Before We Give 2017 The Middle Finger, Part 2 This week, Gene Demby talks with ESPN's Jemele Hill. The SportsCenter anchor discusses becoming a lightning rod in the culture wars and the flimsy partition between politics and sports. And we'll look ahead to a year of looking back: the 50th anniversaries of the tumultuous events of 1968.
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Before We Give 2017 The Middle Finger, Part 2

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Before We Give 2017 The Middle Finger, Part 2

Before We Give 2017 The Middle Finger, Part 2

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

What's good, y'all? You're listening to the CODE SWITCH podcast. I'm Gene Demby.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Last week, we looked back at 2017 - the #MeToo moment, the unrest in Charlottesville, some of the biggest wins in pop culture and some of the people who passed away.

DEMBY: And on this ep, we're going to look ahead by looking back because next year will mark the 50th anniversaries of some of the most pivotal moments in modern American history.

MERAJI: But first, let's talk about sports, Gene.

DEMBY: Yeah. Let's talk about some sports. We don't talk about sports nearly enough.

MERAJI: I know you think that (laughter).

DEMBY: I absolutely do. More sports on CODE SWITCH in 2018.

MERAJI: This past year, even if you weren't a sports fan, you couldn't escape sports. You were probably reading and hearing about it all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NBA COUNTDOWN")

JALEN ROSE: What we're going to see in professional sports - NBA and/or NFL - you mark my words, there will be players that decline the opportunity to visit the White House under his presidency.

DEMBY: That was Jalen Rose, the former NBA player-turned-ESPN commentator. It was in the days after the election in 2016. And that prediction of his came true. The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in January. The Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship in June, and some players from both of those teams said that they would skip the traditional White House photo opportunity because they thought President Trump was too divisive.

MERAJI: And as the NFL season started in the fall, the trickle of protests by NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to draw attention to racial oppression and police violence - well, that trickle became a flood after, inevitably, President Trump weighed in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, get that son of a bitch off the field right now? Out - he's fired.

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: (Yelling) He's fired.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: President Trump's criticism of players who protest during the national anthem sparked a mass increase in such activism Sunday with about 200 NFL players sitting or kneeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: More than a dozen Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars took a knee while "The Star-Spangled Banner" rang out. Then outside Boston, around 20 Patriots knelt while Trump friend Tom Brady locked arms with a teammate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: For almost two weeks, black players in the National Football League have been under an intense spotlight during the national anthem, some standing, some kneeling. The silent protests or demonstrations of solidarity...

DEMBY: Those demonstrations were, of course, kicked off by one Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. As the NFL season began this fall, Kaepernick found himself out of a job, and that's who became a political flashpoint. Were teams not signing Kaepernick because he wasn't good enough to be an NFL quarterback, or were team owners blackballing him because they didn't want to deal with the controversy?

MERAJI: Now, lots of NFL fans said they would boycott as long as players continued to take the knee, but others said they would boycott for as long as Kaepernick didn't have a job. While this was going on, Kaepernick, for his part, wasn't granting interviews. Trust us, we checked.

DEMBY: We did.

MERAJI: Anyway, in this polarized political moment, ESPN, the biggest player in the sports media world, was suddenly being scrutinized very differently. Was the network paying too much attention to these protests? Should ESPN just stick to sports, like many sports fans wanted?

DEMBY: Enter Jemele Hill. In February, she took over as the host of "SportsCenter," which is a big deal. She was a young black woman who was at the helm of ESPN's flagship show. And then after Charlottesville, Jemele Hill took to Twitter, and she called the president of the United States a white supremacist.

MERAJI: And that went over about as well as you might expect.

DEMBY: Yup.

MERAJI: Let's go to the White House briefing room.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID NAKAMURA: Yeah, I just wanted to read a comment from a influential African-American sportscaster from ESPN yesterday - said Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy, period. He's unqualified, unfit to be president. Why do you think - do you have a reaction to that? And is the president aware of that comment? And why do you...

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I'm not sure if he's aware of it. I think that's one of the more outrageous comments that anyone could make and certainly something that I think is a fireable offense by ESPN.

MERAJI: That's White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders calling for Jemele Hill to be fired. A month after that, Jerry Jones the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, said he was considering benching any player on his team who did not stand for the national anthem. And Jemele Hill weighed in again on Twitter. Here's CNN's Brooke Baldwin.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CNN NEWSROOM")

BROOKE BALDWIN: All right, here is the breaking news in at CNN here. ESPN has just released a statement saying it has just suspended the popular host Jemele Hill after a string of tweets about the Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. And these tweets included - here you go. Jerry Jones also has created a problem for his players - specifically, the black ones. If they don't kneel, some will see them as sellouts.

