By now, the success of Serial — a true crime procedural podcast produced by This American Life — is undeniable. For those who have yet to listen — and we highly recommend that you do — Serial follows Sarah Koenig as she investigates the 15-year-old murder of Baltimore high school student Hae-Min Lee, and the dubious conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed.
After eight episodes it's the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads in iTunes history. Its spot among our cultural mis en place so solidified that marketers are now looking to podcasts as viable form of advertising.
This universal celebration of Serial occupies a rare crossover of interests between the general public and the media world — or at least those with an interest in it. It's not too often that a heavily reported piece of narrative non-fiction makes it way past the NPR-listening and New Yorker-reading crowds. For those of us who work in this industry, listening to Koenig dive into this mystery and reading all the adulation, well, it felt like the journalists finally scored a point.
Naturally, given the subject matter of Serial and the captive audience, it was only a matter of time until an eyebrow was (rightfully) raised to the unending flood of adulation. These are journalists, after all — skepticism should run in the trade.
And so last week, the same day Serial published its latest episode, the first wave of skepticism hit. In The Awl, Jay Caspian Kang, former news editor for the New Yorker, now a contributor to New York Times Magazine, contended that the biases and privileges Sarah Koenig has as a white woman cloud and even detract from the show's investigation.
The accumulation of Koenig’s little judgments throughout the show— and there are many more examples — should feel familiar to anyone who has spent much of her life around well-intentioned white people who believe that equality and empathy can only be achieved through a full, but ultimately bankrupt, understanding of one another’s cultures. [...] These are usually silent, cringing moments – it never quite feels worth it to call out the offender because you’ll never convince them that their intentions might not be as good as they think they are.
— 'Serial' And White Reporter Privilege (The Awl)
The "little judgements" Kang refers to center around two moments. The first is Koenig's mischaracterization of Hae and Adnan as immigrant children — that she glosses over who the two really are and paints them as "others." The second comes when Koenig, after reading Hae's diary remarks how "normal" it is — the racially charged presumption being that Koenig expected otherwise.
After episode eight was published (which focused on the murder's key witness, Jay) BuzzFeed's Julia Carrie Wong continued the same line of criticism as Kang, pointing out the troubling characterization of Adnan and Hae as a "model minorities" in comparison to Jay:
Adnan’s ability to fill the role of the model minority is, quite explicitly, the impetus behind Koenig’s entire involvement with the case. He’s the good, South Asian son, and that doesn’t mesh with the idea of a violent killer. [...] The problem with the model minority myth — besides the fact that it stereotypes and dehumanizes millions of people — is that by its very nature it requires a “bad” minority to balance the scales. [...] By flattening Hae and Adnan into stereotypical model minorities, and by using Jay as their “thuggish” black foil, Serial is feeding its listeners a steady dose of racist tropes.
— The Problem With 'Serial' And The Model Minority Myth (BuzzFeed)
In addition to issues of race, Spook Magazine's Stephanie Van Schilt points out that Koenig's narrative construction within the program's serialized format could be considered exploitative.
Serial feels like it is playing on our desire to see and hear transparent reporting. “Maybe we should get some experts on this job,” is how Koenig ends episode six, but she’s been working on the case for a year and massages and manipulates the facts into narratives and yet still presents herself as on the same level as the listeners. [...] It’s no surprise that in addition to feeling suspicious about the key players in this crime mystery – predominately Syed and his accuser, Jay – we’re suspicious of how Koenig is constructing the narrative.
— Is 'Serial' Podcast Problematic? (Spook Magazine)
Of course, with backlash comes the anti-backlash. In The New York Observer, Lindsay Beyerstein rebukes Kang and Wong's criticisms:
Ms. Koenig paints Adnan and Hae as high-achieving kids with strict parents. But you could just as easily argue that Ms. Koenig’s portrayals subvert “model minority” stereotypes. Whether or not he killed his girlfriend, Adnan was both a prayer-leader at his mosque and an avid girl-chaser with a taste for weed. Hae was a genius and a star athlete, and she had frenzied sex with her boyfriend in parked cars and motel rooms all over Baltimore County. Ms. Koenig sees nothing scandalous about any of this: People are complicated, and teenagers are people.
— Not Problematic: In Defense Of 'Serial' (New York Observer)
Beyerstein makes a good point: That Kang and Wong leave out some bits of context. But ultimately, she mischaracterizes the two pieces as "a cottage industry of think pieces dedicated to making us feel guilty about liking Serial."
Straddling the gulf between the backlash and anti-backlash camps is Cafe's Sarah Miller. She explains that while it's right to point out some of Koenig's biases, assigning malice might be going a little too far. Serial's narrator might be a little more self-aware than we think:
And yes, there is white privilege in this particular show. The fact that Koenig has this job reflects white privilege to some extent, and that press photo alone, of the five white members of the staff of this show, smiling gleefully — we have a hit! — is a little hard to take considering the subject matter. Yes, I find whiteness in Koenig's work. But I don't know that I find a lot of white privilege, and in the examples cited, I find none. I feel some awkwardness in her, and sometimes hear a straining to understand, and be understood, to feel a part of, but it sounds to me like that is likely a by-product of reporting — which often bestows upon the reporter as much humiliation as authority — as it is due to her race.
