination effort is still underway.

But facts and spreadsheets supplied by the government are one thing.

Rebuilding trust among locals may be significantly harder, thanks to a culture of coverups and denials that contributed to the nuclear accident and continues to dog Japan's efforts to restart its nuclear industry, experts say.

"A lot of challenges still need to be addressed," Mitsuru Shoji, an official in the international affairs division of the prefecture government, said during a recent press tour. "[But] Fukushima Prefecture is regaining its strength."

The twin natural disasters in March 2011 killed 16,000 people, and the subsequent multiple reactor explosions sent clouds of radioactive dust spewing over thousands of square miles of northern Japan, causing 165,000 people to flee their homes across 12 percent of the prefecture. Agriculture and fisheries industries collapsed as consumers steered clear of their products, and tourists shunned the region.

Most of the evacuees have gone home across the prefecture. Less than 3 percent - an area roughly twice the size of the District of Columbia - of the prefecture remains officially off limits: in the mountainous forests and ghost towns nearest the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Huge swaths of topsoil have been removed. Potassium has been added to soil to displace the radioactive cesium that fell from the sky and prevent it entering plants through their roots.

Japan has set stringent limits on the amount of cesium allowed in food, 12 times stricter than the United States. And an agriculture testing center in the city of Koriyama has analyzed 210,00 samples of local produce, including peaches, rice, asparagus, strawberries and beef from the danger zone. At the Onahama fishing port, a similar effort monitors fish from every ocean catch.

With the exception of a handful of samples of wild mushrooms and freshwater fish, none of the samples has exceeded the radiation limits in the past three years, officials say.

Exports of agriculture, forestry and fisheries products, at one point down 98 percent, have recovered beyond pre-disaster levels, as have tourist arrivals.

Overcoming initial concerns, the percentage of locally produced ingredients in Fukushima school lunches is back where it was in 2010, and above the national average. Peaches from the area are popular in Southeast Asia, and local sake is winning national awards.

Still, at least 24 countries and territories ban some produce from Fukushima. Taiwan, South Korea and China still impose a total food ban. The United States prohibits Fukushima produce such as mushrooms, leafy vegetables and broccoli. Fishermen now only ply the seas two days a week: Fish from Fukushima, which once enjoyed a high reputation in Tokyo's fish market, is no longer the flavor of the day.

The government blames "harmful rumors," a phrase that dominated the two-day press tour and has been labeled the fourth disaster to hit Fukushima, after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident.

Yet there is a much deeper trust deficit that remains extremely hard to overcome.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the ill-fated plant, spent two months after the nuclear disaster denying that a meltdown had occurred. TEPCO later apologized for a "coverup" that remains the source of much bitterness among people here.

Katsunobu Sakurai, former mayor of the nearby town of Minamisoma, says TEPCO gave out very little information about the disaster during a chaotic evacuation that ultimately led to the deaths of 3,700 people, including many elderly people whose medical care was interrupted.

In 2012, TEPCO was forced to admit that it had failed to heed safety warnings before the accident, or even consider the risk of a large tsunami, because it feared doing so would undermine public confidence in the industry.

Experts say TEPCO has still failed to come clean about the problems associated with decommissioning the reactors and decontaminating the environment.

"To me, talking about 'harmful rumors' sounds like they are making someone else the bad guy or villain, as if they are blaming people for saying negative things because they don't understand science and radiation," said Riken Komatsu, a community activist in Onahama.

"But those who have lost our trust do not have the right" to talk about harmful rumors, Komatsu added.

The government and TEPCO say the nuclear power plant itself could take 30 or 40 years to decommission and estimates the cleanup will cost 22 trillion yen ($200 billion). But in 2015, the plant's manager told London's Times newspaper that the technological challenges involved in removing hundreds of tons of molten radioactive fuel from three reactors could mean decommissioning will take 200 years.

The Japan Center for Economic Research, a conservative think tank, estimates the cleanup bill could come to 50 trillion to 70 trillion yen ($460 billion to 640 billion).

One of the biggest problems involves groundwater that seeps into the reactor buildings, mixes with cooling water and becomes radioactive.

TEPCO has been trying to limit water contamination ever since the accident, creating a mile-long "ice wall" of sunken, frozen soil around the reactors to keep water out, and another concrete wall to prevent it from reaching the ocean.

In 2016, TEPCO admitted that the ice wall was only slowing - but not preventing - water seeping in. Today, around 100 cubic meters of groundwater still become contaminated at Fukushima every day, and 1 million tons of radioactive water is stored in 994 huge tanks around the site.