DEMBY: Hill suggested, or seemed to suggest, that fans who disagreed with Jerry Jones should maybe not patronize people who advertise with the Dallas Cowboys.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CNN NEWSROOM")

BALDWIN: She later clarified some of her comments, tweeting this. Just so we're clear, I'm not advocating an NFL boycott, but an unfair burden has been put on players in Dallas and Miami with anthem directives.

MERAJI: There's a lot going on there, Gene.

DEMBY: Yeah, it was a crazy, crazy year.

MERAJI: Which is why you sat down and talked with Jemele Hill to try and make sense of what it was like living through this year from the inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: After the break, Jemele Hill on getting called out by the White House and the flimsy partition between racial politics and sports.

MERAJI: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

MERAJI: All right, let's get into it with Jemele Hill.

DEMBY: Jemele, welcome to CODE SWITCH.

JEMELE HILL: Thanks. I appreciate you guys having me on.

DEMBY: We wanted to talk to you about, you know, the biggest stories in race and sports this year. But I guess we kind of got to start with you. You've had a very interesting year.

HILL: To say the least.

DEMBY: Back in February, you took over "SportsCenter," which is ESPN's flagship show. And it's a show that sort of defined ESPN's house voice - like, a reverent, and knowledgeable and a little bit, like, sarcastic and ironic. But that voice was defined by white dudes - Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann and Craig Kilborn. You know, there were a couple of people who were not white dudes - Linda Cohn, Stuart Scott, most notably. I've been curious what it's been like trying to navigate having your own voice - right? - and your own style inside of this institutionally very white and very male space.

HILL: Well, it's been a interesting switch for me because of the type of shows that I was commonly associated with before I took over "SportsCenter." And it's either the only example or one of the few examples where they've taken somebody who's been strictly on the opinion side of them and put them in a space where it is known for just sort of delivering the information, and the news, and highlights and just all the traditional elements that we've associated with "SportsCenter." It's been a interesting, you know, transition to see if we can become sort of this hybrid where, you know, we certainly give you "SportsCenter." You get the news, you get the stories of the day, but it's, you know, kind of tinged with opinion throughout, both either coming from Mike or from our guest, an analyst.

DEMBY: Yeah, you say Mike. You mean Michael Smith, your co-host. So let's talk about the last few months. Back in September, one of your tweets became national news. You wrote, quote, "Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists." Do you feel that that is justified?

HILL: Well, I mean, I think time and place are everything. And I don't think that that's necessarily an opinion to be shared on Twitter. I mean, the odd thing about the reaction, as naive as this may sound - kind of surprised me just because I wasn't the first person to say it.

DEMBY: Right.

HILL: Yeah, I think it was because of who I am, and for that matter, the company that I represent, and within that layer, being a "SportsCenter" anchor. People have to realize the time, that coming off of Charlottesville, obviously, a lot of people in this country - not just me - were, like, very emotional to witness a bunch of Nazi sympathizers and, you know, self-branded white supremacists taking over an American city. You know, that's just something I don't think I ever would have imagined that I would have seen in my lifetime, not something my mother grew up with, you know, as a child of the '60s and living in Detroit and witnessing racial strife and being 11 years old when the '67 riots happened in Detroit.

And while that's not to say that I didn't know racism existed before Charlottesville - but I think it was just jarring to see it play out so physically. And so obviously, I was emotional from that, much like a lot of people. And unfortunately, the administration's response was even more jarring for me. And, you know, getting in that back-and-forth - and there's a reason why they tell you, you know, when you're on Twitter and the emotions are running high, like, that's probably not the time to be on Twitter. So it was between that and just some other troubling incidents that I don't necessarily need to regurgitate because I think they're - I mean, you hit Google, you know what they are. And I just called it what it is.

DEMBY: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, weighed in on that tweet, saying that you should be fired. Where were you when you heard that?

HILL: I was actually at work. I was here. We were putting the show together. And I actually have a couple friends that cover politics, and one of them was in the room when that was said. She was at the briefing, and she texted me and was like, you will not believe what just happened, and told me. I was like, what?

DEMBY: Wow.

