We’re pleased to bring you “While You Were Out”—Verily's quick takes on the happenings of this week.
Brittney Griner is released from Russian prison
After being detained for nearly ten months in Russia on drug charges, WNBA player Brittney Griner was finally released back to the United States in a prisoner swap on Thursday.
Griner was detained in Russia on February 17 after Russian authorities accused her of smuggling hashish oil in her luggage at an airport. In August, she was found guilty of trying to smuggle illegal narcotics into Russia and was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony. Griner appealed her conviction, was denied in October, and then moved to one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies in November.
After months of negotiation, the Biden administration was able to secure Griner’s release as part of a prisoner swap. On Thursday, 32-year-old Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was exchanged for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as “the Merchant of Death.” Bout had been serving a 25-year sentence for “conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans,” according to the New York Times.
The U.S. State Department accused Russia of wrongfully detaining Griner and other U.S. citizens under dubious circumstances.
Griner landed in San Antonio early Friday and is staying at the Brook Army Medical Center. Although her release is being celebrated, some have raised criticism about the imbalance of the prisoner swap, as Bout was one of the world’s most prolific arms traffickers. Griner’s ordeal has brought attention to other Americans being wrongfully detained abroad, including Marine Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since 2018. —Gabriella Patti
Fleetwood Mac singer-songwriter Christine McVie dies
Singer-songwriter Christine McVie, who penned and sang some of Fleetwood Mac’s most popular songs, died on November 30 at 79. Her family released a statement saying she passed away at a London hospital following a short illness. “We would like everyone to keep Christine in their hearts and remember the life of an incredible human being, and revered musician who was loved universally,” they said.
McVie spent close to 30 years with Fleetwood Mac, writing and performing hits such as “Everywhere,” “Don’t Stop,” and “Little Lies.” Two years after marrying Fleetwood Mac’s bassist John McVie in 1968, she joined the band herself. Fleetwood Mac released its self-titled album in 1975 and, two years later, it released Rumours, one of the best-selling albums of all time (and one that has recently become popular again on TikTok).
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and her husband divorced after eight years; she later remarried and divorced again, once commenting that both she and Stevie Nicks “were married to Fleetwood Mac.”
The band responded to the news of her death by calling her “truly one-of-a-kind, special and talented beyond measure.” Her fellow band members said in a statement: “She was the best musician anyone could have in their band and the best friend anyone could have in their life. . . . Individually and together, we cherished Christine deeply and are thankful for the amazing memories we have.” —Madeline Fry Schultz
Raphael Warnock wins Georgia runoff
Democrat Senator Raphael Warnock beat Republican Herschel Walker in the runoff for Georgia’s open U.S. Senate seat. Warnock’s win will give Democrats a 51-49 majority in the Senate, delivering them one more seat than they’ve had the past two years and breaking midterm election trends, in which the incumbent party usually loses seats.
“After a long and hard-fought campaign,” Warnock said in his victory speech, “it is now my honor to utter the four most powerful words in a democracy, ‘the people have spoken.’”
Walker’s campaign was plagued with scandal. The former football star, hand-picked by former President Donald Trump, had numerous family issues, from domestic abuse allegations to hiding the number of children he had, to allegedly paying his girlfriend to have an abortion years ago—despite recently running on a pro-life platform.
Rev. Warnock, who won with 51.4 percent of the vote, was not without his own scandals, facing allegations that he abused his ex-wife. Voters chose to send him back to the Senate, where he’s been since winning his first runoff election in 2021, unseating Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler in a special election.
This election was the most expensive of the 2022 midterms, with the Warnock campaign raising more than $150 million, some three times that of the Walker campaign. Warnock’s win will give Democrats more leverage in the Senate, as moderates Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have blocked some of their party’s sweeping legislative goals. —MFS
Balenciaga apologizes for seemingly promoting child pornography
Luxury brand Balenciaga is under fire for photos in its latest ad campaigns that appear to promote pornographic themes in products aimed at children.
First, Balenciaga released its holiday ad campaign, featuring images of young children holding teddy bears in what appears to be BDSM gear. Then, the designer released a separate campaign that featured a photo of a bag sitting atop a stack of papers—one of which was the Supreme Court opinion in United States v. Williams, a case that strengthened child pornography laws.
After online uproar about the inappropriate images, Balenciaga pulled the photos and apologized, saying that the teddy bear photos were “a wrong choice,” but claimed that the Supreme Court document was the fault of a third-party production company. Balenciaga was so committed to blaming an outside party that it sued the company for $25 million—before dropping the suit, likely because it didn’t have a real case.
