I thought about calling this Mommy and Daddy Are Fighting but The Intercept is more like your cousin who will buy you beer and give you a cigarette and introduce you to the cool tunes but can also be a complete asshole at family gatherings for no reason other than he really enjoys being an asshole sometimes.
The Intercept, a site that gained prominence in its reporting of the NSA/Snowden leaks, has decided to train its guns on Sarah Koenig's reporting ethics and Serial. I have thoughts about that.
Quick background: Serial was a genre-breaking serialized podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig about the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore, Maryland. Koenig and her Serial team investigated the murder and conviction of Lee's ex-boyfriend Adnan Sayed for over a year and [spoiler alert] concluded in the end that they couldn't say whether Adnan was guilty or innocent. It was incredibly compelling listening and the first time a podcast really captured the imagination of the international public.
The case against Sayed hinged on the testimony of Jay Wilds. Wilds refused to talk to Koenig. The prosecutor and Lee's family also refused. But after the podcast aired, Wilds felt aggrieved so his attorney decided to let him give an exclusive interview with Natasha Vargas-Cooper for The Intercept. He did. It blew up massively. Then The Intercept landed an interview with the prosecutor.
And that's where things get ugly.
1. The Intercept calls Sarah Koenig a liar and a terrible reporter.
Instead of just posting the interview with the prosecutor, The Intercept injected a 1,400 word introduction that was basically all, "Serial had to create drama to be interesting, it was against their interest to say Adnan was guilty as charged, the criminal justice system totally worked here, and they're lying when they say they tried to talk to the prosecutor a bunch of times."
Let's start with the last point first. The Intercept says "the most troubling" aspect of Koenig's investigation is that she didn't even try to talk to the prosecutor. Here's Serial's response: They totally did. And if that's the MOST TROUBLING thing, the Intercept, let me just point out that the prosecutor says IN YOUR OWN PIECE that he would have never talked to Koenig anyway. To quote Joey Tribiani, "That's a moo point. It's like a cow's opinion. It doesn't matter. It's moo."
And when it comes to credibility here, I believe Koenig did reach out. Just read The Intercept's Jay interview. He basically talks about how Koenig was relentless to the point of annoying in trying to get him to talk and how a bunch of his high school friends were being "hassled" by her too. This is not a team of reporters who were crafting a selective narrative. It paints a picture of a team trying, in good faith, to get to the bottom of things. The stakes are too high for Koenig and her team to lie about trying to contact the prosecutor. Her credibility as a reporter and host of an investigative storytelling podcast would be toast.
Meanwhile: How ironic would it be if Koenig produced cell phone records proving she made those calls to Urick. DO EEET.
Vargas-Cooper told The Observer that she had never listened to Serial before landing the Wilds interview. After landing the interview she binge-listened over a couple of days and took issue with the reporting. She told The Observer: "So I listened to Serial to see if there was something there and if it’s something I wanted to get involved with and I saw some really huge… I mean just some stuff that I was like – I mean problems, and I don’t mean that necessarily in the ethical sense but it was like … If I were to come to you at the Observer and say I want to write about a case and I don’t have the star witness, I don’t have the victim’s family, I don’t have the detectives, I don’t think you would run it, you know.” The Observer reporter actually disagrees, which I find to be funny.
Just based on that quote it seems to me The Intercept wasn't really concerned about guilt or innocence or truth in the Lee/Sayed case. That is not their concern. Their concern is "LOOK AT HOW SARAH KOENIG TOTALLY FUCKED UP" as a piece of media criticism. That is, in concept, a totally fair thing to write about. But they overswing and try to make two points: Koenig messed up and oh by the way, Adnan is 1000% guilty period end of sentence. That's one heck of a leap.
2. The Intercept says justice was served here because the prosecutor said so.
Next, The Intercept concludes after an "investigation" that is nowhere near as thorough as Koenig and Co.'s, that the criminal justice system worked here. Adnan is DUH SO GUILTY. They come to this conclusion based on...what the prosecutor told them. Seriously, go back and read The Intercept preamble. It's a whole lot of "The prosecutor said" as the only support for every blind assertion of guilt. "Oh, the prosecutor said the cell phone tower evidence was totally convincing." Oh, ok then. He must be righ then. Amazing.
And for some reason, The Intercept is really butthurt that Koenig and Co. completely dismissed the fact that it took the jury just two hours to convict the guy, as if that is proof that he was so obviously guilty. Have you ever seen a jury trial? Juries are unreliable as heck! They are convinced by things that have no actual bearing on the case. They convict people because they don't like their attorneys, or find people innocent because the prosecutor wore the same outfit twice (seriously, I've heard this from jury members). Why should the fact they deliberated for just two hours have any bearing on anything?
Oh and here is The Intercept's mission statement:
I don't understand how going after a podcast run by former NPR wonks really falls under that charter and I definitely don't understand how, under that mission statement, you have a reporter taking the prosecution's words at face value. It seems to me that is the opposite of imposing transparency and thus accountability to the most powerful governmental bodies.