A new tank fills up every seven to 10 days, and storage space is running out.

TEPCO had initially claimed that 26 out of 27 radioactive nuclides had been removed from that water through an advanced treatment system, living only tritium behind.

But after reports by Kyodo news and local media, and a protest by fishermen, the company acknowledged in September that 80 percent of the tanks contain water that is still contaminated with dangerous radioactive elements, including strontium-90, a bone-seeking radionuclide that causes cancer.

Launching his successful bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the situation at Fukushima was "under control." One of his predecessors, Junichiro Koizumi said the water crisis showed that was a lie.

An external committee established by TEPCO to advise the board of directors says it is "very frustrated" at the company's inability to communicate properly.

"If TEPCO does not improve their communication, it will be very difficult for them to regain the public trust," committee chairman and former head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Dale Klein told a news conference on Jan. 30.

Shigenori Makino, TEPCO's managing executive officer, vowed to do better. "We take the severe evaluation of our effort to heart, " he said.

Today, one of the hottest controversies is what to do with all that water, after a government task force suggested gradually releasing it into the sea.

TEPCO says it has significantly reduced contamination in the water and would treat it again before it is released. It argues that other nuclear plants around the world release water containing tritium.

But for the fishermen of Fukushima, already deeply frustrated with the havoc the disaster has wrought, such a move is unthinkable.

"We have worked so hard to regain the trust and sense of safety among consumers," said Hisashi Maeda, deputy manager of the Dredge Fishing Cooperative at the Onahama port. "If they release the water, it would put us back to square one again."

- - -

The Washington Post's Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.

The New Oscars: In a climate of change, is Disney the real disrupter?

By Steven Zeitchik
The New Oscars: In a climate of change, is Disney the real disrupter?
Michael B. Jordan, left, and Daniel Kaluuya as Killmonger and W'Kabi in Disney-Marvel's

At the Oscars this Sunday, a whole lot of entertainment-world drama will reach its conclusion. Some unusually wide-open races will be resolved, an especially brutal season of campaigning will end, and millions of Americans will learn whether an awards-show host is a vestigial structure.

But the story lines go beyond the ceremony. It has been a wild six months for the business of Hollywood - wilder, perhaps, than any other period in recent memory. For film-industry veterans who've long been observing this September-February period known as award season, in which working Hollywood members are wooed with screenings, meals and the lighted halo of celebrity, this has been a year of almost unfathomable change.

Old-time establishment players who've not won best picture in a long time (or ever) have been making resurgent bids. New players, from Netflix to Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures, have been mounting a case that they're the new establishment. And money has been spent at seemingly record levels, with numerous campaigns in the tens of millions of dollars. Studios like Warner Bros. ("A Star is Born") and Universal Pictures ("Green Book") have been spending like they were Netflix. Netflix has been spending like it's a presidential candidate.

There's a lot of talk about the way the television business has been upended by change in recent years. But the Oscars this year suggest that the film business - still in some ways rooted in the tradition of big-studio opening weekends and communal multiplex experiences - sits at its own transformative moment.

The Academy Awards ended this crazy chapter on Tuesday. Voting for Sunday's show officially closed at 5 p.m. Pacific Time. Which means that if you're in a major media market, particularly Los Angeles, you will no longer be bombarded with campaign ads - TV spots reminding you of movies you've been meaning to see, evoking a group whose purpose you're not really sure of - at least until Emmy season rolls around this summer.

Some of these shifts happened because of inside-baseball factors: Traditional powerhouse Fox Searchlight, winner of best picture three of the past five years, sits only in the middle of the pack with "The Favourite," while recently hot indie A24 ("Moonlight," "Lady Bird") is out of the running this year. Or the lingering effects of the demise of The Weinstein Company, which through 2017 had landed a best-picture slot eight of nine years.

Yet the shifts often have had far more to do with the individual companies and how they're realigning themselves for a new world (and how the new world is realigning itself to them).

There's more to say in the coming days on these changes, and how they've created a fresh set of front-runners - even rules - at these new Oscars. Today it's worth taking a look at one of them: Disney, holder of possibly the strangest claim in the entertainment business. The studio is among the most storied in Hollywood history. Yet it has never won best picture.

On a few occasions it has gotten into the field - "Mary Poppins" in 1965, and more recent animated films like "Up" and "Toy Story 3." But it's never sniffed victory.

That could all change this year. The studio's megahit, "Black Panther," is one of several contenders at the front of the crowded pack. How far front? "Panther" hasn't won many of the predictive Hollywood guild awards in recent months. But several weeks ago it took the Screen Actors Guild prize for outstanding cast, which foreshadows Oscar best picture about half the time - 7 of 13 instances since 2006. Actors are the largest bloc of Oscar voters, so having them on your side goes a long way.

