The End of Serial, Part Two

by Michelle Dean

Adnan Syed

Well, it’s over. And naturally, in the way of Serial, my view on it is an internally incoherent, conflicted mess.

I suppose if you are afraid of spoilers you’d better stop reading here, though I’ve always thought the idea of being “spoiled” maps awkwardly onto non-fiction.

But I can’t write about Serial without calling today’s episode “meandering.” Over close to an hour, Koenig wandered through new interviews that didn’t resolve any questions, dropped a quick serial killer theory into the mix and digressed for quite awhile about AT&T billing practices. And then she came to a careful, qualified and ultimately inconclusive, er, conclusion:

If you asked me to swear that Adnan Syed is innocent, I couldn’t do it. I nurse doubt. I don’t like that I do, but I do. I mean most of the time I think he didn’t do it.

My first thought was that a lot of people are going to write editorials about how unsatisfactory an ending this was. That was a theme of Serial commentary for the beginning: people were begging for the catharsis of a good ending. They were maybe begging for it a little too hard, myself included. Some people wanted a good story; others wanted good reporting. I tend to agree with the Texas Monthly‘s Pamela Colloff, who I interviewed for the Guardian last week about Serial. I think it’s better to have some idea where you’re going with a story, as a reporter, before you put it in front of the public.

But overnight I got to thinking about the analogy people sometimes draw between Serial and the Paradise Lost documentaries about the West Memphis Three. It’s certainly true that the first of those did more or less what Serial did. Gathering a great deal of information about an unsatisfying case up in its arms and then dumping it onto the screen, the documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky simply sowed doubt. In fact, the first two documentaries point the finger at what was ultimately determined to be the wrong alternative suspect, if anything. They were just as digressive and speculative as Serial. And yet: those documentaries did ultimately lead to the West Memphis Three getting out of prison.

Though even now, after their release, it’s still not clear who murdered the three children in Robin Hood Hills. And even though it pretty clearly wasn’t Damien Echols, Jesse Miskelley, and Jason Baldwin, technically, on paper, they haven’t been exonerated. They entered an Alford plea, which is something of a declaration of stalemate where the truth is concerned. So even the catharsis of that ending was a little false, a little ersatz.

A lot about innocence and guilt is about gut feeling. Jurors vote based on gut feelings. And at least Koenig’s honest about what’s animating hers:

For big reasons, like the utter lack of evidence but also small reasons, things he said to me just off the cuff, or moments when he’s cried on the phone and tried to stifle it so I wouldn’t hear.

I also have this gut feeling that Syed is innocent, particularly if I’m answering the narrow question of whether he should have been convicted here. There was a really thin evidentiary record. Really thin. Like most Serial obsessives, I’ve looked at far more documents than the show provided. They make it clear that the state’s theory of the case is complete hogwash. Syed was convicted mostly because of the alchemy of the trial. He was screwed, judicially speaking, by the witches’ brew of a disorganized defense lawyer, an eyewitness who seems to have been relatively convincing on the stand but who was also clearly coached (outside the view of jurors) to get his testimony to match a cell phone call sheet, a certain amount of ignorance on the part of the jurors about Islam and a charming, lucid defendant who was instructed not to take the stand.

But just as I have views of how the evidence was presented at trial, I’ve found some of Serial’s choices utterly baffling. The worst one, by my lights, was that we got no context on the wider picture of justice in Baltimore in 1999. Koenig dutifully related that the prosecutor had stepped out of line when he provided the main state’s witness, Jay, with free private counsel. What she either could not or did not explain was whether prosecutorial misconduct of this kind was rampant in Baltimore. She also seemed rather late to the party in only addressing the role of prejudice against Muslims in the case. She got to it in episode 10 of 12, in a case where Islam was the explicit lynchpin of the motive. And even then, her coverage of it was cursory, glancing. It was too little, too late.

Other versions of that sort of criticism appear here, and here. I mostly held my tongue on it until the end because I agreed with those who said that it seemed a little unfair to ding Serial for it until the show was over. There was always the possibility, I agreed, that Koenig wanted to bring it up later for story structure reasons, for clarity. I might quibble with how she presented things but I couldn’t make any definitive statement while there were still new episodes left.

But here we are at the end, and: nothing about the larger criminal justice system in Baltimore was said. The religious bias questions were never touched again.

Even writing this I feel a little churlish. As I said yesterday, I’ve done enough reporting to see that Serial simply dramatized what an imperfect quest for the truth reporting can be. That’s why journalists, in particular, are obsessed with it; they see their own flaws reflected back at them, I think, though only the best are willing to admit it.