3. The Intercept accuses Koenig of rigging the narrative.
Third, The Intercept accuses Koenig of rigging the whole narrative because doing a serialized podcast that reinforces the status quo -- "The jury said he's guilty, we investigated, and yeah, he's guilty" -- would have made for boring listening. I totally don't buy that. What made Serial compelling was the investigation to answer the question "Did Adnan do it?" If at the end of it Koenig was all "Yeah, sorry guys. He did it," it would not undermind the Serial experience at all.
Koenig and her team investigated this case for a year. They read through thousands of pages of records and documents, listened to hours of trial tape and interviews, and pinged a bunch of cell towers with phone calls to talk to witnesses. The entire podcast is a brave "show your work" series on investigative journalism. If there's one takeaway from the whole show it's that they made a good faith effort not to leave a stone unturned. Of course they would have liked to have talked to Jay, the cops, the prosecutor, and Hae Min's family. NO FRICKIN DUH! But also NO FRICKIN DUH those people would not want to talk to them. I mean come on! That's just logic! Why would they? Talking to Koenig changes nothing about their lives. That's not the case for Adnan or anyone associated with his defense team. She is their great hope.
Now, in the course of doing all this investigating there's no way Koenig knew how massively Serial would blow up. I mean she comes from This American Life DNA, which is as popular as podcasts come but is still a total niche thing. As one who knows a thing or two about niche things I can tell you that when you think no one's really paying attention you feel a little freer to be true to yourself. To do exactly what you want to do without concern about "Oh man, if I do/say this I'm going to be so unpopular."
Somewhere in the course of Serial's airing, Koenig and Co. obviously realized shit was getting big. People were digging the show. On one hand you can argue that their reaction would be to make it even more dramatic and adopt The Intercept theory of "AUGHHHH BURY THE ADNAN IS GUILTY STUFF!!!" On the other hand -- and this is what I buy into -- their reaction was to realize their work would be nitpicked to DEATH and thus make sure they did everything the right way. The former is an idiot's response. The latter is a non-idiot's response. I think Koenig is a non-idiot.
I keep going back to her interview with Mike Pesca, when he begged her on The Gist not to end Serial with a dumb rumination on the nature of truth and justice. She couldn't guarantee anything. She said she was going to report, and if that means it's a dramatically unsatisfactory conclusion so be it because it would be the truth. The truth would reign supreme.
Did Koenig and Co. make some storytelling decisions that added additional drama to the podcast? Of course! That is what storytellers do! Were those decisions always right? Not always! And that's ok! Those are fun to debate!
4. The Intercept never earns the credibility to offer a valid critique.
If you wanted to write a critique of Serial -- and I really do think these critiques are just and valuable to the discourse -- you could talk about how Koenig seemed to brush aside any discussion of prosecutorial overreaching. I really never felt satisfied with how that was handled. Or let's get back to the police investigation. Did they key in other other witnesses? Were their sights trained just on Adnan? Like, let's actually talk about the stuff that wasn't discussed or that maybe that Koenig overlooked. The racial framing of the prosecution was dismissed a little to easily. I also think she could have done a much better job clearly laying out the timeline and evidence. It was jumbled at times. But hey, there was no template for something like this.
Koenig never overlooked Jay and the prosecutor. She tracked them down and they didn't want to talk -- and again, it TOTALLY MAKES SENSE that they would not want to talk. It's great that The Intercept snagged the interviews. They didn't really do much with them, but they gave the guys microphones and let them say their thing and that's one way to go. That they're now trying to bolster themselves by saying "HEY INTERNET, JAY AND PROSECUTOR WOULDN'T TALK TO AIRQUOTES SAINT SARAH AIRQUOTES BUT THEY SPOKE TO US AND THEREFORE WE ARE BASICALLY THE POPE OF REPORTING" seems really icky.
I also keep going to back to one of the backlash critiques about Serial while it was airing, that it was turning a young girl's murder into entertainment. I think that's a bullshit takedown. Feel free to levy that against any non-fiction crime book, documentary, or Dateline NBC special. The tone of the show never deviated from the lives that were changed and the effect this murder had on the community. Aside from Koenig waxing poetic about copy toner, it was a somber listen. And it inspired thousands of people to really care about zeroing in on the truth.
Nothing about the two interviews from The Intercept have anything to do with actually finding the truth. They don't seem to care who did it. The questions are softballs, designed to give the interviewee a soapbox. There's no investigative rigor. Again, that's all fine. Not everything has to be super hardcore reporting. But without showing your work to prove you have credibility in your critique you've failed.
I could ramble on but this is already 5000 percent more than I meant to say when I opened up this draft. It's all so disappointing though. This was needless mudslinging in the name of clicks. Yucky.
I'm interested to hear what y'all's thoughts are about the whole thing. Am I being too harsh here? Am I missing something? Am I blinded by the Sarah Koenig's glasses? What's going on?
EDITED TO ADD: Wow. Just read this open letter to Natasha Vargas-Cooper on Reddit. Scathing.
EDITED TO ADD: And here's a point by point response to The Intercept preamble from Reddit.
EDITED TO ADD: The Intercept editor on the piece posted 10+ incredibly self-serving "Things I learned while editing this piece" tweets. It's galling.
EDITED TO ADD: The Intercept reporters take to twitter to kinda repond to all the hatin'.
EDITED TO ADD: The Intercept has edited its Urick interview.
EDITED TO ADD: This critique of The Intercept interview is very clever.