Start Your Day Here: Britney Spears' Court Hearing, The Impact Of Vaccine Mandates And More

Published September 29, 2021 at 7:43 AM EDT
Britney Spears wears a red dress and a diamond necklace behind a blur of lights and people at the premiere of "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood" in Hollywood, Calif., in 2019.
Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images
Britney Spears, pictured at a movie premiere in July 2019, has a new court hearing Wednesday about her conservatorship.

Good morning,

Here are some of the top stories we're following today:

Britney Spears hearing: Spears is back in court today. Both she and her father have petitioned to end his role in her conservatorship, but it's unclear how the judge will rule. Here's what you need to know.

Vaccine mandates: In surveys, many workers say they would quit if their employers mandated vaccines. But when it comes down to making that call, few seem to actually leave.

Canary Islands lava: The lava from a volcanic eruption on the Spanish islands has reached the Atlantic Ocean after flowing for more than a week, creating a new threat of toxic gases being released.

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, a look at the Proud Boys extremist group a year after former President Donald Trump acknowledged them in a presidential debate.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Dana Farrington, Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark and Chris Hopkins)

Live From New York ...

Meet The 3 New Cast Members Joining SNL

Posted September 29, 2021 at 12:16 PM EDT

Long-running sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live is saying goodbye to cast members Beck Bennett and Lauren Holt for its newest season, but welcoming three new comedians, it announced on Monday.

The show also announced that cast members Bowen Yang and Chloe Fineman are being promoted from "featured" to "repertory" players.

SNL's 47th season kicks off on Saturday with host Owen Wilson and musical guest Kacey Musgraves. Meet the new featured players:

Aristotle Athari

Athari is an actor, comedian and director from Texas. He played Gabe in Silicon Valley and has 29 directing credits listed on his IMDB page. He also appears in the sketch comedy group Goatface with Hasan Minhaj, Fahim Anwar and Asif Ali. The group spoke to GQ in 2018 about where their comedy comes from and if they feel like they need to represent their culture. Fun fact: He got married earlier this month!

James Austin Johnson

Johnson is an actor and stand-up comedian who has appeared in work such as the Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar! and AMC's Better Call Saul. He also co-hosts a podcast about food called The Macaroni Zone. He's known online for his viral impressions of former President Donald Trump, which combine Trump-style musings with unusual topics, like Scooby Doo. He told Vanity Fair he doesn't write material, instead he lets it come to him naturally.

Sarah Sherman

Also known as Sarah Squirm, Sherman is an LA-based comedian and visual artist known for her out-there clothing and comedy sensibilities. She's behind the horror-comedy group Helltrap Nightmare. Sherman told Vice that during her shows she likes, "... the magic of being transported to a different realm." She was named a Comic To Watch by Vulture in 2018. You can watch some of her stand-up here.

🎧😀 📖

Colson Whitehead's Heist Novel Kicks Off NPR's New Daily Books Podcast

Posted September 29, 2021 at 11:40 AM EDT

Trust us, the NPR staff loves books. We don't just have many overflowing bookshelves in our Washington, D.C., office and curate an enormous year-end list of our favorites — we also read them. Voraciously.

And starting today, we're also going to be talking about them daily on a new podcast called NPR's Book of the Day. Every morning we'll bring you interviews and fascinating conversations from our extensive archives on books you need to know about.

It's bite-sized at around 10 to 15 minutes long, so it's more like The House On Mango Street than The Name of the Wind.

First up, host Andrew Limbong brings us a Morning Edition interview with two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead on his newest novel out now, Harlem Shuffle.

The first thing you should know about this book is it'll make you laugh. Whitehead has written striking books in the past about serious topics, but his newest venture is firmly a comedy. It's about Harlem, the 1960s and what it takes to strive for a different life — all wrapped up is a package of midnight schemes and high-stakes heists.

Click here to listen and check back tomorrow for the next episode.


Today's Hearing On Afghanistan Gives Lawmakers Another Chance To Question Pentagon Officials

Posted September 29, 2021 at 11:24 AM EDT
Florida Republican Rep. Michael Waltz is seated wearing a suit and tie during the 2021 Concordia Annual Summit in New York on Sept. 20.
Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit
Getty Images North America
Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., pictured during a summit in New York on Sept. 20, is questioning top Pentagon officials about the disconnect between generals' recommendations and President Biden's actions in Afghanistan.