If Disney could break its drought, it wouldn't be happenstance. It would be the result of twin sets of factors, involving both the studio's actions and the actions of those around it. Basically, after years of mutual suspicion between a broad entertainment company and the world of prestige film, the two have slowly, carefully, finally inched closer together.

Disney would get over the hump not with its classic family fare, but with a superhero movie, a category it didn't enter until relatively recently. (A decade ago it didn't own Marvel.) And not just any superhero movie, but a slyly political superhero movie from a major filmmaker. Which it didn't produce until really recently.

A few years ago, Disney-Marvel simply wasn't investing in the kind of creative talent that would attract awards voters. Yet after a long period of essentially directorial work-for-hire, executives realized that simply cranking out studio product with little filmmaker vision wasn't going to keep viewers coming back. So they brought on filmmakers with more distinct points of view. Panther's" Ryan Coogler ("Creed," "Fruitvale Station") exemplifies this decision.

Meanwhile, after years of earning a reputation that it didn't wish to spend on awards, Disney has also opened up the coffers. Maybe not Netflix or Warner Bros. opened up. But it's certainly and unquestionably taken some strategic swings.

It would be a mistake, though, to think Disney was just moving toward the prestige world. At the same time as all this was happening, the Oscar voting body began to get past its superhero-skepticism.

Or, maybe, past its superhero skeptics..

In recent years, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has made a deliberate push to get younger and more diverse: the group has grown by some 30 percent since 2016, much of it the result of younger voters and people of color. This includes 928 new members last year, its biggest gain in the modern era. Tastes can still vary, of course. But when your membership looks more and more like that, its choices are more likely to contain a "Black Panther."

If Disney can pull off a win - experts say it's in essentially a three-pony race with "Roma" and "Green Book," and maybe a dark horse in "Bohemian Rhapsody" - this would have major implications.

The first is the lesson that a movie with complex racial themes can not only succeed with a new "woke" audience but with a group that rarely leads the social-change charge.

The second is that all the campaign money in the world can't compete with Hollywood's real dollar measures: box office. "Black Panther" grossed $700 million in the U.S., more than any movie in history besides "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and "Avatar." All the Netflix-sponsored salads at Spago can't compete with that kind of green.

The third is that Disney may now be willing to play a bit more in the awards pool. It's still hard to see the company ever going as all-out as other studios. But as it takes charge of Fox Searchlight, a company famous rational about its award spending, more money for these campaigns could follow. This is especially true if it wants to keep pace with Netflix.

But the biggest result of a "Black Panther" win may be the way it sets the stage for movies well outside of Disney.

This has been the age of franchise films everywhere - among parents and kids, teen girls and boys, in small American towns and big cities, across Asia, Europe and Latin America.

Everywhere, that is but at the Academy Awards. As die-hards will tell you, "Black Panther" would be the first superhero movie ever to win best picture. In fact, it's the first superhero movie even nominated for the prize.

But that doesn't mean it's the last. As much as we tend to see these things as binary - nothing ever was nominated before, and now the feat has been achieved - the reality is much more of a continuum.

Disney is standing on the shoulders of predecessors. The best-picture snub for Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" a decade ago helped lead to a nomination for his "Inception" two years later (and prompted the academy to expand the best-picture field). Then a smart multiplex hit like "Inception" helped open some academy eyes to "Black Panther."

And a "Black Panther" win? It could help future commercial genres take the prize. It's been nearly 30 years since a movie with a claim to the horror label, "The Silence of the Lambs," won. And unless you count "The Shape of Water" (and you shouldn't) a science-fiction film has never won best picture.

The previous time a franchise film has won best picture was 15 years ago with "Lord Of The Rings: Return of the King." "Black Panther" could further pry open those doors too.

Even as this piece was being readied, early notices were arriving about the quality and depth of another winter Marvel release, the Brie Larson-starring "Captain Marvel." The film is the studio's first with a lead female superhero, and also had unique voices behind the camera. Some of its early buzz is reminiscent of "Black Panther."

Disney, in this entertainment age of streamers and Silicon Valley, isn't regarded as a disrupter. Yet when it comes to the movies that get to the Oscar podium - to new budgets and new genres - they may have a surprisingly game-changing effect. You could almost call it Netflixian.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Smollett's story may be phony, but it shows the real danger of jumping to conclusions

By ruben navarrette jr.
Smollett's story may be phony, but it shows the real danger of jumping to conclusions


(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE. Normally would advance for Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, and thereafter.)

