We need to talk about the ‘Serial’ controversies

Have you been obsessing over Serial? A lot of people are: It just broke the iTunes record for the fastest podcast to rack up five million downloads and streams. But the story, producer Sarah Koenig’s exploration of the murder of a Baltimore teenager named Hae Min Lee, has also kicked up several controversies.

For one, on the last episode, Koenig made a plea for donations.

It hasn’t been a constant —just one time on the show. Some listeners protested the idea of a show that’s so clearly successful asking for funds.

But this issue is one that’s pretty easily explained: Investigative reporting costs a lot of money, and right now the podcast is free. Their Mailchimp sponsor contributes, sure, but not enough to cover the cost of the whole program, which was floated in its first season by This American Life. It’s operating on the same model as public radio: It depends on listeners for their support.

And then this Tuesday, a Reddit user (who claimed to be Hae Min Lee’s brother) called out Serial for exploiting the murder of his sister. 

The heartbreaking Subreddit does bring up a valiant point: are we treating this murder mystery as though it’s simply a compelling story? And is listening and supporting the project insensitive? Lee’s alleged brother states, “. . .sorry I won’t be answering any questions because. . .TO ME ITS [sic] REAL LIFE. To you listeners, its [sic] another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI.”

On one hand, perhaps it IS our right to explore possible flaws within our judicial system —Serial is looking into a case that deserved much, much more attention. On the other hand, are we hurting a very real family by exploring the case so publicly? I’m not sure if there is one right answer for this.

Lastly, several publications charged Koenig with racial bias in her reporting process.

Koenig was accused of having white privilege (which, of course, she does have) cloud her judgement process. Hae Min Lee was from a Korean background and her ex-boyfriend and accused killer, Adnan Syed, is Muslim. In The Awl, Jay Caspian King wrote that Koenig fails to understand how preconceptions about minorities affect her reporting. His concerns were echoed in a Buzzfeed piece by Julia Carrie Wong, “The Problem with Serial and the Model Minority Myth.” She points out that Koenig sets up Adnan’s friend Jay, who is black, as a “thuggish foil.”

Koenig is white, and, inevitably, that does come with the trappings of privilege. I don’t think that Wong or King are wrong to interrogate that; it’s important for all of us to be aware of how our conceptions of race play out in our work and in our lives.

But I don’t think that Koenig is actually being insensitive about the way that Syed’s Muslim background and Lee’s Korean one are operating, nor do I agree that she’s set up Jay as a foil. In fact, this is a work of real sensitivity to all the dynamics at play, for one thing.  And, let’s also remember that it’s a story that’s continuously unfolding. Koenig goes out of her way to treat everyone in the story with sympathy (or at least tries to), in order to paint them as whole people —even the accused murderer. And I also think that it’s fair to wait to see how the whole story plays out before judging the season in its entirety, instead of just the pieces we’re being fed weekly.

To do that, we’ll have to keep listening.

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