Celebrities with ties to Balenciaga—such as Nicole Kidman and Bella Hadid, who were featured in its spring campaign—have been criticized for not speaking out against the brand. Kim Kardashian said she is “re-evaluating” her relationship with Balenciaga, which has a multimillion-dollar deal with the mother of four.
Other celebrities, however, have been quick to call out Balenciaga. Brittany Aldean, wife of country singer Jason Aldean, posted a photo of herself carrying Balenciaga items in clear trash bags with the caption, “It’s trash day @balenciaga.” Country singer RaeLynn wrote “protect children” on a pair of Balenciaga sneakers and promised to auction them off, donating the proceeds to an organization that fights child trafficking. —MFS
Kirstie Alley dies after brief battle with cancer
Kirstie Alley, known as one of the stars of the NBC hit television show Cheers and later on Dancing with the Stars, died at age 71. Alley’s children announced that the actress died Monday, December 5, from cancer.
"We are sad to inform you that our incredible, fierce and loving mother has passed away after a battle with cancer, only recently discovered," they said in a statement.
"She was surrounded by her closest family and fought with great strength, leaving us with a certainty of her never-ending joy of living and whatever adventures lie ahead," they added. "As iconic as she was on screen, she was an even more amazing mother and grandmother."
Alley, who earned a Golden Globe for best actress and an Emmy for outstanding lead actress for her role in Cheers, was honored by many of her former costars following her death.
While reminiscing about a particular scene they shot together, Cheers’ costar Ted Danson recalled how brilliantly Alley had acted.
"She made me laugh 30 years ago when she shot that scene, and she made me laugh today just as hard," he said. “I am so sad and so grateful for all the times she made me laugh. I send my love to her children. As they well know, their mother had a heart of gold. I will miss her.”
"Kirstie was a unique and wonderful person and friend," actress Rhea Perlman said in a statement. "Her joy of being was boundless. We became friends almost instantly when she joined the cast of Cheers. She loved kids and my kids loved her too. We had sleepovers at her house, with treasure hunts that she created." —GP
Following protests, China relaxes “zero COVID” policy
After mass protests erupted in early December challenging China’s draconian “zero COVID” policies, the country has loosened its rules.
CNN reports that “this is the first official change in Covid policy on a national level—a notable turnaround by Beijing, which for the past three years has insisted that unwavering restrictions are the only effective way to stamp out the highly transmissible virus.”
Now residents who test positive for COVID and experience mild symptoms and their close contacts may quarantine at home rather than in overcrowded hospitals. The country also relaxed its testing requirements, no longer forcing citizens to scan a QR code with their health status to enter most buildings.
China also eased its lockdown policies, which helped ignite last week’s protests and have been blamed for unnecessary deaths. The New York Times reports, “In locked down areas, the authorities are strictly prevented from blocking fire escapes and public exits, a possible concession to recent protesters. Blocked exits were widely discussed as a principal cause of excess deaths during a building fire in the western region of Xinjiang, a disaster that laid the groundwork for mass unrest in over two dozen cities last week.”
The relaxed restrictions are good news for Chinese citizens, but that doesn’t mean protesters are off the hook. Those who criticized the government face fines or extensive time in jail, a reminder that even as China’s authoritarian pandemic measures loosen, its grip on the freedom of its citizens remains. —MFS
Celine Dion reveals ‘stiff person syndrome’ diagnosis on Instagram
On Thursday, singer Celine Dion posted an emotional video on Instagram in which she shared that she has been diagnosed with a rare and incurable neurological disease called Stiff Person Syndrome.
"I’ve been dealing with problems with my health for a long time, and it’s been really difficult for me to face these challenges and to talk about everything that I’ve been going through,” Dion said. “Recently, I've been diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder called the Stiff Person Syndrome, which affects something like one in a million people."
According to the Mayo Clinic, Stiff Person Syndrome is "a rare disorder of motor function characterized by involuntary stiffness of axial muscles and superimposed painful muscle spasms, which are often induced by startle or emotional stimuli."
Dion explained that the disorder has made day-to-day life difficult and has impacted her onstage performances, and as a result, she announced that she could no longer follow through on her scheduled tours through Europe.
According to Entertainment Tonight, the singer's spring 2023 shows have been rescheduled to 2024 and eight of her summer 2023 shows have been canceled.