(For Navarrette clients only)


SAN DIEGO -- Whoever said there is no such thing as bad publicity never met Jussie Smollett.

Ask your HR director. There must be easier ways to get a salary bump.

In a dizzying turn of events, the star went from alleged victim to criminal defendant. The actor has now been arrested in Chicago and charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report.

If convicted, the actor could get one to three years in prison and face a $25,000 fine. And a story that could have helped shine a light on a rash of anti-LGBTQ violence in America will instead give those who are uncomfortable with the topic an excuse to stay in the dark.

I don't see how we avoid it. There are too many stories. For instance, in a case that didn't get a fraction of the attention given to the Smollett story, a gay couple was attacked and seriously injured by four men in Austin, Texas, on Jan. 19 in an apparent hate crime. According to the police report, Spencer Deehring and Tristan Perry were beaten and kicked until unconscious.

If Smollett did indeed stage this attack on himself, then the actor did incalculable harm to victims of genuine hate crimes, and shame on him. But if anyone who doesn't feel comfortable discussing LGBTQ issues is using this case as an easy out, then shame on them.

Let's catch up. Smollett, a gay African-American actor who stars in the Fox drama "Empire," claimed that he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack in Chicago on Jan 29. He said that two men who recognized him from the show cornered him in the middle of the night. He said they yelled slurs, hit him, doused him with bleach, and put a noose around his neck -- all while shouting, "This is MAGA country!"

A couple weeks later, police questioned two brothers from Nigeria, who told them that Smollett had hired them -- at the bargain price of $3,500 -- to stage the attack.

The stunt might have been phony, but the hatred it unleashed was real. A lot of it came from anti-Trump'ers -- some of whom are running for president. In fact, @CoryBooker and @KamalaHarris both tweeted that this was an "attempted modern-day lynching."

Meanwhile, as this drama was unfolding, the audience got into the act -- and tripped over its own feet. Many of those who tried to follow each bounce of this story immediately jumped to conclusions based on nothing more than their biases.

It happened on both the oversensitive left, and the desensitized right. Liberals went off half-cocked and suggested the alleged incident was fueled by the same mood that helped elect Donald Trump. Conservatives cynically used the alleged hoax as an excuse to bash "identity politics."

If we wanted something to be true, it was true. If we wanted it to be false, it must be false. Why? Because this story wasn't about Smollett. It was about us -- about how we feel about anti-LGBTQ violence.

C'mon people, how broken are we? We've gone from not listening to not thinking. We see a tweet or hear a rumor, and we decide -- on the spot -- whether or not it's true based on our politics and our prejudices. Case closed.

Last month, when my brother -- who happens to be gay, so his antennae are up for stories like this -- texted me to share news of the alleged hate crime, I didn't buy it. The journalist in me was skeptical that white racist homophobes who voted for Trump but also watched "Empire" were roaming the streets of a Democratic haven like Chicago.

But people kept talking about the story. So eventually, I mentioned the alleged attack in a column about how it is that so many LGBTQ stories are in the news these days. And I was careful to use the word "alleged."

No matter. I still heard from readers who were eager to discount the whole column. Days before police arrested Smollett, they had already made up their minds that the alleged attack was a hoax. Like I said, we feel. We don't think.

Never mind Jussie Smollett. The justice system will take care of him.

Who's going to take care of fixing the rest of us?

Ruben Navarrette's email address is His daily podcast, "Navarrette Nation," is available through every podcast app.

(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group

Democrats can't be casual about the facts

By fareed zakaria
Democrats can't be casual about the facts


(Advance for Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Zakaria clients only)


NEW YORK -- It's refreshing to see the Democratic Party bubbling with new ideas. But this new thinking seems starkly different from the party's reform efforts of the past three decades. The wonky proposals of the Clinton-Obama era were pragmatic and incremental, and they mixed market incentives with government action. Today we have big, stirring ideas -- and that could be the problem.

In their zeal to match the sweeping rhetoric of right-wing populism, Democrats are spinning out dramatic proposals in which facts are sometimes misrepresented, the numbers occasionally don't add up, and emotional appeal tends to trump actual policy analysis.

When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., was confronted recently by Anderson Cooper on "60 Minutes" about an egregious misstatement about Pentagon spending, she responded, "I think that there's a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right."

