The podcast revolution is upon us, and at its forefront is “Serial” — a spin-off of “This American Life.” Dictated by Sarah Koenig, “Serial” investigates the 1999 murder of Korean-American high school student Hae Min Lee. However, what at first seems to be a reporting endeavor quickly becomes the process of garnering an acquittal for Adnan Syed, the ex-boyfriend of Lee who was convicted of her murder. He has maintained his innocence for 15 years.
Koenig’s voice began to feel like a companion of mine — accompanying me along long car rides, walking me to class, annoying me with her repetitive claims. Her obsession is grounded in the need to truly uncover what happened on Jan. 13, the day of Lee’s killing. The spin is that, unlike very hard journalism, Koenig manifests the desire to prove Adnan Syed’s innocence, given that the only real evidence connecting him to the crime is the very shaky witness testimony of one Jay Wilds.
Koenig approaches inconsistencies in events, the sheer lack of physical evidence linking Adnan to the murder and a drive to uncover the truth in an honest tone — one reminiscent of something you might hear in “This American Life” or “Radiolab.” But different than these other podcasts which, in some cases, divulge almost too much information about their subjects in one episode, “Serial” focuses on the same people, on the same story, with new interspersed information for 12 episodes. There is a ton of information shared about the victim, Hae, the supposed perpetrator, Adnan, and their respective families, friends and lives.
It’s easy to say that this podcast was produced in the name of journalism — that is to say, in the name of uncovering the truth. However, the element remains that this podcast was also produced in the name of entertainment. Crime investigation stories are so popular because crime is so sexy. The haunting nature of murder is alluring in that, when talked about over a podcast, one can be distanced from the actual act of it. But if the whole consumer base is so invested in “Serial” because of its entertainment purposes, how is it ethical? Given the incredible rarity of appealing and overturning a conviction, do people really think that Adnan’s case will conveniently be overturned by the end of the 12th episode? And further, when any white woman enters a scene and picks apart the relations between two kids with immigrant parents — a Korean-American girl and a Muslim boy of Pakistani descent — there is bound to be a component of white saviorism buried within the story.
There is a point midway through the season, during episode six, when Koenig unknowingly illustrates a motive she might not be consciously aware of: her desire to play heroine to Adnan. During this episode, Adnan asks Koenig over the phone, “Why are you doing this?” To which she replies, “My interest in it has honestly been you. Like, you’re a really nice guy.” His response to that is surprising to Koenig — he claims that she doesn’t really know him at all. She’s completely taken aback by this, and in her commentary, she calls his remark almost hostile. His honesty is considered to be hostile when it doesn’t congratulate her.
While disturbed by Koenig’s interpretation of Adnan’s feelings, I also saw a lot of myself in her. Over two years ago, I began volunteering in prisons through the Prison Creative Arts Project, facilitating creative arts workshops for male prisoners. My first workshop, a theater class, took place at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, Michigan For two hours a week, my partner and I introduced 10 men to theater. I loved being there, providing a space for their creative expression, but during my first workshop I also felt myself loving my place in the situation. They’d share stories about their lives, and in doing so, I felt that I knew them — from head to toe. This was not the case. It took a downturn of events and experience in another prison facility to understand that this work was not intended to assuage me, and that being in a creative space with someone for two hours a week did not mean I knew their story in its entirety.
Koenig’s feelings are human ones. It’s even a little refreshing to see her playing the heroine and simultaneously expressing an overabundance of doubt. And perhaps part of the point of “Serial” is to show this raw side to investigative journalism. But in doing so, it becomes unfair to Adnan. It’s a two-faced approach in which Koenig is willing to be the savior, but in reality is questioning whether or not Adnan should even be saved.
About a month ago, when “Serial” was still the number one buzzword, two individuals asked me separately, “Have you listened to ‘Serial?’ You know the part with the Innocence Project? That’s what I want to do!” For people who had never before expressed interest in helping the incarcerated, or getting wrong convictions overturned, this was shocking to me. Listening to a podcast had actually formulated the desire to help the imprisoned. Naturally, since I am working with the incarcerated myself, I questioned their motives. But the truth is, if “Serial” can safely introduce people to a prisoner, Adnan, and show them how human he is, then maybe it’s accomplishing a lot more than entertainment.
There are real ethical issues to “Serial.” Koenig, although sensitively, reveals anecdotes, diary entries and family issues of Hae’s that morph her into a storyline, rather than a dead girl whose black hair was found peeking out of a shallow grave. Adnan, who’s been in prison since 1999, is now known all around the nation — his innocence discussed in classrooms and raging debates on whether he did or did not strangle his ex-girlfriend with his bare hands. For me, for some reason, I don’t really care if he did or didn’t do it. What’s so impressive about “Serial” is its smart investigation, attention to small details, personal accounts and, most importantly, its exhibition of Adnan’s humanity. Maybe it’s a feat of entertainment. But if it is inspiring to people, if it is allowing them to look at the many facets of crime and those involved in it, then, I guess, who cares if it’s entertainment? As for Koenig, even if she’s looking for that pat on the back throughout the whole series, I guess we can forgive her. Because she’s human — just like Adnan, just like you and just like me.
Abby Taskier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.