And even if the Monday-morning quarterbacking was annoying at times, I think it was also part of the point. Half the point of serializing any story is inciting the fervent, week-by-week breathless curiosity of the masses. You can’t fault them for responding accordingly. I’d hoped at some point Koenig might acknowledge it in the show itself, talk about how it might have shaped her. But she’s clearly not much for self-conscious meta-journalism. She insisted to the New York Times magazine, “I’m a reporter.”

And I keep thinking about how she said that one “bare fact” was key to her gut feeling:

“Why on earth would a guilty man agree to let me do this story, unless he was cocky to the point of delusion?”

Five million listeners, countless hours of human effort expended and no exoneration on the horizon later, it’s still a good question.

(Photo of Adnan Syed from Serial.)

The End of Serial, Part One

by Michelle Dean

Tomorrow morning will see the airing of the very last episode of Serial. At this point everyone’s spilled so much ink on the podcast you might be feeling some fatigue, but I’ll throw my own writing on the subject your way anyway. I’ve been following closely and also doing some reporting on the subreddit that became a sort of second character on the show as things moved along. It has been a strange, sad, and oddly moving to experience and observe this phenomenon. I’m still trying to figure out what to make of it all.

I’ll write more in the morning once I’ve heard the episode, but it seemed worth recording my last-Serial-eve feelings of trepidation with you. I am not expecting fireworks tomorrow. I am expecting a whimper.

I may be wrong to do so. It’s of course possible Koenig will announce that she has found evidence either that Adnan Syed is either innocent or guilty of the murder he is now in prison for. But more likely, I think, is that we’ll get a kind of meditation on how weird this whole experience has been for Koenig herself. And then she’ll sign off. And we’ll all be left looking at each other, wondering exactly what it is we’ve done by opening this whole case up to rabid public attention if there was no endgame in sight.

It may sound like I’m condemning Koenig there. I’m not. I’m oddly sympathetic to her. I don’t think she could have predicted the rabid attention this podcast got, and I especially don’t think she could have predicted that the last episode of this show would come freighted with so many feelings. Tonight has got to be a strange night of her life.

And you know, I’ve done enough of my own reporting to know that this is the way things are, if you do non-fiction. Sometimes stories don’t pan out. Life doesn’t offer happy endings. Telling stories about other people involves, all too frequently, hurting them. It most certainly involves leaving them to their own devices after you’re done reporting, to live on their lives as people who were once written about. I think most of my weird feelings amount to that, actually: what will happen to Adnan Syed now, one the white hot spotlight of national obsession leaves him?

Hackers Now Forcing Us to Defend The First Amendment By Way of James Franco

by Michelle Dean

Sony has more or less given up on The Interview, it seems, in light of threats from the shadowy collective that’s claimed credit for hacking them. They’re telling theatres they don’t have to run the film. They have done so even though DHS seems not to find the threats particularly credible. A large number of theatres, apparently, have taken them up on the offer. Naturally, this is inspiring consternation.

Judd Apatow is fulminating about the cowardice of the theatres: “Will they pull any movie that gets an anonymous threat now?” I doubt it. Because the problem here is really that the theatres are faced with an anonymous threat everyone knows about. Whatever substance of the threats might or might not have, no one wants to be the movie theatre chain that took the risk in full view of the American public. Post-Aurora, it is regrettably easy to imagine how things might happen, and it would only take one person to cause a serious problem. I bet those theatres feel their hands are tied.

Theirs aren’t the only ones, by the way. All over Twitter I’m suddenly seeing calls to see The Interview as a matter of defending freedom of speech. And you know, I’ve been skeptical of the way that Sony executives have been defending the privacy of their business records in the aftermath of the hack. But I take the point that it’s infuriating to be held hostage to this sort of thing. We don’t yet know whether we’re talking about fourteen-year-olds in someone’s basement or people who are actually dangerous.

I just think that the most infuriating thing of all might be that we’re going to feel the tug of civic obligation to see what looks like a very terrible movie. And all in the name of the First Amendment. That’s #democracy2014 for you.

The Delights Of Penelope Fitzgerald

by Michelle Dean

Today is Penelope Fitzgerald’s birthday. Let’s celebrate it, because Americans don’t celebrate Penelope Fitzgerald nearly enough.

Penelope_FitzgeraldI mentioned yesterday that one of the books that has really stuck with me this year is Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. I was drawn to the biography in the first place because I like Fitzgerald’s books – The Bookshop is tops with me, but I like The Blue Flower too, obviously – of course. Though as someone raised on Alice Munro with general doses of Mavis Gallant, I’m probably genetically programmed to love the writings of shrewd, intelligent, but ultimately despairing British Commonwealth writers. Also, I’d been having a weird fall working on my own book. And I could justify reading the Lee as a sort of research. “I’m skimming for structure,” I told a friend. “I want to know how Lee puts these things together.” And she is, yes, a wonderful biographer and I always learn new tricks from her.

