“Serial”, The Intercept, and the absolutes of American media

I spent most of November and December engrossed in the drama of “Serial,” the 12-episode podcast that investigated the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. If you listened to podcast, then you know how redundant that last sentence is. Of course I was engrossed. You were, too.

But a little background for the uninitiated: On January 13, 1999, Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old student at Baltimore’s Woodlawn High School, disappeared. Her body was discovered in a shallow grave on February 9. Hae’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed was arrested and charged with first-degree murder a few weeks later. In February of 2000, Adnan was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

“Serial” reopened the case. For 12 weeks host Sarah Koenig brought listeners along as she fact-checked the state’s case against Adnan. She talked to friends who knew the couple, examined cell tower pings, contacted witnesses, tried to recreate the state’s timeline of events and attempted to find some kind of certainty in Adnan’s guilt or innocence. She found neither.

I loved that she found neither. Maybe this is just me and too much exposure to Facebook and Twitter, but I feel like we live in a time that demands you see the world in black and white. Teams aren’t just limited to sports or love triangles in YA fiction — you’re expected to pick a side for every issue and they are all mutually exclusive. Absolutes abound. Now, if you venture over to Twitter or Reddit, I’m sure you’ll find a few Team Adnan or whatever, but I don’t think “Serial” intended this. There were no absolutes in Koenig’s narrative. With every ‘what if’ and ‘well, maybe…’ Koenig made it almost impossible to say with certainty, “Adnan did it” or “He’s innocent.”

If you’ve fallen down the Reddit rabbit hole, then you also know that even though “Serial” is over, the story has gone on. At the end of December, Jay — an accessory to the murder, a key witness in the state’s case against Adnan and the ultimate “Serial” enigma — spoke to The Intercept about the crime, the podcast, and Koenig’s reporting. This week The Intercept released another exclusive interview with another major player — Kevin Urick, the prosecutor in the state’s case against Adnan.

I read the interviews. The first made me mildly uncomfortable, but the second left me so bothered that I won’t read the conclusion — not even to find out if Urick answers the million dollar question and tells us how Jay got such a sweet plea deal. The more I think about it, the more bothered I am by these follow-up interviews. It’s not just the 1,000-word editorializing or the “he said/she said” style of reporting. It’s that their very existence seems to undermine what “Serial” was trying to do in the first place.

“Serial” explored the grey areas of a black and white system. (Seriously, what is more absolute than a guilty verdict and a life sentence?) It asked the hard questions — Could someone who seems so wholesome murder his ex-girlfriend? But if he’s innocent then why can’t Adnan remember where he was that day? And really, what is the deal with Jay? These questions aren’t so much answered as they are examined — over and over again. It’s left up to the listener to answer them, or at least to acknowledge their possibilities and what they mean for Adnan’s innocence or guilt. Listeners looking for certainty were probably disappointed, but I was not. Life rarely has simple, certain answers. I was content to be on Team Who The Hell Knows? when the podcast ended.

So I’m bothered by the fact that these new voices have chosen to speak now, long after a good faith effort was made to include them in the story. The SF Gate blog put it best: “the people on one side of the case talk to one reporter, the people on the other side talk to another.” The message coming from the interviewees is simple and consistent: Serial was poorly reported, they say. They got it wrong, they say. There is no reason to look any deeper into this.

Put another way: Choose Team Adnan is Innocent or Team Adnan is Guilty. Either or. Find an absolute. That’s what I mean when I say The Intercept undermines the principle of “Serial.” Instead of being an objective exploration into the justice system, it’s become the voice for the other “side.”

That The Intercept has taken this position is disappointing, but not really surprising. More and more it feels like political parties aren’t the only ones pandering to a base — all our information outlets are. Whether it’s Fox News or MSNBC or whomever “the liberal news media” is at the moment, people can pick their information from who is on their Team. And the black and white world keeps turning. Issues become more and more polarized to the point that everything must be an absolute.

Personally, I like to live in a world that’s a little less black and white and where people embrace the shades of grey.

Team “Serial”. All the way.

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