Weekend reads: 11 of the best premium syndicator pieces

Welcome to the weekend.

Settle down with a cuppa and catch up on some of the best content from our premium syndicators this week.

Happy reading.

The Covid-19 epicentre: Most everyone knows someone who has died

As winter turned to spring, the coronavirus hit a corner of Queens harder than almost anywhere else in the United States. Thousands fell ill. Hundreds died. And a nation was put on alert: It was here.

The New York Times looks at life and death in a Covid-19 epicentre.

• Italy’s pandemic survivors carry scars unseen and incalculable
• ‘Nobody sees us’: Overwhelmed lab workers battle behind the scenes

He pretended to be Trump's family. Then Trump fell for it

Last month, between tweets disputing his election loss, President Donald Trump posted an article from a conservative website that said his sister Elizabeth Trump Grau had just joined Twitter to publicly back her brother’s fight to overturn the vote.

“Thank you Elizabeth,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “LOVE!”

But the Twitter account that prompted the article was not his sister’s. It was a fake profile run by Josh Hall, a 21-year-old food-delivery driver in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

For months the Trump supporter impersonated Trump family members on Twitter, spreading conspiracy theories, asking for money and eventually drawing the attention of the president.

The New York Times reports.

How Temuera Morrison incorporated Māori culture into The Mandalorian

It has been nearly 40 years since moviegoers saw Boba Fett, the fearsome bounty hunter of the original Star Wars saga, take an ill-fated tumble into the Great Pit of Carkoon. But death is often just a temporary state in Star Wars.

On The Mandalorian, Boba Fett is played by New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison, who incorporates his cultural background into the role.

“I come from the Māori nation of New Zealand, the Indigenous people — we’re the Down Under Polynesians — and I wanted to bring that kind of spirit and energy, which we call wairua,” he said.

Morrison talks to The New York Times about how the haka helped him in his role as Boba Fett.

The rise and fall of the celebrity pastor of Hillsong Church

In the summer of 2017, singer Justin Bieber abruptly cancelled the remainder of a concert tour. Bieber cited fatigue; his fans fretted. But on the tabloid website TMZ, a more hopeful narrative quickly emerged. The 23-year-old singer left the tour because he “rededicated his life to Christ,” thanks to a pastor named Carl Lentz, leader of the New York City branch of the global megachurch Hillsong.

That year Hillsong and Lentz became a fixture on TMZ, always in flattering items citing unnamed sources.

But as Lentz’s profile rose, many congregants felt the focus on fame and cultural power that had helped the church grow was overwhelming its spiritual mission. Last month, it all came crashing down for Lentz in a scandal that has cast a shadow on one of the most influential megachurches in America.

The New York Times looks at how the charismatic pastor helped build a megachurch – until some temptations became too much to resist.

The children of Pornhub

Pornhub prides itself on being the cheery, winking face of naughty. The website that buys a billboard in Times Square and provides snow plows to clear Boston streets. It donates to organisations fighting for racial equality and offers steamy content free to get people through Covid-19 shutdowns.

That supposedly “wholesome Pornhub” attracts 3.5 billion visits a month, more than Netflix, Yahoo or Amazon. Pornhub rakes in money from almost 3 billion ad impressions a day. One ranking lists Pornhub as the 10th most visited website in the world.

Yet there’s another side of the company: Its site is infested with rape videos. It monetises child rapes, revenge pornography, spy cam videos of women showering, racist and misogynist content, and footage of women being asphyxiated in plastic bags. A search for “girls under18” (no space) or “14yo” leads in each case to more than 100,000 videos. Most aren’t of children being assaulted, but too many are.

The New York Times looks at why Canada allows this company to profit off videos of exploitation and assault.

• An uplifting update on the terrible world of Pornhub

Fleeing Ethiopians tell of ethnic massacres in Tigray war

Nearly 50,000 people have fled from Ethiopia to Sudan in what the United Nations has called the worst exodus of refugees the country has seen in more than two decades.

Their accounts stand at stark odds with the repeated claims from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, that no civilians are being hurt.

The Tigrayans describe being caught between indiscriminate military shelling and a campaign of killing, rape and looting by government-allied ethnic militias.

Tens of thousands have sought safety in Sudan, where they gave accounts to New York Times journalists of a devastating and complex conflict that threatens Ethiopia’s stability.

Trump's final days of rage and denial

Moody and by accounts of his advisers sometimes depressed, President Donald Trump barely shows up to work these days, ignoring the health and economic crises afflicting the nation and largely clearing his public schedule of meetings unrelated to his desperate bid to rewrite the election results. He has fixated on rewarding friends, purging the disloyal and punishing a growing list of perceived enemies that now includes Republican governors, his own attorney general and even Fox News.

The New York Times looks at how the last act of the Trump presidency has taken on the stormy elements of a drama more common to history or literature than a modern White House.

• Why do so many Americans think the election was stolen?
• Trump administration planting loyalists in Biden transition meetings
• As Trump rails against loss, his supporters become more threatening

Covid didn't kill Topshop. This problem did

The ghost of Christmas present has collided with that of Christmas past this season. Just as non-essential stores were set to reopen in the UK, clothes retailer Debenhams went down forever and Philip Green’s Arcadia Group went into administration.

Few in Britain will mourn Debenhams, or Arcadia’s Dorothy Perkins for that matter. But many lament the demise of Topshop. Once an unassailable high street leader, it is now a cautionary tale in how to squander brand equity.

But as the Financial Times reports the core reason why Topshop failed is simple: it forgot that creativity is the ultimate economic resource.

Bill Ralston: The major challenges facing Nats, Labour

The National Party has announced a full review of what went wrong at the last disastrous election. It has to ask?

What went wrong? Everything.

But in case Labour is chortling and snickering at National’s incompetence and stupidity, I should point out that its resounding victory has handed it a serious problem. To retain the huge hunk of the former National vote it attracted at the election, Labour will be forced to move even further into the political centre.

We have one major party crippled by its failure and the other potentially hamstrung by its success, writes Bill Ralston for the New Zealand Listener.

He broke out of quarantine for 8 seconds and got a $5,056 fine

One man left the house after an argument with his wife and walked 450km to cool off, breaching Italy’s national curfew.

Another man wandered outside his quarantine room in Taiwan for eight seconds and caught the attention of authorities.

Still another drove 30km for a butter chicken curry during a strict lockdown and was apprehended by Australian police.

All those actions ended up costing them thousands of dollars in penalties.

The New York Times looks at how around the world, flouting coronavirus regulations can have expensive consequences.

• Here’s why vaccinated people still need to wear a mask
• The Kremlin is offering Russians free vaccines, but will they take them?

Tom Ford on Zoom, Percy Pigs and how loungewear makes him 'vulnerable'

Like every fashion designer Tom Ford has had to adapt his business radically this year. That his brand is so big — his eponymous clothing label turns over US$2 billion a year, while Tom Ford Beauty turns over US$1 billion — has its own particular challenges. Business, he says, has been incredibly tough.

Added to this, Ford’s father died in March, aged 88.

However, despite a year of personal grief and tough business decisions, Ford is still as entertaining as ever.

Fashion’s most fabulous man talks to Laura Craik of The Times about life in 2020.

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