Perhaps this casual attitude toward facts explains the way that she and many others on the left have misrepresented the deal that New York offered Amazon to bring a new headquarters there. She claimed New York was going to give away to Amazon $3 billion that could have been used to pay for schoolteachers and subways. But as Mayor Bill de Blasio explained, "this was a deal that was going to bring $27 billion in revenue to the state and city for things like public education, mass transit, affordable housing. And that $3 billion that [Amazon would receive in] incentives was only after we were getting the jobs and getting the revenue."

Moreover, $2.5 billion of those incentives were not specially crafted for Amazon but rather were pre-existing tax credits that it would have qualified for. In return, Amazon would have directly created at least 25,000 high-quality jobs, upgraded infrastructure in Long Island City and offered new educational opportunities. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Or consider the race by prominent Democrats to embrace Medicare-for-all. A variety of expert studies have estimated the total increased government spending for such a program at between $2.5 and $3 trillion a year. Few of the many proposals being floated would likely raise anything close to that revenue. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' Medicare-for-all plan has zero out-of-pocket costs for patients, which would make it more generous than even the plans in Europe and Canada. And if a Herculean effort were made to raise revenue for Medicare-for-all, there would be few easy avenues left to fund any of the other ambitious proposals on the new Democratic wish list.

Universal health care is an important moral and political goal. But the U.S. system is insanely complex, and getting from here to single-payer would probably be so disruptive and expensive that it's not going to happen. There is a path to universal coverage that is simpler: Switzerland has one of the best health care systems in the world, and it's essentially Obamacare with a real mandate. No one on the left is talking about such a model, likely because it feels too much like those incremental policies of the past.

Or consider the tax proposals being tossed around on the left, including a wealth tax championed by Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. I understand the appeal of tapping into those vast accumulations of billionaire loot. But there is a reason that nine of the 12 European countries that instituted similar taxes have repealed them in the last 25 years. They massively distort economic activity, often incentivizing people to hide assets, devalue them and create dummy corporations. Faced with a wealth tax, most rich people would likely value and transfer assets the questionable way that Fred Trump did in passing his fortune on to his children.

There are smarter, better ways to address inequality -- raise the capital gains tax to the same level as income taxes, increase the estate tax, get rid of the massive loopholes that make the American tax code one of the most complex and corrupt in the world. But again, this is less stirring stuff than burning the billionaires.

Ocasio-Cortez's comments on "60 Minutes" reminded me of a July 2016 exchange between Newt Gingrich and CNN's Alisyn Camerota. Camerota explained that, contrary to Gingrich's insistence, FBI data showed that violent crime in America was way down. Gingrich responded that it doesn't "feel" that way to people. "As a political candidate, I'll go with how people feel, and I'll let you go with the theoreticians," he said.

We already have one major party that now routinely twists facts, disregards evidence, ignores serious policy analysis and makes stuff up to appeal to people's emotions and prejudices. If the Democrats start moving along this path as well, American politics will truly descend into a new dark age.

Fareed Zakaria's email address is

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

In allegedly faking his attack, Smollett grievously injured countless others

By eugene robinson
In allegedly faking his attack, Smollett grievously injured countless others


(Advance for Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Robinson clients only)


WASHINGTON -- I hope actor Jussie Smollett gets the psychological help he apparently needs. And I hope authorities in Chicago throw the book at him, because the lies he is accused of telling will likely bring great harm to innocent victims.

Smollett's arrest Thursday for allegedly filing a false police report came as no surprise. His improbable tale -- he said he was accosted last month by two men who yelled racist and homophobic slurs, beat him up, put a noose around his neck and doused him with bleach, with one of the men saying that "this is MAGA [Make America Great Again] country" -- sounded like a page from the first draft of a rejected screenplay.

Real life doesn't happen that way. Actual white supremacists and homophobes don't stroll through the streets of Chicago on a bitterly cold night, carrying a hate-crimes kit of rope and Clorox, hoping to chance upon someone who is black, gay and modestly famous. They don't hurl perfectly scripted insults. They don't vanish without a trace.

The minute I heard Smollett's story, I suspected it would eventually fall apart -- and I feared the potential consequences for genuine victims of genuine hate crimes.

Smollett was arrested just one day after federal authorities released evidence of the kind of grave threat that really does exist. They announced the arrest of Christopher Hasson, a 49-year-old U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant and self-described white nationalist, for allegedly amassing a deadly arsenal in his Silver Spring, Maryland, home and planning to assassinate a list of public officials and journalists, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough.

The menace of such white-supremacist terrorism is real and growing. Debacles such as Smollett's apparent hoax do nothing but provide excuses to ignore the threat.