HILL: And so I go to Twitter, and it's everywhere. And I was like - my first reaction is - still is my reaction. I thought it was kind of cool. I mean, like, I know that's going to sound bizarre to people that - look, when I came up in journalism, and having had the pleasure to be around a lot of great journalists and people I respect - and I've seen them take down public officials, and I've seen some of my friends who have had public officials call for them to be fired because they were upset about their reporting. For journalists, it's kind of a badge of honor.

You know what I'm saying? Like, I'm sure April Ryan, who covers the White House - like, the stories she's going to be able to tell once this is over are going to be incredible. I didn't take offense to it. Now, from a larger standpoint, I think there is something journalistically to be addressed about a public official on that platform in particular calling out a private citizen, sure. There is certainly a lot of discussion that needs to take place on that end. But, like, for me personally, I was like, that was kind of neat.

(LAUGHTER)

HILL: I wish we could've replayed it on our show (laughter).

DEMBY: One of the things that's been really fascinating to watch over the last year is this suggestion that there should be hard partition between sports and politics. And so, like, this year, obviously, has been consumed by a lot of stories that are sports and politics at the same time. I guess I'm curious as to how you think ESPN can go about navigating these spaces that are - have always been political but are now, like, very explicitly so.

HILL: The only thing different about it now is, like, it's more divisive just in our country in general. And so that's the thing that makes it hard because even if you just do, you know, flat reporting about, say, Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, you're going to get wildly emotional reactions.

DEMBY: Right.

HILL: And we're just reporting the news. We're not even weighing in. We're just telling you it happened or telling you why he's doing it, and - which is our journalistic responsibility to do - is to explain it in context. And so people still get mad, and it's like, all right, but it's just the news. It's an event. It's the biggest story in sports of the year. There's no question about it. Like, I mean, you can even argue the last two years, but the biggest story of the year is that. And then we would be journalistically irresponsible if we did not discuss it.

So I think what we have to do and what I often do - I just remind them that politics has been everywhere in sports for so long that you've just come to accept it and didn't even realize it. You know, any time a team moves, any time a team gets a stadium built - those are built largely with taxpayer dollars. It has to be voted on, which makes it political. And even the association with the NFL - I'll just use them in particular - and the military - that's political. Flyovers are political. The anthem is political. So it's always been there. So it's funny how people pick and choose when they're OK with politics being in sports, depending on how they feel about said politics. So they're reacting to Colin Kaepernick the way that they are because they don't believe that the cause that he's chosen to get behind - they don't find any justification for it.

DEMBY: So I've been thinking about this a lot. And it seems like the NFL is in the really unique spot among the professional sports. So you have baseball, which has a fan base that is overwhelmingly white and a little bit older - I think the median age is in the 50s. But its players are mostly white, too. You've got the NBA, on the other hand, which is a league where most of the players are black. More than half of the NBA's TV audience is people of color. Right? Nearly half of the NBA's fan base is under the age of 35. So their politics that play out in those sports are a little bit different because they're a little bit more in sync. Right?

But then you have the NFL, which is, of course, the most popular sport in the country. There was a study that came out earlier this year that said that the NFL's fans tend to skew right of center, so they're Republican voters. So you have this league full of black players, and you have this fan base full of white people who are a little bit older and a little bit more conservative kind of in tension.

But that tension has always been - it doesn't often get spoken out loud. It seems like watching the protests this fall and the reactions to those protests that a lot of that reaction was probably overdue. And I'm just curious how you think these protests will resolve themselves.

HILL: I don't think they will. I don't know if that toothpaste is going back in the tube. And while it's interesting that you noted and pointed that out - that, like, automatic tension just given who the base of fans are versus who the players are versus the structure of the NFL, from who is ownership and even the way that they're paid, the fact that the contracts are not...

DEMBY: Are not guaranteed.

HILL: Are not guaranteed. So you have a lot of elements there.

DEMBY: Right.

HILL: A undrafted rookie can become a star. And you're hired to be fired. You're there to be replaced. And so now that the players have exposed that they're not willing to do that, that they're not willing to just go along with the status quo and that they want a voice and that they want to use their platform for something bigger, then it becomes a problem.

And throughout the history of sports - and when it comes to sports and race, we've seen this routinely - is that whenever black athletes ever jump outside the box of going beyond just being the entertainment of society, it's met with tremendous blowback - tremendous. You know, it's all good when, you know, you're catching touchdown passes or, you know, when you're going 30 points a game. But the moment you start talking about some issues of substance or start demanding that your audience do something, then it becomes a different situation.