The House Armed Services Committee is questioning top military officials today about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pentagon officials appeared in a similar hearing yesterday before a Senate committee, testifying that they had recommended keeping troops in Afghanistan.

The hearing is ongoing. Watch it live here.

Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., a member of the House committee and an Army veteran, told NPR he will be looking for answers about why the administration decided not to keep a small force in Bagram Air Base despite recommendations by some generals.

“I just at a fundamental level want to get to the bottom of this massive and strategic disconnect between what the generals are recommending ... and the decisions that President Biden is making, because it has huge implications even beyond Afghanistan to China, Iran and around the world,” he told NPR’s Noel King.

Here are more highlights from the conversation (listen to it here):

On preventing terrorist groups from reemerging

“What is clear from the intelligence community and now from the generals, is that al-Qaida fully intends to attack us again. They fully intend and are reconstituting. ... We saw this happen when we completely pulled out of Iraq. It led to the rise of the ISIS caliphate, and we had to go back in to clean up that absolute mess after attacks across Western Europe and here in the United States. I don't think it's responsible to wait for that to happen again. And if we have to have a forward presence, then that's exactly what we should do and what we're doing all over the world.”

“... What we should have kept was a small presence forward that 1.) did counterterrorism, but 2.) provided that critical support to the Afghan military, the logistics, the maintenance, the intelligence and some limited air support. But now that that's all gone, the question I have for the administration is how bad are they going to let that threat reporting get on the homeland before they take action?”

On being blindsided by the collapse of the Afghan government to the Taliban

“I’m surprised they were surprised because I wasn’t, and a lot of veterans I know that served there weren’t. What we ended up doing in just a few months was pulling away ... our air support, their air support, their maintenance support, their logistics support, their intelligence support, you know, all at once. ... I think at the end of the day, we're going to find that one of the reasons we were so blind on to the fact that that was going to happen is we pulled our advisers a few years ago. We really didn't have anybody out there with those Afghan commanders. And, you know, you can count tanks and ships and planes. But understanding what's going on with their morale and their will means you have to have a presence. And I think for that reason, the Pentagon was caught blindsided.”

Must Listen
National Hispanic Heritage Month

The 'El Tiny' Concerts Coming Up Bring Bachata And Reggaeton Flair

Posted September 29, 2021 at 10:40 AM EDT

NPR's El Tiny concert series is in full swing, bringing new and old fans incredible music from all over Latin America and the U.S. in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month. This week, we've got two more acts to tell you about. 🎧

First up is bachata, which Felix Contreras of NPR's Alt.Latino describes as "music made for couples to dance to, up close and personal." It's driven by guitars and strong percussion.

Bachata originated in the Dominican Republic in the 1930s, but was censored by the government for more than 30 years. It was considered the rhythm of the lower class, and was rejected as un-Dominican.

Today, bachata has become a celebration of Dominican culture. And Prince Royce, one of the contemporary artists most known for the style, will soon release an El Tiny video concert.

Royce's style follows in the footsteps of those who helped make bachata popular. I first came to know Prince Royce through my aunt, who tried to teach me how to dance bachata to his 2010 hit “Corazón Sin Cara” and his adaptation of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.”

Since then, Royce has experimented with other sounds, too. In his double album Alter Ego, he keeps with bachata and also explores an R&B and urban sound. If you want to stick to bachata, check out “Carita de Inocente” on the Genesis side of the album and, for a more Latin-urban feel, listen to “Cúrame” (ft. Manuel Turizo) on the Enigma side.

Another “El Tiny” to look forward to comes from the reggaeton artist Sech.

Contreras told Morning Edition's A Martínez that reggaeton was born in Panama, where Sech is from.

 “J Balvin, to me, represents what reggaeton has become, while Sech represents what it was and how it remains true to its origins.”
Felix Contreras

You can listen to A and Felix's entire conversation here.

