Journalism has hit a rough patch of late. Rolling Stone is struggling with the consequences of publishing a controversial and seemingly inaccurate story. The New Republic celebrated its 100th birthday -- and then all but croaked. When hackers attacked Sony Pictures Entertainment, journalists regurgitated unseemly material, prompting accusations of news outlets being "morally treasonous and spectacularly dishonorable" from Aaron Sorkin, creator of the late HBO show "The Newsroom." Worst of all, "The Colbert Report," the comedic spoof that supplies many young people with a side of news, will close shop tomorrow.
Then there is "Serial," a source of journalistic solace. The podcast about a real-life murder mystery has been a surprise hit. It features thorough reporting on a compelling story: the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a senior at a Maryland high school; her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, convicted of the crime on seemingly murky grounds; his sentence to life in prison, where he remains, still asserting his innocence. Host Sarah Koenig describes the case as "like a Shakespearean mashup -- young lovers from different worlds thwarting their families, secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion and honor besmirched, the villain not a Moor exactly, but a Muslim all the same, and a final act of murderous revenge. And the main stage? A regular old high school across the street from a 7-Eleven."
The New York Times's David Carr called Koenig's podcast "arguably the medium’s first breakout hit." But it's not so much the medium that sets "Serial" apart. It's the way it bleeds into different forms. The content of "Serial" is serious journalism, but the program is structured -- serially -- in the manner of old-style entertainment, and it's packaged like reality television. And here's another thing that makes "Serial" different: As digital-era news organizations struggle to find the revenue to support investigative reporting, Serial put out a plea to listeners for donations and soon thereafter announced, "Between the money you donated and sponsorship, we’ll be able to make a second season." That's right -- people voluntarily paid for journalism.
Investigation is what the inaugural season of "Serial" is all about. In the first of what will be a dozen episodes when the season ends tomorrow, Koenig suggested that she had spent a year researching the story prior to the podcast's debut. She continued working as the season progressed. Experts were consulted, steps were retraced, sources tracked down and interviewed 15 years after the crime. Even failure revealed determination. Here is Koenig, in episode nine, detailing the "Serial" team's efforts to speak with the victim's family:
For many, many months we tried to contact Hae's family, to tell them we were doing this story and in hopes they might want to talk to us about Hae. In my 20-plus years of reporting, I've never tried as hard to find anyone. Letters in English and in Korean, phone calls, social media, friends of friends of friends, two private detectives, Korean-speaking researchers, people knocking on doors in three different states, calls to South Korea. We never heard back from them. I learned a few days ago that they know what we're doing; my best guess is they want no part of it, which I respect.
Yet dogged reporting is not what makes "Serial" gripping. Instead, it's the show's capacity to entertain. In effect, "Serial" uses the serial form to hook an audience. It's at once an old-fashioned whodunit -- rich with a suspense accentuated by now-familiar music -- and a digital media creation that listeners can access practically anywhere: car, subway, treadmill, you name it. People on the Internet latched on with gusto, engendering tweets and think pieces and YouTube parodies and a whole lot of posts to Reddit, not to mention a Slate podcast about the podcast.
"Serial" is also about obsession, not just that of fans, but of the reporter who drives the story forward. "At the heart of 'Serial,' and what has fans binge listening to catch up with the series, is the narrator herself, Ms. Koenig," wrote the Wall Street Journal's Ellen Gamerman. "Listeners are swept up in her obsession and feel like they are part of a hunt for truth and justice alongside an entertaining and smart companion.”
"Serial" is Koenig's story as much as anyone's. The show is punctuated by her uncertainties and asides, and her explanations of the lengths to which she has gone in search of the truth. It is, as the Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance wrote, “a story about storytelling.” It presents readers with set scenes as well as the behind-the-scenes. We're right there with Koenig, solving the crime alongside her.
Except we're not. Koenig, too, is a character in the story. (She's admitted as much.) Her seeming candor is a tool. In reality, she knows far more about the murder case than the rest of us. Like any good article, or work of fiction, much material has been edited out of the final product. All those hours that she has spent talking to Syed have informed her views. But she has shared only a fraction of those interviews with listeners.
Yet the pieces of "Serial" often seem strangely raw, unedited and lacking forethought. At some moments, the friction between the demands of storytelling and the accumulation of facts can feel charmingly scrappy. At others, it is jarring, enraging even. Koenig sometimes sounds almost like a reporter emptying her notebook, perhaps more for her sake than for ours. At the same time, the serial format reminds us of the artifice in story creation, and of the distance between our lives and a crime that took place in 1999. Lighthearted reporter-as-character moments clash with the gruesome reality of a murdered teenager.
Tomorrow, the story will conclude. Koenig will move on. Even Syed's case is, to quote Koenig, "alive, by a thread." The serial will end. "It’s not my responsibility to entertain you with some wonderful, perfect ending," Koenig told the Wall Street Journal. "I don’t mean that in a holier-than-thou way at all -- it’s just -- I’m a reporter." And a character. And an entertainer. And a breakout reality star.
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