(This has spoilers. Obviously. If you are nitpicky about that kind of thing, probably best not to read this just yet.)
MAJOR CONFESSION HERE: I like Serial. I think that it is, without question, one of the best podcasts I’ve listened to in recent memory.
I am not alone in that, and I think there’s two big reasons why that is: drama by the ton and great storytelling. Additionally, it has something for everybody: people who enjoy the hardcore sleuthing can find communities of people dedicated to sifting through the evidence and drawing conclusions on their own; casual listeners can let Sarah Koenig, the journalist relaying the story, do all the work and listen in while she ruminates, agonizes, and waffles over every piece of evidence that she and her team uncovers. Koenig is a key part of the story not simply because we are seeing all of this through her eyes, but because she does not allow herself to be edited into some perfect figure who is “just about the facts, ma’am”. There are moments where her naïveté gets completely blown up, and she just sits back and says, “damn, I really screwed up on that one”.
It is a complete story and podcast, even if it is not perfect. But what does perfection look like when you are revisiting a fifteen-year old murder where the individuals who are involved are still alive and actively dealing with those memories…and their consequences? How do you tell a perfect story about a murder when the victim’s family refuses to be a part of the production? And most importantly, how do you tell a perfect story about a judicial process that was far from that standard? The defense did not interview key alibis in addition to engaging in some of the most unhelpful cross-examination I have ever heard, and the prosecution and police force put together a case that relied on barely tenuous evidence and racial priming against this seventeen-year old kid from an immigrant community. Where can you make a perfect story out of all that?
And yet, Serial still manages to tell a very compelling story about teenagers who were caught up (justly or unjustly, depending on your view of Adnan Syed) in a horrific murder, in a city that is no stranger to that particular crime, be it real or fiction. But in a world where instant reaction to incomplete events and social media-driven journalism has become the rule rather than the exception, the backlash was bound to come eventually.
I just thought that it would be more….substantive.
Serial and white privilege
Jay Caspian Kang wrote on this for The Awl. The tagline for the post is “cringing through the mystery”, which definitely described the physical reaction I had to Kang’s piece. The piece has, well, many flaws:
- His reliance on Rabia Chaudry’s words to make the point that Serial is culturally inept is, at best, misleading. If you do not believe me, then here’s Chaudry describing her reaction to the Awl piece: “Honestly, that piece in The Awl…If I had known that was the angle I would not have interviewed with him. That’s not what I meant when I spoke with him. We all come with certain privilege, that doesn’t make you a manipulative or malicious person. To me, that’s not a condemnation of Sarah. It just means she’s a white woman. She put more time and energy and nights away from her family into this case than other Muslim Pakistanis who just walked away.” I mean, the deliberate twisting of someone’s words to give authority to your highly tendentious point is, well, quite unethical.
- He accuses Koenig of filling in the blanks, but does it himself. Kang sees white privilege in Koenig’s ascription of the social “parameters” that Syed speaks of when talking about the difficulties of intercultural dating to the fact that their parents are first-generation immigrants. But if you have listened to the podcast as closely as Kang claims, then you would know that no less than Rabia Chaudry’s brother discussed being in an immigrant family and its implications for one’s social life in the first episode. Yet, in the very next paragraph, the author reads whiteness into Koenig’s discussion of Lee’s diary being “such a teenage girl’s diary”. Of course, she could have just as much been talking about the fact that, given her age, it has been a really long time since she last saw a teenager’s diary. Or the fact that the diary is that of a murder victim and that, rather than betraying any deep, dark secrets about the events leading up to her murder, it was the diary of a regular seventeen-year old coming of age in Baltimore.
- He accuses Koenig of erasure because Hae-Min Lee’s family is not involved, but…the ninth episode of Serial stated that, while the producers of the show made every effort to contact the Lee family, that they never returned their calls. It is, in fact, unclear if the Lee family even resides in the United States.
- Kang accuses Koenig of “cultural tourism” with very little to back it up. If Serial is cultural tourism, then so is The Wire. The Corner. Homicide: Life On The Street. Hill Street Blues. Hoop Dreams. The Interrupters. Or any number of movies, podcasts, and documentaries where the production crew is white and the setting is a community of color. Additionally, Kang’s claims that culture and religion are engaged with in a perfunctory manner are not backed up by the actual content of the podcast: identity and culture are two of the overarching themes of the entire podcast. But then, it does seem that Kang wants to have it both ways, does he not? If Koenig does not mention race and culture, then she is whitewashing the narrative. If she does, then she is being a cultural tourist. Which is it?
Taken as an isolated blog post, one could forgive the shoddy writing, bewildering logic, and ridiculous premise of this post as the author having an off day. We all have them. But it seems that this is a line of inquiry just was not going away just yet.
Serial and the myth of the “model minority”
This piece by Julia Carrie Wong at Buzzfeed might be even worse, hard as that is to manage. Picking up on Kang’s flawed analysis, Wong takes it one step further: she claims that not only are the Serial producers “attempt[ing] to slot Adnan Syed into a classic racialized trope”, but they are also using Jay as a Black foil for the Asian “model minority” myth.