Were the news media too credulous in their initial reporting about Smollett's claim? Not necessarily. A well-known person reported being assaulted, and Chicago police said they were taking his story seriously. Smollett had suffered some minor injuries and been treated at a hospital. I don't know what reporters were supposed to do except report the facts as far as they were known -- absent concrete evidence that those facts were actually fabrications.

Police now say that the scratches on Smollett's face were self-inflicted and that he paid two men $3,500 to rough him up -- gently -- so he could become more famous and demand more money for his role in the Fox television series "Empire." But nobody knew that at first. When new facts gradually emerged that cast doubt on Smollett's account, those facts were reported.

I also don't blame the fellow "Empire" cast members who stood by Smollett. It is only natural to want to support a friend and colleague who is in crisis.

But politicians who rushed to use Smollett's account as a shocking sign of the times -- Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., both called it an "attempted modern-day lynching," for example -- were foolish to do so. The story was shaky from the beginning, and a little early caution would have made unnecessary a lot of eventual backpedaling.

Was there, in general, an eagerness to believe Smollett because of the atmosphere President Trump has created? Probably -- and, I would argue, quite understandably.

According to the FBI, there were 7,175 hate-crime incidents in this country in 2017 -- a big jump from 2016, when there were 6,121 such incidents. (Those figures surely minimize the real problem, since many jurisdictions do not report hate crimes to the FBI at all.) Regarding incidents in 2017 in which victims were targeted because of race, 2,013 attacks were against African-Americans versus 741 against whites. Of incidents in which victims were targeted because of religion, the vast majority were against Jews and Muslims. There were more than a thousand anti-LGBT incidents versus just 32 classified as anti-heterosexual.

No, Trump isn't telling people to go out and commit hate crimes. But the white-supremacist lunatic who killed 11 innocent Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue last October was apparently motivated, somehow, by Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric about illegal immigration. It's not hard to see why, to some, Smollett's story might have seemed plausible.

Trump didn't actually put words in Smollett's mouth, though. The actor allegedly made the decision to lie and should now face the consequences.

Police officials in Chicago, where the murder rate is out of control, had to waste time and resources on a wild goose chase. Even worse, the next victim of an actual hate crime might not be believed. By allegedly feigning injury to himself, Smollett grievously injured untold others.

Eugene Robinson's email address is

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Young veterans in Congress bring new hope for Democrats

By david ignatius
Young veterans in Congress bring new hope for Democrats


(Advance for Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Ignatius clients only)


WASHINGTON -- The left wing of the Democratic Party has been getting much of the media attention since the new Congress convened, overshadowing the rise of a group of young Democratic military and intelligence veterans who may prove more important for 2020 and beyond.

These pragmatic Democrats accounted for some of the flipped Republican seats that gave their party control of the House. The progressive wing of the party may be potent, but many of its victories came in reliably Democratic seats, like the Bronx-Queens district that elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a charismatic media favorite.

A good showcase for these new Democrats is the House Armed Services Committee. The Democrats installed 14 freshmen on the panel, nearly half their party's total membership. Seven have served in the military, foreign service or CIA, and 10 are women. If you're looking for bright new faces in the Democratic Party, this may be the most compelling group snapshot.

"The media have chosen to focus on progressive members, I understand that," says Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, one of the new Armed Services members and a former CIA officer with three tours in Iraq. "But when it comes to the 2020 presidential election, the voters in the states we must win are moderate, pragmatic voters."

This informal Democratic caucus of veterans offers a partisan opportunity, to be sure. "This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to retake the flag for the Democratic Party," argues Slotkin. "We can show that it's not just the Republicans who are the party of patriotism and love of country."

But the newly arrived veterans say they're not an attack ad in uniform. "Service candidates are about country, not party," says Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, another new Armed Services member and former Air Force officer. "Now, when the country is broken, I hope the veterans can be healers."

Look at the range of experience of young Democratic veterans who have joined Armed Services, in addition to Slotkin and Houlahan: Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado won a Bronze Star as an Army officer in Iraq and then served two tours as a Ranger in Afghanistan; Rep. Jared Golden of Maine was a combat Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan; Rep. Andrew Kim of New Jersey served in Afghanistan as a State Department adviser to Gen. David Petraeus; Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia served 20 years in the Navy on combat ships; Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey was a Navy helicopter pilot.

This experience in war zones is precious because it breeds measured, skeptical judgment, as well as patriotism. Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a three-term member of the committee who was a Marine platoon leader in Iraq, says he came back from that deployment with a "a sense of betrayal" by "people in Washington who bent the truth to send us there." The veterans understand that there are limits to American power, as well as benefits.