And so I think for the NFL, like, these protests have kind of exposed not only why that dynamic is so problematic - now the owners and the fans know that whatever values they imagined were a part of these players or however they're imagined to be, they're just like - oh, no - they're critically thinking about things. Like, we don't want that. We just want them to play. We just want them to score, and we just want them to entertain us.

And that's why I think Colin Kaepernick doesn't have a job. See, it's one thing - I don't say this to be casual about the issue because it's very serious - but had Colin Kaepernick put his hands on a woman, he'd be back in the league because that tale of redemption can be sold. You can't do that with Colin Kaepernick because we're talking about thought. We're talking about how he is as a person and as a man.

He's not going to all of a sudden tomorrow say - you know what? - come to think of it, Philando Castile got what he deserved. That's not going to happen. So they can't "redeem," quote, unquote, Colin Kaepernick. They can't sell that story. And so the owners know that, so he's never going to be palatable for fans - ever.

DEMBY: You said that there's no way to put the toothpaste back in the tube. These protests - they may change. They may, like, evolve in form and shape. But, like, since these things are out now, what happens in the next year when it comes to NFL protests? Do you think we'll hear more from other leagues? I mean, obviously, there's, like, less momentum in hockey and baseball for somewhat obvious reasons. But like, you know, NBA players have been pretty outspoken. How do you think this stuff will play out in 2018?

HILL: I think that will continue. I mean, I think Colin Kaepernick - he - his protest really awakened a lot of guys across, you know, all leagues and spectrums. It's like, I think he did. And so I think people feel obligated and compelled to continue to speak about some of the issues that are important to him. I think it's going to always be a story about who does and doesn't go to the White House. That's going to continue.

DEMBY: Right.

HILL: So that's why I said it's like, I don't know if it's going back. You know, I think the president will probably continue to attack certain sports. So I still see, in 2018, activism by players is going to be very, very strong. I think we will start to hear more from Colin Kaepernick once the NFL season has concluded.

DEMBY: 'Cause he's been quiet for, like, a year or so.

HILL: Yeah. I think he's letting his silence speak for itself, in part because I think there will be more people, one, who will want to honor him for sure. (Laughter) So he will continue, I think, to be a topic of conversation. And as we see more quarterback shuffling, people of course will, you know, continue to keep his name in the news that way. But I think we'll hear from Colin in 2018. I think that'll be big and that'll keep the conversation going.

DEMBY: Jemele Hill is the co-host of ESPN's "SportsCenter." She joins us from Bristol, Conn.

Jemele, thank you so, so much for coming through. I appreciate you.

HILL: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: All right, so we promised you a look ahead. And we have Karen Grigsby Bates in studio to help us with that.

Hey, Karen.

DEMBY: Hey, KGB.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Hey, y'all.

The coming year has a lot of important 50th-anniversary milestones. I mean a lot. And I thought we could talk about a few of them here to get an idea about why people will be making a big deal of these 50-year anniversaries.

DEMBY: So 1968, it's probably safe to say that a lot of things happened that year.

BATES: That is an epic understatement, Gene. Some historians have said 1968 was the single-most significant year in modern American history. Yeah. I'll mention a few, the biggest events.

There were two huge assassinations, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April. I remember when then-New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy delivered the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT KENNEDY: I have some very sad news. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tenn.

(SCREAMING)

BATES: King's death led to rioting in many American cities, including Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New York, Detroit and maybe most famously Washington, D.C - a lot of that burned down. Then Senator Robert F. Kennedy was killed in early June of the same year. And it was so close together. It was just too much. It was like a one-two punch for many Americans. Then a few months later, in August, the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. Bobby Kennedy had been the assumed forerunner, but with his death, Hubert Humphrey - Lyndon Johnson's vice president - finally got the nod. Humphrey was tainted by the Vietnam War, which was going badly and which was really Lyndon Johnson's war. But since he was Johnson's second-in-command, he got that too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.

DEMBY: And the war was why Lyndon Johnson decided not to run in 1968 for re-election.

BATES: Exactly. And that war was killing thousands of military personnel, many of them black and brown, because people of color were drafted in inordinate numbers for that war. Here's a cut of tape gathered by journalist Wallace Terry of a black soldier in Vietnam.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: Times are changing. The black man is not the only one who feels that this war shouldn't be going on. We don't have any business here.