You may have heard Sech featured in other songs, like Bad Bunny’s “Ignorantes” and Nicky Jam’s “Atrévete.” While those are great songs, he also has his own hits.

His most recent albums 1 of 1 and 42 have plenty of those. Check out “Me Olvidé” and “Sal y Perrea,” which will end up on my most-listened-to playlist.

You can watch the other El Tiny concerts herewhile waiting for these to drop this week and early next.


How Much Is An Unreleased John Lennon Tape Worth? Nearly $60K, According To This Bidder

Posted September 29, 2021 at 10:03 AM EDT
A black and white photo of John Lennon, with long hair and round glasses, and Yoko Ono behind him, both looking off-camera.
Keystone Features/Getty Images
Hulton Archive
John Lennon with his wife Yoko Ono, date unknown. A recording of them speaking with student journalists in 1970 sold at an auction on Tuesday.

A tape of John Lennon speaking with a group of student journalists and singing an unpublished song fetched 370,000 kroner — or $58,240 — at an auction in Denmark on Tuesday.

The 33-minute conversation, which was recorded in January 1970, spans several of the topics that Bruun Rasmussen Auctioneer says "defined Lennon in that period": His peace campaign with Yoko Ono, The Beatles and his hair.

That cassette, along with 29 photos and a copy of the school newspaper that ran parts of the Lennon interview, were bundled together as a lot item in an auction dedicated to 20th century artwork. It sold well over its estimated price of 200,000 to 300,000 kroner ($31,481 to $47,222), the Associated Press reports.

“I thought it was extraordinary that it went above the estimate,” Alexa Bruun Rasmussen told the AP. “Unfortunately it is confidential who the buyer is, but I can reveal that it went abroad.”

Read more below about the recording and the story behind it:

The story behind the recording

Lennon and Ono traveled to Denmark in late December 1969 to address custody issues involving Ono's 5-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.

Danish journalists learned of the couple's whereabouts after their first week and organized an official press conference. Then came fate.

"Due to severe weather conditions, a small group of journalists and four 16-year-old students on the quest of interviewing John Lennon for the school magazine turned up late for the press conference," the auction house explained. "Lennon and Ono agreed to talk to them anyway."

It describes the setting of that conversation as "intimate" and the atmosphere as "remarkably relaxed." Around 10 people were in the room, and photos show Lennon, Ono and her daughter Kyoko lounging on a couch with their sock-covered feet propped up on a coffee table, a decorated Christmas tree in the background.

It was two young student journalists who documented the scene: Karsten Højen recorded the interview (reportedly on a tape recorder borrowed from the local hi-fi shop), and Jesper Jungersen took photos.

Højen told the AP that they did the interview — against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Cold War — because Lennon and Ono had "a message of peace, and that was what was important to us."

What Lennon said

The conversation mostly consists of Lennon answering journalists' questions at length, with Ono occasionally joining in, the auction house said.

Lennon reportedly talks about why the couple came to town, their micro-macro diet, promoting world peace through art and music, the length of his hair and his frustration with The Beatles' image. (The group had parted ways by this time, but did not announce the news for several months.)

"A student asks if they would consider recording Blues music to which Lennon replies that all they play is Blues," the auction house writes. "At one point someone suggests a dance around the Christmas tree whilst singing a Danish Christmas carol (Lennon partly tunes in although not knowing the lyrics). A student asks whether Lennon would play the guitar, and he plays 'Radio Peace', followed by 'Give peace a chance.'"

“Radio Peace” was written for a radio station in the Netherlands but never actually released, according to the AP.

Højen told the BBC that "Radio Peace" was supposed to be the theme song for a radio station that didn't end up opening, and said that "to our knowledge the only place where this song exists is on our tape."

He said he realized decades later that he was sitting on a valuable tape, and put it away in a bank vault.

Just how valuable exactly, the creators learned on Tuesday. Højen told the AP the auction "exceeded all expectations." He said surviving men who did the interview have not decided what to do with the money.


There Are So Many Animals On The Loose Right Now

Posted September 29, 2021 at 9:12 AM EDT

We've been hearing about a bunch of animals breaking free and/or wandering around various cities in recent days (no sightings by Team Live Blog yet, but there's still time).