Moulton has pushed his fellow Democrats to recruit more young veterans to run for office. His "Serve America" political action committee raised $4.4 million to support Democratic Party veterans last year, and 10 of the 21 candidates he supported won their races.

Trump's erratic foreign-policy record offers Democrats a special chance, unless they move so far left that they lose credibility with the public. "We have a massive opportunity to lead on national security, because we have a reckless and irresponsible commander in chief," contends Moulton.

For a dysfunctional Congress, the rise of young veterans in both parties is a hopeful sign. "Regardless of what side of the aisle we come from, we understand we're here to serve," says Houlahan. Like many other newly elected vets, she received financial support from "With Honor," a bipartisan group that donated $14 million to veterans from both parties last year.

Rye Barcott, who helped found With Honor, says the group backed 19 winning veterans, 10 Democrats and nine Republicans. Each candidate had to pledge to "bring civility to politics" and "collaborate across the aisle." The recipients have started co-sponsoring legislation together, and they plan a bipartisan caucus of young vets.

Some commentators have been worrying that the Democratic Party's leftward drift could tilt it so far out of the mainstream that the process helps re-elect Donald Trump in 2020. But before pushing the panic button, wait a minute:

If you look carefully at the Democratic caucus in the House, the voices of the new members who've served overseas as military or intelligence officers -- let's call them the pragmatic progressives -- may matter more to the party's future than the attention-grabbers on the far left.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Community 'weavers' create stronger social fabric

By michael gerson
Community 'weavers' create stronger social fabric


(Advance for Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)


WASHINGTON -- Eventually, someone who writes on public policy comes up against the limits of words. There are only so many times you can urge, condemn, cajole, wheedle, praise, remind, prod, propose and coax before your vocabulary and patience both give out. This is not to say that public argumentation makes no difference. But for a columnist, that influence consists mainly of throwing 750 words over a high wall and hoping they land with a pleasing thud on some doer or decider.

Having mastered the arts of opinion writing, cultural criticism and human decency, David Brooks of The New York Times is now undertaking a project at the Aspen Institute called "Weave" (link:, designed to recognize and help people directly involved in social repair. In the work of lighting candles to push back the darkness, Brooks wants to be a lamplighter.

The metaphor Brooks prefers is textile production. Many people are involved in the unholy work of ripping and shredding our social fabric -- through dehumanizing language, racial prejudice and other evidence of tribalism. The groups Brooks highlights are the weavers, laying down the warp and weft of communities. They promote community dialogue and deal with various categories of need from youth development to suicide prevention. But they share the goal of strengthening human ties, trust and reciprocity as alternatives to isolation, loneliness and despair.

I've been familiar with, and occasionally involved in, efforts to praise and encourage the work of community and religious groups providing compassionate social services. I've been involved in efforts to promote volunteer service as a method of social mixing and an alternative to the general selfishness of our culture. Brooks' effort involves a more ambitious framing, designed to be the intellectual scaffold (to employ another metaphor) on which a movement is built.

In his manifesto, Brooks argues for what he calls "relationalism" as opposed to the "hyper-individualism" of a society based on the maximization of choice and self-actualization. A critic might respond that liberal individualism has done a pretty good job as the basis for democracy, capitalism and pain-free dentistry. But Brooks is diagnosing an excess of individualism leading to "social isolation, distrust, polarization, the breakdown of family, the loss of community, tribalism, rising suicide rates, rising mental health problems, [and] a spiritual crisis caused by a loss of common purpose."

In Brooks' relationalism, the answer is not found in a political ideology, but in an alternative way of being human. In this view, success is not measured by the goods we accumulate but in the number and quality of the relationships we form. Such relationships tend to push our attention outward, toward the welfare of others. "The central journey of modern life," Brooks argues, "is moving self to service." And a rich relational life delivers a deeper more satisfying form of happiness than consumerism. We are actually liberated by the deep commitments we make in life.

Relationalism had clear (and acknowledged) debts to the Catholic idea of the common good, to Martin Luther King Jr.'s conception of "the beloved community," to Alexis de Tocqueville's celebration of American volunteerism and to Edmund Burke's preference for the small and natural over the large and ideological. Some political conservatives may object to Brooks' critique of modern capitalism as potentially soul-destroying. Some liberals may object to his focus on incrementalism and the human scale rather than on structural injustice.

None of this makes much difference to the extraordinary weavers across the country Brooks has chosen to highlight. They are following an entirely different prompting -- a love that leads beyond egotism and into the lives of others.

Brooks' message is likely to resonate precisely because it is not political. The atomizing tendency of American life does deepen and complicate problems such as drug addiction and suicide, in which isolation can contribute to a downward spiral of self-destructive behavior. But many Americans can identify with the broader challenge of loneliness, which seems to be the flip side of autonomy.