BATES: That sentiment fueled a lot of the pushback from the anti-war segment of the party. And it was crazy. It was crazy everywhere. It was crazy inside the convention. Dan Rather, a floor reporter back then, got punched by security on camera. I saw that happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN RATHER: I'm sorry to be out of breath, but somebody belted me in the stomach during that.

BATES: And as crazy as it was inside, it was even crazier outside because Chicago's police - apparently with the approval of then-Mayor Richard J. Daley - descended on thousands of initially peaceful anti-war demonstrators and proceeded to brutalize them. And the demonstrators chanted something that probably sounds familiar to demonstrators today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) The whole world is watching.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The crowd chanted the whole world is watching, convinced at the sight of young people being beaten by police would stir a public outcry.

MERAJI: And the whole world is watching is something that activists have been saying ever since. I mean, 50 years later, that's a chant that is still being used.

BATES: Yeah, absolutely.

DEMBY: So did anything happy happen in 1968?

BATES: You would think it's all gloom and doom, but actually, there was this little pop of light. Let's call it an unexpected instance of racial harmony. 1968 was the year television showed the first interracial kiss.

DEMBY: Oh, I know this one.

BATES: It was on "Star Trek," which was wildly popular back then. And in this scene, Captain Kirk - played by William Shatner, who you probably recognize as the Priceline spokesperson - and Lieutenant Uhura - played by a very elegant woman named Nichelle Nichols - are forced to kiss each other when some aliens with mind-control powers made them do it for their amusement. It's kind of a party trick.

MERAJI: Oh, they're forced to get forced to do it?

DEMBY: They're forced to do it, yes. They're trying to resist, but they see the inevitable is going to happen. And Uhura tells Kirk she's scared. And he tells her, think of something else - so she does.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

NICHELLE NICHOLS: (As Nyota Uhura) I'm thinking of all the times on the Enterprise when I was scared to death and I would hear your voice from all parts of the ship.

MERAJI: That sounds kind of sexy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

NICHOLS: (As Nyota Uhura) But I'm not afraid.

BATES: And they finally kiss, and the world didn't stop revolving.

DEMBY: So wait. Wait. Was the whole mind-control thing a way for them to get around the censors? Like, if they wanted to do it of their own volition, they're like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, the world might not be ready for two people of a different race kissing on TV because they want to kiss?

BATES: I don't know. But, you know, they went boldly where no couple who looked like them had gone before - on TV, anyway. An interesting side note - NBC had always planned to have two versions of this, the version that ended up on air where there was a real kiss and a version where they just sort of embraced sort of chastely. And that was going to be spliced in and offered to NBC affiliates throughout the South so no sensibilities got, you know, offended. But it never happened because Bill Shatner, by some accounts, kept messing up the other takes. And they were running out of time, and they didn't want to pay everybody superduper (ph) overtime to do the alternate version. So in the end, the kiss was shown everywhere, even in the South.

MERAJI: And that was the domino that fell that made all the people of different races fall in love with each other.

BATES: That was it.

MERAJI: The end.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY IT LOUD: I'M BLACK AND I'M PROUD")

JAMES BROWN: (Singing) With your bad self, say it loud. I'm black and I'm proud.

MERAJI: So we have music from 1968 that's giving us life.

BATES: Indeed we do. This one's pretty self-explanatory. Let's just say that one of James Brown's signatures was his conk - big pompadour.

MERAJI: I learned about what a conk was from the autobiography of Malcolm X.

BATES: Malcolm X, yes.

MERAJI: Yes.

BATES: OK. Yeah. So, you know, James Brown had one too. He was of the time. You know, a lot of the doo wop guys and a lot of R&B heroes all had, you know, chemically-straightened hair, huge puffs of it. And when this song came out, and it was recorded right here in LA on August 7, 1968, at Vox studios, the Godfather of Soul had converted to an Afro. So black pride was coming of age.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY IT LOUD: I'M BLACK AND I'M PROUD")

BROWN: (Singing) Say it loud. I'm black and I'm proud.

DEMBY: That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed and give us a review on iTunes because that's how people find the show.

MERAJI: Maria Paz Gutierrez and Walter Ray Watson produced this episode. It was edited by Steve Drummond. We had original music by Ramtin Arablouei.

DEMBY: Shoutout to the rest of the Code Switch fam - Karen Grigsby Bates, who you just heard, Adrian Florido, Leah Donella, Sami Yenigun and Kat Chow. Our intern is Nana Boateng. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Let's hope this year is better than last year. Peace.

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