Here's a — no pun intended — quick roundup:

Zebras on the lam in Maryland

Five zebras who somehow escaped from a privately-owned farm in Upper Marlboro, Md., on Aug. 31 are still missing.

"Missing" might actually be a stretch, since they've been spotted by residents across Prince George's County in the month since.

What are people doing to retrieve the evasive zebras? If efforts fail, could they roam around Maryland forever? The DCist/WAMU has this deep dive into how we got here and what might happen next.

Boars are ransacking Rome

Meanwhile, packs of wild boars are invading Rome, emerging from nearby parks and trotting down traffic-clogged streets in search of delicious garbage.

"Posting wild boar videos on social media has become something of a sport as exasperated Romans capture the scavengers marching past their stores, strollers or playgrounds," the Associated Press reports.

It cites two contributing factors: Rome's long-standing trash collection problem and the area's booming boar population.

Goats hit the town in Atlanta

Earlier this week, local media reported that a herd of goats had escaped in the Buckhead district in northern Atlanta.

Escaped from what, exactly? A gig eating weeds at a nearby grocery store, apparently.

WSB-TV reports that a group of good Samaritans helped collect the herd, who then returned to their jobs clearing out the Kroger underbrush.


More Than A Week After The Volcanic Eruption On La Palma, Authorities Warn Of Toxic Gas

Posted September 29, 2021 at 8:58 AM EDT
Orange Lava and dark ash and smoke shoot into the air above a town.
Desiree Martin/AFP via Getty Images
Mount Cumbre Vieja erupts, spewing out columns of smoke, ash and lava as seen from Los Llanos de Aridane on the Canary island of La Palma on Sept. 19.

Officials of La Palma in the Canary Islands directed residents to seal off their doors and windows to block toxic gas created when volcanic lava spills into the sea.

Residents on the western side of the Spanish island were told to use tape and wet towels to keep out the potentially dangerous gases. Experts reported that when the molten lava pours into the Atlantic Ocean, the two can combine to produce clouds of dangerous gasses. They urged residents in the area to take shelter if outside nearby.

The volcanic eruption began in the island's Cumbre Vieja national park on Sep. 19, sending molten rock across the island and quickly forcing over 6,000 people to evacuate. Lava flow has destroyed about 470 acres on the island, but no injuries have been reported so far.

The EU program Copernicus used satellite imaging to survey the destruction.

Spain's President Pedro Sánchez traveled to the island on Sep. 19 to view first-hand the eruption. He praised emergency workers and residents for their quick response and emphasized Spain's commitment to the island's recovery.

"All of Spain is with La Palma today," he said.

Sánchez returned later that week to announce the activation of a plan to begin coordinating reconstruction. Spain classified the island as an emergency zone as well, a designation that will provide the island with immediate aid for housing, necessities, maintenance and other aspects of the island infrastructure damaged.

"The power of science has allowed us to save lives on La Palma and the power of the State will allow us to rebuild the daily lives of the inhabitants of this marvelous island."
Spain's president Pedro Sánchez

La Palma is one of the Canary Islands' most volcanically active islands. The last major eruption the volcano chain saw took place in 1971.

For information in Spanish on the eruption, click here.


A Lot Of People Say They'll Quit Over Vaccine Mandates, But Research Shows Few Actually Do

Posted September 29, 2021 at 8:39 AM EDT

Surveys have shown that as many as half of unvaccinated workers say they will leave their jobs if they’re forced to get the COVID-19 shot, but in reality few of them actually quit. That's according to an article in The Conversation, a nonprofit news organization that covers academic research.

Researchers looked at companies that have vaccine mandates in place and saw that, so far, only a fraction of workers leave their jobs when it comes down to it.

“In other words, vaccine mandates are unlikely to result in a wave of resignations — but they are likely to lead to a boost in vaccination rates,” they write.

One example:

“Houston Methodist Hospital, for example, required its 25,000 workers to get a vaccine by June 7. Before the mandate, about 15% of its employees were unvaccinated. By mid-June, that percentage had dropped to 3% and hit 2% by late July. A total of 153 workers were fired or resigned, while another 285 were granted medical or religious exemptions and 332 were allowed to defer it.”

