THURSDAY’S MINI-REPORT…. Today’s edition of quick hits:

* As if this wasn’t a big enough news day already, Goldman settles: “Goldman Sachs has agreed to pay $550 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the largest penalty ever paid by a Wall Street firm, to settle charges of securities fraud linked to mortgage investments. Under the terms of the deal, Goldman will pay $300 million in fines to the Treasury Department, with the rest serving as restitution to investors in the mortgage-linked security. Goldman will not admit wrongdoing, though it will admit that its marketing materials for the investment ‘contained incomplete information.’”

* Still high, but much better: “Today, the Labor Department announced that weekly initial jobless claims had fallen to a nearly two-year low — declining 29,000 to 429,000.” The totals far exceeded expectations.

* I guess Petraeus proved to be persuasive: “In a welcome step forward for the Obama administration’s beleaguered war strategy, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has approved a U.S.-backed plan to create local defense forces across the country in an attempt to build grass-roots opposition to the Taliban, U.S. and Afghan officials said Wednesday.”

* On a related note, Fred Kaplan argues that Petraeus really has begun making improvements, “but they won’t matter if Karzai doesn’t reform.”

* House Ethics committee takes a closer look at eight House members “who solicited and took large contributions from financial institutions even as they were debating the landmark regulatory bill, according to lawyers involved in the inquiry.” Five of the eight are Republicans, three are Democrats.

* For the first time, First Lady Michelle Obama has issued a formal statement on pending legislation. In this case, she’s praised the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act, which was approved by the House Education and Labor Committee today.

* Port au Prince, six months later.

* An anti-Muslim ad from the well-funded, hysterical National Republican Trust PAC has been rejected by CBS and NBC.

* How irresponsible are Republican demands for an extension of Bush’s tax cuts? Even Alan Greenspan thinks the cuts should expire as scheduled.

* You may have heard the rumor out of Minnesota that felons voting illegally helped propel Sen. Al Franken (D) to victory. Don’t believe it.

* Speaking of manufactured Fox News garbage, Jon Chait takes a look at the ridiculous New Black Panther Party “story” and “the most widespread and mainstream right-wing effort to exploit racial fears against Obama.”

* College attendance rates are higher than ever. Whether the students graduate is another matter.

* I often wonder whether House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) believes his own nonsense. I’d feel better about him if I knew Pence was just deliberately trying to deceive the public.

* And in response to the NAACP condemning Tea Partiers’ racism, Tea Party Express chairman Mark Williams is lashing out in jaw-dropping ways. Any chance Williams is a liberal plant, intended to make right-wing zealots look ridiculous?

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.