Nathan Bransford, Author


Friday, January 2, 2015

Can we talk about "Serial?"


Like many people across America, I was totally captivated by the podcast "Serial," which, if you haven't yet been accosted by a raving fan, is about a 1999 murder and hinges on whether you believe one of the two former teenagers at the heart of the case: Adnan, in prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, and Jay, whose (frequently changing) testimony put Adnan there.

One of the most compelling elements of the show is the extent to which its host, "This American Life" vet Sarah Koenig, very transparently wears her biases on her sleeve. She doesn't believe, or doesn't want to believe, that Adnan did it. He's charming, she likes him, and she doesn't seem to be able to fully bring herself to think he committed the crime. But she's up front about those feelings, and her journey in the show is a huge part of what makes it so compelling.

It's been fascinating to discuss this show with friends and coworkers, because to a large degree it's almost a Rorschach Test for the way you view crime, criminals, heck, even life and the truth. You learn a lot about people just by hearing their opinions and what they experienced in the past that contributes to their views.

For instance, I'm heavily influenced by a murder that took place in my hometown, where I knew both the murderers and the victim, and it doesn't surprise me at all, as it seems to surprise Koenig, that it's possible someone could be both charming and a murderer. I also to this day remember so many details of finding out about that murder in my hometown, which happened more than fifteen years ago, that I find it hard to believe that Adnan wouldn't be able to remember what happened on the day the police asked him about his missing ex-girlfriend. It wasn't just some random day.

Many people have written of the biases of the show, but one element of bias that I haven't seen fully addressed is the bias of the good story.

It's not a great story if we found out the guy who is behind bars for committing a crime is the one who committed the crime. If Koenig had discovered conclusive proof around Episode 2 that Adnan committed the crime, there wouldn't have really been a show, and certainly not the most popular podcast of all time. Sure, Koenig likes Adnan and that may have influenced her, but to me what really seemed to drive her was a sense on her part, even a hope, that there was more to the story. Consciously or unconsciously, in the absence of proving Adnan's innocence outright, she had every incentive to leave as many threads dangling as possible.

So while Koenig dove deep into possibly exculpatory inconsistencies in Jay's various testimonies (which, to be fair, were wildly inconsistent) and into things like whether there really was a pay phone at a Best Buy, other things that in Koenig's parlance were "bad for Adnan," like the letter from Hae that told him to back off and which had the words "I will kill" scrawled on it, and the "Mr. B." who pled the fifth at the grand jury, received scant attention. When she did dive deep into "bad for Adnan" threads they felt oddly tangential to the heart of the story, like whether Adnan absconded with mosque funds.

The facts as they have been presented certainly cast doubt on whether Adnan was fairly convicted, and if anything is gained from the popularity of the show, I hope a sober reexamination will take place. But I also lack confidence that the "bad for Adnan" threads were pursued, or treated, with equal vigor.

That's partly why I was equal parts compelled and unnerved when listening to "Serial," and extremely uncomfortable when reading Jay's recent interviews with The Intercept and wondering what Hae's family must think. These are real lives being disrupted and very painful memories being resurrected for a murky purpose. Is this entertainment? Journalism? An uncomfortable mixture?

And sure, let's get this mandatory part out of the way. Based on everything I have heard, I lean toward thinking Adnan committed the crime though am doubtful I would have voted to convict if I were on the jury. But it makes me uncomfortable to even type those words. Who am I to even have an opinion about all of this?

Have you listened to the show? What do you think?






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