Brooks is making the case that there is already a movement of human connection in this country, among people who don't yet recognize themselves as part of one. He has served this movement by giving it a compelling, non-sectarian, non-partisan frame, allowing diverse groups to consider themselves part of each other. In this case, the frame serves the picture well.

Michael Gerson's email address is

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Amazon blow up shows Ocasio-Cortex is an economic illiterate

By marc a. thiessen
Amazon blow up shows Ocasio-Cortex is an economic illiterate


(Advance for Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Thiessen clients only)


WASHINGTON -- The left complains that conservatives are "obsessing" over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Well, there is a reason for that: Ocasio-Cortez is driving the agenda of today's Democratic Party -- and her economic illiteracy is dangerous.

Case in point: Last week, Ocasio-Cortez celebrated the tanking of a deal negotiated by her fellow Democrats in which Amazon promised to build a new headquarters in Long Island City, New York, right next to her congressional district. Amazon's departure cost the city between 25,000 and 40,000 new jobs. Forget the tech workers whom Amazon would have employed. Gone are all the unionized construction jobs to build the headquarters, as well as thousands of jobs created by all the small businesses -- restaurants, bodegas, dry cleaners and food carts -- that were preparing to open or expand to serve Amazon employees. They are devastated by Amazon's withdrawal.

Ocasio-Cortez was not disturbed at all. "We were subsidizing those jobs," she said. "Frankly, if we were willing to give away $3 billion for this deal, we could invest those $3 billion in our district, ourselves, if we wanted to. We could hire out more teachers. We can fix our subways. We can put a lot of people to work for that amount of money if we wanted to."

No, you can't. Ocasio-Cortez does not seem to realize that New York does not have $3 billion in cash sitting around waiting to be spent on her socialist dreams. The subsidies to Amazon were tax incentives, not cash payouts. It is Amazon's money, which New York agreed to make tax-exempt, so the company would invest it in building its new headquarters, hiring new workers and generating tens of billions in new tax revenue.

As New York Mayor Bill de Blasio explained, the Amazon deal would have produced "$27 billion in new tax revenue to fuel priorities from transit to affordable housing -- a nine-fold return on the taxes the city and state were prepared to forgo to win the headquarters." Unlike Ocasio-Cortez's imaginary $3 billion slush fund, that is real money that actually could have been used to hire teachers, fix subways and put people to work. With Amazon leaving New York, that $27 billion leaves with it. Genius.

Ocasio-Cortez does not seem to understand that by helping to drive Amazon away, she did not save New York $3 billion; she cost New York $27 billion. There is a difference between having bad ideas and not grasping basic facts. Reasonable people can disagree about whether New York should have offered Amazon $3 billion in tax incentives -- or anything at all -- to build its headquarters in the city. But that is different from not understanding that New York is not writing a $3 billion check to Amazon.

Sadly, Ocasio-Cortez doesn't learn from her mistakes. She made the same kind of error in December when she tweeted, "$21 TRILLION of Pentagon financial transactions 'could not be traced, documented, or explained.' $21T in Pentagon accounting errors. Medicare for All costs ~$32T. That means 66% of Medicare for All could have been funded already by the Pentagon." But, as Pentagon spokesman Christopher Sherwood told The Post, "DoD hasn't received $21 trillion in (nominal) appropriated funding across the entirety of American history." Once again, Ocasio-Cortez did not grasp that the Pentagon did not have a magic pile of $21 trillion in cash sitting in a vault somewhere.

Her economic illiteracy matters because she is the principal author of the Green New Deal, which has been endorsed by most of the leading Democratic candidates for president. From this unschooled mind has sprung the most ambitious plan for government intervention in the economy since Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's train pulled into Petrograd's Finland Station.

If Ocasio-Cortez doesn't understand how tax subsidies work, how can she be trusted to plan the federal takeover of the health-care, energy and transportation sectors of our economy? Think she and her allies have any idea how to, as her now infamous talking points put it, upgrade or replace "every building in America" ... or replace "every combustible-engine vehicle" ... or connect every corner of America with high-speed rail ... or replace all fossil-fuel energy with alternative energy sources -- all in 10 years' time? Apparently, they think we just have to find all the magic pots of cash the government is hiding.

When this kind of ignorance is driving policymaking in Washington, America is in profound danger. Amazon left New York because Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow democratic socialists created a hostile environment in the city. And if Ocasio-Cortez has her way, Democrats are going to do to the rest of America what they just did to New York.

Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group

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