It is hard to understand this, of course, if you have listened to the podcast. Because by now you have heard that:
- Adnan was a player and smoked a good amount of weed. Oh yeah, and he hid his whereabouts from his parents often. Nothing wrong with any of this, of course, but it paints a picture that is far from the model trope that Wong asserts Koenig is putting him into.
- Hae also did not tell her parents that she was dating Adnan, and may have deliberated between dating one of two people without either one knowing about it. Again, normal teenage stuff, but hardly the mark of a flawless teenager.
And then there is Jay. When asked by the police why Adnan would seek his assistance in allegedly murdering Hae-Min Lee, Jay said “because I’m seen as the criminal element of Woodlawn [the high school that most of the people in the story attended]”. He dealt weed, his friendship circles did not necessarily overlap with those of Adnan or any of the other teenagers central to the story, and it was discussed how he would lie about stuff to make himself seem tougher than he actually was. And if none of that is enough, then there’s the story about Jay getting into a fight with one of his friends because the friend stated that he had never been stabbed before, and Jay was attempting to stab him so that he would “know what it is like”. That is before, of course, we get to the matter of Jay flipping his story repeatedly to fit whatever the cops and the District Attorney wanted to hear from their star witness.
And then there’s this passage:
“Koenig even suggests that the state and Adnan’s jury were more likely to believe Jay’s testimony because of his race: ‘Jay seems like the underdog. It’s Baltimore. Half the jury is black, seven out of twelve actually. Jay probably comes off as this nice young man, and this white lady is yelling at him.’ The idea that Jay or any black person would be treated as more trustworthy by this country’s criminal justice system by virtue of his blackness is just an astoundingly ignorant suggestion for anyone to make. Whether or not black jury members were predisposed to believe him, Jay had already run the gauntlet of the police and prosecutors in a system designed to criminalize him. The fact that he made it through without being incarcerated is remarkable. That Serial has stepped in to criminalize him in the state’s stead is infuriating.”
Huh? I do not expect that every person of color has had an intimate relationship with law enforcement, but I have. I can tell you just as well as anyone that someone who turns state’s witness and actually assists in putting someone away can get remarkable amounts of leniency from the justice system. And Koenig did not suggest that the state trusted Jay; in fact, it is likely that they did not considering all the times that the detectives asked him point blank whether he was lying. She suggested that, given the make-up of the jury pool and the demographics of the city around them, Jay was a great choice for a star witness, especially given the race of the cross-examining defense attorney who was “yelling at him”. To deny that those factors matter in the jury deliberations is to, well, ignore a lot of America’s past…and present.
Other critiques have focused on the lack of discussion about the possible law enforcement misconduct in the case and the voyeurism of the podcast, but they also feel off to me as well. Of course it is voyeuristic; it is a documentary! What documentary is not voyeuristic in some shape or form?
For what it is worth, my critiques of Serial are scant and fairly insignificant, but here they are anyway:
- Koenig’s call to Adnan stating that it was possible to have gotten to the Best Buy by 2:36 did not feel right. Koenig was technically right: it was possible for Syed to get from Woodlawn High School to Best Buy, strangle Hae, and call Jay at the (non-existent) phone booth by 2:36. Thing is, though, everything would have had to go right for that to happen, and it was pretty obvious early on that, with the testimony of the concession stand owner, that was not a likely scenario. I get reporting everything you find back to the subject of the story, but since it is his life on the line here, I probably would have held that back until I got more verification.
- Koenig has invested herself in this story, and in Adnan Syed, perhaps a bit too much. Y’all know the moment I am about to reference if you have been listening, right? Adnan asks Koenig why she is so interested in the case, and she responds, “My interest in it honestly has been you, like, you’re a really nice guy.” Adnan, of course, obliterates this mode of reasoning in one shot, reminding her that she does not really know him, and that her good feelings about him are meaningless as they are not legally admissible in an appeal. To her credit, she leaves this gut-check in the podcast (and many other similar moments), and you see her attitude shift afterwards. This is not a big deal to me, since you are meant to follow this case through Koenig’s eyes. But that was a necessary moment.
- Koenig waited too long before bringing in the experts. Following Koenig around for this story has made this podcast unique and fascinating. We are living the stuff of our favorite childhood courtroom dramas in real time, and it is clear that Koenig is motivated by a sense of injustice surrounding the case. But she should have utilized the resources at her disposal and contacted The Innocence Project a lot earlier than she did. They were able to discern in fairly short order that Adnan may have been railroaded, and their expertise will undoubtedly assist his case going forward. This is probably the biggest mistake Koenig makes in Serial, and it is far from a dealbreaker.
This is unfortunate, really. While I disagree with the Gawker article that said Serial should be discussing police misconduct in Baltimore’s law enforcement, it is not because I think that issue should not be talked about. It is because it should be the authors of these thinkpieces discussing that, not Serial. This is a podcast that is pretty narrowly focused on one particular story: the murder of Hae-Min Lee. As such, it makes sense that the focus is on stuff directly related to that case and those individuals, and not a larger examination of the trends in law enforcement or the racial tensions between different communities of color in Baltimore. But that is where these authors could interview people and fill in the blanks for the audience.
Unfortunately, it seems that the money and attention is in tortured analysis of “problematic things” that are not even a part of the podcast. It is a shame, but as social media becomes a larger part of opinion making and journalistic endeavors, it is none too surprising.