— A Response To The 'Serial' Podcast And Its White Privilege (Cafe)
Eventually, the volume of criticism, and the criticism of the criticism, became so overwhelming that Salon's Anna Silman felt the need to sum up all the major Serial think pieces — the conceit being that this is an inevitable part of Internet, and isn't much more than the media indulging in some handwringing:
It’s a trajectory almost as old as the Internet: Something arrives on the cultural scene; people like it; it becomes a media obsession (think “Girls,” “True Detective,” “Too Many Cooks”). Laudatory think pieces are published, parodies spawned. The obsession reaches critical mass. And then, seemingly overnight, the mood shifts. Backlash, much like death and taxes, comes inevitably for all those things we love. Such is the sad case with “Serial” the new smash hit podcast from Sarah Koenig and the creators of “This American Life.”
— From 'The Greatest Podcast Ever Made' To 'Shamelessly Exploitative': A Guide To The 'Serial' Backlash (Salon)
What to believe? It's a question presented to Serial listeners again and again throughout the show — but what should we think about Koenig herself? Is she just "a white journalist stomp[ing] around in a cold case," as Kang puts it? Or does she sufficiently disclose her own biases? Or maybe we should just throw our hands up and decry the Internet's needs for hot takes and think pieces and divorce ourselves of any sort of critical thought?
(For what it's worth, a man claiming to be Hae's brother posted his thoughts to the Serial subreddit: "Although I do not like the fact that SK pick our story to cover, she is an awesome narrator/ writer/ investigator. No wonder why this podcast is so popular.")
Unlike the binary question controlling the narrative of Serial — Did Adnan kill Hae? — the same doesn't have to apply to our thoughts on Koenig's storytelling. As writer Jamie Green points out on her personal blog, there is no "wrong" interpretation of Serial:
Serial raises as many questions as it answers — more than, really — in terms of its explicit narrative but also in terms of the themes it interweaves. Race, class, and crime, yes, but also authorial bias and point of view. (It’s not like Koenig doesn’t realize she’s implicating herself as a narrator.) So challenge it, critique it. Tear open those little gaps and let’s see what’s really inside.
— The Problem With The Problems With 'Serial'
The only "wrong" way to interpret Serial — apart from using it to replace Shakespeare in your high school English class — is to treat it as gospel, or wave the concerns and critiques of others away with cries of "think piece" and "Why can't we just enjoy this good thing?" It's not easy, but acknowledging and including other interpretations of something might strengthen your own understanding of it. Who knows!
From the very first episode, Koenig asks her listeners to go on this journey with her, and the first thing she would expect is for us to doubt her.
While a murder case on the internet radio might sound like the last thing a teacher would use to support the implementation of Common Core in a high school classroom, the widely popular podcast “Serial” has instead served to foster critical thinking skills and engagement in the classroom for Michael Godsey’s students. Teachers can even buy the lesson plans he created at Teachers Pay Teachers. Here are 3 other podcasts that can spur engagement and analytical thinking in your classroom:
For the Science Teacher: “Invisibilia- How to Become Batman”
The story of Daniel Kish is amazing, but he thinks it shouldn’t be. Daniel is blind, yet he hikes, bikes, and teachers other blind people how to “see” through a behavioral process called echolocation, most commonly found among bats. Daniel believes that low expectations and social norms prevent other blind people from having the independence and abilities he possesses. This episode explores the connections between our biology and our social surroundings, and how high expectations gave Daniel Kish sight. (All audiences)
For the Computer Teacher: “Criminal- Episode 2 : Pants on Fire”
For teachers who enjoyed Serial, but are concerned that the content is either too long or too mature to include in their classroom, “Criminal” is the perfect alternative. Whereas “Serial” is a 12 part series spanning several hours over the course of one season, Criminal is created episodically and every episode is about 15 minutes long. This specific episode focuses on lying, and how technology is both advancing and limiting our abilities to identify the liars. (Middle-High School)
For the Language Arts Teacher: “The Moth Radio Hour: Doctors, Prom, and Ellen”
The Moth is a story series where storytellers share pivotal experiences in their lives, some hilarious and others heartbreaking. One particular storyteller in this episode shared a little of both. The first 20 minutes of this episode are devoted to Hasan Minhaj, now a popular comedian and writer who shares the story of his attempt to attend prom and his unexpected encounter with racism. This is a story that high school students will find relatable, while simultaneously provoking conversations around empathy and forgiveness. (Middle-High School)
Post by Charlie Deese, Implementation Coordinator