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Serial, Privilege, & Missed Opportunities

Arts & Culture | February 3, 2015

Serial is everywhere. At five million downloads, it’s the most-downloaded podcast ever—and it’s probably also the most talked-about, dominating Facebook newsfeeds and party conversations.

The This American Life spinoff follows one true story over the course of each twelve-episode season. Season One, which aired last fall, focuses on the true story of Adnan Syed, a Pakistani American high school student who in 1999 was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. The show’s narrator, Sarah Koenig, was approached by a family friend of Adnan who is convinced of his innocence. Over the past year, Koenig has researched, investigated, and tried to piece together the timeline of the day Hae went missing. Her intention in doing so, however, was not to build a case for Adnan’s innocence but to attempt to answer with journalistic objectivity: Was Adnan the murderer? And regardless of whether he was, did the State of Maryland have enough evidence to warrant his conviction? Her narrated findings form the podcast.

Though podcasts have been successful before—think Radiolab or FreakonomicsSerial has achieved cult status. There is an entire subreddit devoted to discussion of the case details and independent investigation, and weekly recaps appear on every media blog. It occupies a place in pop culture formerly reserved for novels or television shows; fans of the podcast “hooked” by its engrossing storytelling style brag about having “binged” on episodes as if it were the latest HBO or Netflix drama. Serial’s transition from niche to mainstream entertainment challenges conceptions of what a podcast can be.

But at whose expense has Serial invited worldwide interest in a fifteen-year-old murder case?

Hae’s family expressed that they did not want to be involved in the making of the podcast. Distressed by its popularity, Hae’s brother has posted repeatedly on the Serial subreddit criticizing the show’s transformation of a traumatic and personal case into a real-life whodunit. One of his posts reads, “TO ME IT’S REAL LIFE. To you listeners, it’s another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI.” Tufts Professor Stephan Pennington echoed these sentiments, noting that “it wasn’t actually clear to [him] at first if [Serial] was fiction or nonfiction from the way people were talking about it” and criticizing the voyeurism it promoted. Jay, the key witness in the case and the subject of much of Koenig’s analysis, recently told interviewers that he and his family have endured consistent harassment since Serial’s release, despite his refusal to participate in the podcast.

Koenig’s social location as a white female reporter also has damaging implications for her treatment of the communities of color in which this case takes place.

In an article for The Awl, Jay Caspian Kang discusses what he calls “white reporter privilege,” framing Koenig as a “cultural tourist…stomping around communities that she clearly does not understand, [and] digging up small, generally inconsequential details about the people inside of them.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than Koenig’s analysis of Adnan’s social life. At his trials, prosecutors wove a narrative of Adnan as a manipulative liar who disobeyed his parents by drinking, smoking weed, and having romantic and sexual relationships. This, they argued, displayed a psychopathic lack of moral integrity and empathy—and, ultimately, a capacity to kill. Koenig herself evaluates teenaged Adnan’s actions and behaviors; she even devotes an entire episode to exploring his character by “digging up” old rumors about him (spoiler alert: As a seventh-grader, Adnan stole pocket change from the local masjid). While it begins as an earnest investigation into information she has been given, Koenig’s fixation upon these isolated incidents quickly becomes callous. Even as Adnan expresses shame, hurt, and confusion over why she is so interested in actions irrelevant to his case, Koenig’s “white reporter privilege” emboldens her to press on with her scrutiny.

Even in her moments of sympathizing with Adnan, Koenig lacks a nuanced understanding of the context and importance of Adnan’s identity. At one point, she reflects, “We all grew up with that dual personality.” While Koenig may see some similarities between her actions as a teenager and Adnan’s, this offhand comment draws false parallels between her experiences as a white female and Adnan’s as a Muslim, second-generation Pakistani-American. A more appropriate refutation of the prosecution’s narrative would respond to its race-based accusations. Instead of an evaluation of Adnan’s choices against her own, Koenig’s discussion would be better served by an understanding of what kind of balance other young people facing similarly heightened, racialized pressures choose to strike.