This seems to be playing out in New York, too, where fears of a mandate for health care workers have prompted officials to prepare for possible staffing shortages. But even there, the mandate seemed to force an uptick in vaccinations.

The researchers say there are a few ways to further minimize the number of people who would quit over such a policy, including: building trust with employees, making vaccination accessible and engaging trusted messengers like doctors and family.


Britney Spears' Conservatorship Goes Back To Court Today. Here's What You Need To Know

Posted September 29, 2021 at 7:59 AM EDT
A small crowd of people wearing masks and holding signs walk outside of a building with palm trees. The camera focuses on someone carrying a white flag with Britney Spears' face on it.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
#FreeBritney activists protest outside the courthouse in Los Angeles during a conservatorship hearing on April 27.

The case over Britney Spears' conservatorship goes back to court in Los Angeles today, with a hearing scheduled to start 4:30 p.m. ET/1:30 PT.

Both Spears and her father, Jamie, have petitioned the court to end his role in the 13-year conservatorship, after a whirlwind series of recent events. But there are a couple of ways the judge could rule, including denying their petitions, replacing Jamie or terminating the arrangement altogether.

NPR's Andrew Limbong tells Morning Edition that today's proceedings will be pretty focused on Jamie's involvement in his daughter's estate — he points out that another conservator, Jodi Montgomery, handles issues of Spears' health and well-being.

Jamie has previously said that he'd consider stepping down, without providing a specific timeline. Spears' new lawyer, Mathew Rosengart, has argued since his appointment in July that Jamie should be removed immediately.

Spears has said in the past that she found her father intimidating and abusive, and three recent documentaries from The New York Times and Netflix raise more questions about the degree to which she has been controlled and even exploited under the arrangement.

For example, Limbong says, Britney vs. Spears shows how hard those in charge of Spears were working her, noting their financial incentive for putting her on tours and booking her shows. And Controlling Britney Spears alleges that her guardians planted a listening device in her room to record private conversations without consent.

He also notes that while this case is very much about Spears' future, it also has broader implications: Conservatorship reform advocates are watching it closely, and politicians across the aisle are also paying attention (among other developments, a Senate subcommittee held a hearing yesterday on "toxic conservatorships").

There's a lot at stake, and a lot to digest. Follow NPR's coverage for the latest developments, and check out these recommended reads and listens while you wait:


Fumio Kishida Is Expected To Be Japan’s Next Prime Minister After Party Vote

Posted September 29, 2021 at 7:42 AM EDT
Former Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida is pictured in a suit at a desk after being elected as the new leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo on Wednesday.
Du Xiaoyi/Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Fumio Kishida, former Japanese foreign minister, has been elected as the new leader of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Fumio Kishida, a former Japanese foreign minister, has won a runoff vote of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, all but ensuring that he will become the country’s next prime minister.

Since the LDP and its junior governing partner, Komeito, hold a majority in both chambers of the Diet, when lawmakers meet on Monday, Kishida is certain to become the next premier. He would replace Yoshihide Suga, whose popularity suffered over his handling of the pandemic and insistence that the Tokyo Olympic Games be held despite a spike in coronavirus infections.

The final choice to head the LDP was between Kishida, cut from the same centrist cloth as many of his predecessors; and vaccine minister Taro Kono, known as something of a reformist. In the final round field of four candidates, including two women, Kishida bested Kono by only a single vote, but easily won a second-round between the two men.

But the road ahead for the new prime minster will not be an easy one — he faces rebuilding an economy pummeled by the coronavirus pandemic and a geopolitically ambitious China.

"We remain under a national crisis,” Kishida told party members after the vote, referring to the ongoing challenges of COVID-19.

“We must strive and continue our coronavirus response and forge an economic package in the size of dozens of trillions of yen by the end of the year," he said.

He also stressed the importance of ensuring Japan’s future by keeping “a free and open Indo-Pacific” despite Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the region.

Kishida has called for increased defense spending and to stand up to Beijing over issues such China’s crackdown on Hong Kong and tensions over Taiwan.