But these were excuses. I was doing the thing people write whole essays decrying: I was reading the biography out of an impulse not far from a reader of self-help. I wanted to know how Fitzgerald did it. And I loved what I found out.

Some things I already knew, of course. For example, that Fitzgerald didn’t publish her first book until the age of 58. Her first proper novel didn’t appear until she was 60. If you’re not the sort of writer who ascended to the stratosphere right away, these are cheering numbers. They represent hope. Even if you spend your whole life struggling, Fitzgerald’s trajectory suggests that late in life there might be a breakthrough. You might become a great.

There’s more hope to be found, as it turns out. Though I’d read Offshore before, I hadn’t quite cottoned on to the fact that Fitzgerald’s struggles included her houseboat actually sinking into the Thames. That put my first writing apartment, a basement affair in which the ceiling fell in twice from bad plumbing in the two years I lived there into real perspective, let me tell you.

Fitzgerald’s example also casts hopeful new light on the problem of awful people who don’t like your work. Fitzgerald won the Booker for Offshore in 1980, went on television in celebration with the other finalists and proceeded to be insulted by everyone present. She’d upset V.S. Naipaul for the prize and evidently others felt she didn’t deserve it. Quoth Fay Weldon on the announcement of Fitzgerald’s win, with Fitzgerald sitting right there: “I felt as though something had hit me very hard on the head.” It was like Twitter, except in real life. And yet Fitzgerald was the one who made the best British novelists lists. I’d say she won out.

Talking About The Law Of Rape

by Michelle Dean

At the New Yorker, Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk writes that it’s getting harder to teach the law of rape on campus. She describes a collision course between her desire to teach the hard cases – ones where the parameters of consent may be tested – and the sensitivities of students. Her list of the particulars is sobering:

Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic. These organizations also ask criminal-law teachers to warn their classes that the rape-law unit might “trigger” traumatic memories. Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well. One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word “violate” in class—as in “Does this conduct violate the law?”—because the word was triggering.

It’s worth saying that I bet some of these organizations and students would quibble with Suk’s description of events. The last sounds particularly apocryphal, I have to say, like it’s gotten misdescribed in the re-telling to better fit a stereotype of campus politics. It’s not just sexual assault stories that tend to get molded to fit an agenda.

It’s harder to object, though, to what Suk describes as a growing fear and apprehensiveness about even broaching the subject of rape:

About a dozen new teachers of criminal law at multiple institutions have told me that they are not including rape law in their courses, arguing that it’s not worth the risk of complaints of discomfort by students. Even seasoned teachers of criminal law, at law schools across the country, have confided that they are seriously considering dropping rape law and other topics related to sex and gender violence. Both men and women teachers seem frightened of discussion, because they are afraid of injuring others or being injured themselves.

While obviously I haven’t faintest idea of what’s specifically been going on at Harvard or other American law schools, I believe that this fear is real because I’ve felt it too.

For most of this past year I took a break from writing about sexual violence. I have what I’d call both strong and considered beliefs on the subject. I’ve spent time talking to and working with victims as a law student and an attorney. I’ve also done my time as a writer in the varied and raucous (and often misrepresented) trenches of the “feminist blogosphere.” My knowledge of the subject is neither that of an amateur, nor even the surface investment of a pundit.

It’s long been apparent to me that no side of this debate is right.

Unqualifiedly believing victims without trying to substantiate their claims doesn’t serve them well, but unqualifiedly doubting doesn’t work either. Calling the current state of the prosecution of rape as “truth-seeking” is misdescribing the process, no matter what evidentiary reform is out there. If you want to teach the hard cases in rape law, I think you have to grapple with those questions carefully. I don’t think it can be enough to simply dismiss that entire part of the discussion as the product of oversensitivity.

Even long experience could not rescue me in the public discussion about Woody Allen earlier this year, though. It was some kind of rape rubicon for me. I hated having to address it. It felt like no matter what I wrote, it was “wrong.” I actually switched jobs to get away from the subject.

But what had caused me to despair of the state of conversation is largely, though not entirely, the opposite of what Suk describes. Whenever I wrote about sexual violence I ended up accused of advocating dogma, of being a bad journalist, of creating an atmosphere where “truth-telling” was impossible. I was also, frankly, tired of being stereotyped as a “feminist blogger” merely for addressing it. If I wrote that there was even some small modicum of value in people believing victims of trauma, I was accused of foreclosing all further discussion.

In other words, knees can jerk on every side of aisle.

That isn’t to say that I felt no pressure from the opposite side. I have also become uneasy with the fact that these rape stories were traffic bonanzas for the various places I write for. And I cringed watching people try to react to the dismantling of the Rolling Stone story in real time according to the well-worn treads of this debate.