"All I know is singing. It’s what I’ve done all my life, and it’s what I love to do the most,” Dion said. “I miss you so much. I miss seeing all of you, being on the stage, performing for you. I always give 100 percent when I do my shows, but my condition is not allowing me to give you that right now. For me to reach you again, I have no choice but to concentrate on my health at this moment. And I have hope that I’m on the road to recovery. This is my focus, and I’m doing everything that I can to recuperate." —GP
Women sue Apple over AirTags, alleging they were used for stalking
Apple created AirTags to function like its “Find My” technology: if you lose something valuable, as long as it has an AirTag, you can use your Apple account to find it again. But this system is ripe for abuse, according to a recent lawsuit.
Two women allege that stalkers used AirTags to harass them in their class-action suit against Apple, claiming that AirTags have “revolutionized the scope, breadth, and ease of location-based stalking.”
“What separates the AirTag from any competitor product is its unparalleled accuracy, ease of use (it fits seamlessly into Apple's existing suite of products), and affordability,” the lawsuit, filed Monday in the U.S. Northern District Court of California, said. “With a price point of just $29, it has become the weapon of choice of stalkers and abusers.”
One woman, “Jane Doe,” says her ex-husband placed an AirTag in her child’s backpack. She found and tried to disable it, but she later discovered another one.
The other woman, Lauren Hughes, says her ex-boyfriend of three months hid an AirTag on her car at a time when he was harassing her and sending her threatening voicemails.
Their lawsuit complains that while Apple has billed AirTags as “stalker proof,” the company is not doing enough to keep its product from being used illicitly.
“Apple does send users an alert if an unfamiliar AirTag is located near them,” NPR reports. “But the notification is not immediate and is only available on devices with iOS software version 14.5 or later, which excludes some older Apple devices. The consequences could be fatal, the complaint alleges.” —MFS
Kanye brings white nationalist to dine with Trump, says ‘good things’ about Hitler
Kanye West has continued to get heat since making blatantly antisemitic comments. Following his slew of odious remarks about Jewish people, which led so many brands to cut ties with him that he lost his status as a billionaire, the rapper has just kept going.
The week of Thanksgiving, West (who now goes by Ye) brought white nationalist Nick Fuentes to dine with former President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago. When the news got out, Trump claimed that he didn’t know of Fuentes—who, like West, has a history of antisemitism. In response to this incident, Trump’s security team has announced that it will make significant changes to its security and vetting process to avoid further surprise guests from meeting with the former president.
As if West entertaining a white nationalist was not enough, West appeared on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones's Infowars show on Thursday, and for once, Jones didn't appear as the craziest person in the room. When Jones threw West the softball, “You’re not Hitler. You’re not a Nazi. You don’t deserve to be called that and demonized,” West responded, “I see good things about Hitler.”
“I like Hitler,” he went on, “We’ve got to stop dissing the Nazis all the time.” Even Jones, who recently was ordered to pay $1 billion to the families of the Sandy Hook victims for calling the shooting a hoax, was taken aback.
West, who was recently unbanned from Twitter by CEO Elon Musk, has had his account suspended once again. After West posted an image of a swastika and the star of David merged, Musk tweeted that “he again violated our rule against incitement to violence.”
Republicans have been criticized for embracing West even as he has gone off the rails. After his comments on December 1, House Judiciary Republicans deleted an early October tweet reading, “Kanye. Elon. Trump.” The Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement, “Conservatives who have mistakenly indulged Kanye West must make it clear that he is a pariah. Enough is enough.” —MFS
Good News of the Week
A small act of kindness performed over a decade ago inspired a family of five to continue paying it forward every holiday season. In 2010, the Butts family from New Hampshire was struggling to get by financially.
“We were depending on our church for help with Christmas presents, and we got food baskets from them,” Krista Butts, mother of three boys, told USA TODAY.
Krista said that she had saved up just enough money to get her boys' haircuts, and she was overcome with emotion when she found out that the boys’ haircuts had been paid for in advance.
Instead of keeping the money she had saved, Krista and her children used to perform their own acts of kindness. Krista took her three boys to Walmart, bought three $10 gift cards, and instructed her children to hand them out to people they thought could use them. The Butts continued the tradition; the family first made it seven days of kindness, but it soon became a month-long Christmas Kindness Project.
“It can be as simple as helping someone, holding a door, paying for a coffee,” Krista said.
“We usually try to pay for at least one family's meal, we reward public servants with food and treats, drop off decorated wreaths, Christmas decorations or meals to neighbors or strangers," she added.
Krista said that the family has continued to do it even through times of their own suffering.
“If we hadn't done it, we would have really dwelled on our own situation, and doing something nice for (others) was exactly what we needed to do for ourselves.” —GP
Watch of the Week
Watch a mama chimpanzee’s emotional reaction to being reunited with her newborn baby chimp at Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas two days after giving birth via C-section.