Had she undertaken any such investigation, she would have found that Adnan’s choices were not anomalous among peers with similar multifaceted social identities. In a survey conducted by the authors of this article of Asian American Pacific Islander students at Tufts, two-thirds of all respondents reported lying to or withholding information from their parents about their lives as high school students and 78 percent reported doing so as college students. All of the types of information reported as most commonly withheld (drug or alcohol use, sexual activity or dating, details of hangouts) also appeared in the prosecution’s narrative of Adnan’s “double life.” Islamic scripture forbids consumption of alcohol—and yet the majority of self-reported Muslim respondents, like Adnan, reported lying about drinking. Either Tufts’ student body includes disproportionately many Asian American psychopaths (including the respondent who reported having lied about “everything under the sun”), or Adnan’s behavior was typical of a high-achieving young man navigating the dual pressures of his immigrant Pakistani-Muslim family and American high school social scene. Yet Koenig’s “white reporter privilege” causes her to only recognize Adnan’s religious and ethnic identity when she feels it is pertinent, resulting in an oversimplified interpretation of his teenage life. As a result, her interpretation of Adnan’s illicit activity does not do enough to counter the prosecution’s narrative, and thus implicitly condemns his character.

Koenig’s flawed, “colorblind” approach also manifests as her choice not to address the structural context of this case.

Throughout the podcast, Koenig expresses naïve bewilderment at how Adnan could have been convicted, given the paucity of evidence against him. But her assessment that “from what [she] can tell, there’s not gross negligence or malfeasance or something on the part of the detectives or the State Attorney’s office” ignores the racism entrenched in the U.S. criminal justice system. Black and brown men like Adnan—and Jay—are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates. Thus, Koenig is correct that “everyone seem[ed] to be doing their job responsibly”—but only because convicting Muslim, Pakistani-American Adnan despite a lack of evidence was business as usual.

In this case, there are many racial aspects to be considered, and Koenig addresses far too few of them. Her treatment of bias throughout the series of events—from the identification and pursuit of Adnan as the lead suspect to the jury’s conviction within a matter of hours—is woefully perfunctory.

In her very first interview with Adnan’s mother Shamim, Koenig asks her how she makes sense of her son’s being taken from her. Shamim answers, “I still believe [it was] because he was raised a Muslim. Discrimination. …It was easy for them to take him, then other people—”

“And do you believe that?” Koenig interjects.

“Of course, yes.” replies Shamim.

“I don’t know, I mean…” Koenig trails off, clearly unconvinced.

She later does investigate this suggestion of racial bias by examining the minutiae of his bail hearing for empirical proof of discrimination. But this happens much later, in Episode 10 out of 12. Why does it take so long for Koenig to decide to consider anti-Islamic bias? Why does she only do so when prompted? And why does her analysis focus on that hearing, just one moment in the long process that led to Adnan’s incarceration? There is much more that she chooses not to regard. For example, a structural analysis of Baltimore County in the ‘90s would identify countless other moments in which Adnan’s religious identity worked against him from the moment Hae went missing. These years were marked by increased incarceration and overwhelmed, disorganized prosecutor’s offices that would have viewed Adnan’s swift conviction as an easy win.

In another episode, an expert from the Innocence Project—a legal organization that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people—weighs in on the case. She immediately cites racial profiling as cause for concern. Koenig’s reply, after months of focused investigation? “Oh, really? Huh.” Again, Koenig’s “white reporter privilege” causes her to downplay and choose to forget something that is all-pervasive—to the detriment of the complete, unbiased picture with which she supposedly seeks to provide listeners.

Serial’s first season challenged what we expect of podcasts, but still left much to be desired. The podcast’s producers exploited a profound tragedy—the murder of an eighteen-year-old girl—for entertainment at the expense of those involved. They then failed to disrupt dominant, “colorblind” narratives of why Adnan was ultimately convicted.

Because of its success, Koenig and the rest of the production team have announced that there will be a second season of Serial. Though its topic has not yet been announced, it reportedly will not be another true-crime story. Therefore, this first season marks a missed opportunity for the show to promote nuanced, critical insights into the criminal justice system. As Serial continues to push the boundaries of storytelling in seasons to come, it will hopefully recognize its potential as a platform for social change.