But then I come back again to nuance. It’s not a simple matter of dishonest clickbaiting, from my vantage. Over the years I have watched lots of friends turn themselves inside-out emotionally to recount their own sexual assaults over and over in op-eds. They do so out of an honest hope to be heard in the yelling that happens whenever these stories come up. But they also do so at the encouragement of editors who, though well-intentioned, also know full well that the traffic returns could be enormous. And I have my own theories about how all of that intersects with what happened at Rolling Stone.

But like most things in life, it’s complicated. The resistance to nuance is general. Literally no one seems to want to have a careful conversation about any of this. We’re just reiterating the same old positions. Believe them. Don’t. The courts are just. The courts are unfair. Ironically everyone is too busy talking to ask: how can we really have a conversation about this?

Tumblr Of The Day

by Michelle Dean


2014 has been a terrible year full of awfulness. The second half is unmatched for grimness in recent memory. It’s been so bad, actually, that my personal list of wishes for 2015 is already a mile long. Here’s just the tip of my iceberg: less hacking of any kind, fewer deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of the police, more prosecutions of state officials responsible for torture, an end to defensive press releases from any member of the Cosby family, a Supreme Court with more than passive familiarity with the female reproductive system, and single-payer health care for every American adult and child.

But if I can have none of that, I would at least like to have more Werner Herzog in my life. Is there a better guide for times of existential and political despair? There is not. The cruelties of fate are easier to bear when narrated in dulcet German tones.

IMDB informs me that in 2015 I can expect the release of a Herzog movie about Gertrude Bell. That is the kind of thing you’ll find me in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk waiting to see, James Franco’s presence in the cast notwithstanding. Until then I intend to survive on the Werner Herzog Inspirationals tumblr, which a kind and equally festive-feeling friend pointed out to me today. This should be great scrolling next week, too, when we’re all going mad at home for the holidays.

The Pessimist’s View of Facts

by Michelle Dean

It hasn’t been a good fall for firm believers in stable capital-T Truth, has it?

The courtroom, which Americans often seem to venerate as a kind of church, hit a lot of speedbumps. Here’s just two: A significant swath of the country was obsessed with Serial, the podcast which deconstructed a fifteen-year-old murder prosecution in Baltimore and found more than a few factual holes in the case. But unless some big reveal is waiting for us in the Thursday finale, the podcasters didn’t find exonerating evidence, either, for the man convicted of the offense. Similarly, in spite of the theatrics of a three-month grand jury, the “truth” about what happened to Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 5 remains subject to considerable dispute. (The very latest from The Smoking Gun has it that one of the key witnesses in the case had a history of racism and fabrication.)

And it’s obviously not just the court system that seems to be failing at truth-telling. The debacle of Rolling Stone‘s article about rape at the University of Virginia rages on. It’s exposed what a lot of journalists already knew: even the fanciest magazine pieces can have shadowy bits and rely on unconfirmed accounts. As though to prove that point, just yesterday New York magazine found itself thrown onto a similar fire when the New York Observer revealed that a high-schooler had entirely fabricated his account of being a multi-millionaireNew York is fact-checked, but that wasn’t a failsafe here.

For some people this is very depressing. They’ll write you long op-ed pieces decrying the work of lazy judges, craven lawyers, and shoddy reporters. There’s often a sense of betrayal driving those pieces, anger at professionals for not doing their jobs. I don’t excuse any malfeasance of course, and my opinion of Bob McCulloch is extremely low. But I’m rather more ambivalent about whether it’s a bad thing that we all recognize that the Truth isn’t one, and it’s often hard to uncover.

Obviously I’d like not to have to second-guess every piece of big journalism I read. Obviously I’d like to think that the courts are doing the best they can. But I was once a lawyer. Seeing how courtroom sausage got made undermined any faith I’d had in the relationship between litigation and the truth. I’ll spare you my full Eeyore on this subject, but suffice to say that the rules of evidence, and the winner-takes-all attitude of the judicial system, don’t have much to do with finding out what really happened.

When I first became a journalist I thought that things in this field would be better. But then I learned to report by being someone’s fact-checker. It was intellectually transformative. Trying to nail down the simplest things, like dates, turned into hours of discussion, phone calls, cross-checking documents and interview transcripts and more than once, the weather report. There were few outright lies involved, but lots of half-memories, mix-ups, and forgetfulness. The truth could get to be a bit of a black hole.

Recognizing that doesn’t, to my mind, excuse laziness. If anything it makes you more vigilant than you might otherwise be. It makes you want to ask about the work behind the story. Call me a glum Canadian if you like, but I think self-doubt can actually be positive. I don’t think the blind self-confidence we encourage in prosecutors and sometimes journalists is always that great for them. The latter half of 2014 has been clear enough testament of that.