Serial and the Media’s Self-Obsession
Full disclosure: I’ve not listened to the Serial podcast.
I don’t have to; the show’s ubiquity has made it not just unavoidable, but actually kind of annoying.
Seriously, Serial’s received more news coverage and analysis than all of 2014's domestic terror attacks, including the cold-blooded murder of policemen in both Pennsylvania in December and in Nevada last June.
Its pervasiveness struck me during the premiere last week of “Life Itself,” CNN’s documentary about Roger Ebert. Like a lot of folks, I watch TV while casually scouring social media on my mobile devices. I can’t help it, I don’t like to be alone.
As the documentary aired, the following Tweet popped up:
Full disclosure: I didn’t watch Ebert’s bio-flick, either. Yet the Tweet just emphasized the insidious, invasive nature of the podcast.
Produced by the makers of This American Life, Serial questioned whether or not in January, 1999, Baltimore resident Adnan Syed, then 17, murdered his then 18-year-old girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Syed was convicted based on testimony from his former classmate, Jay Wilds, who had helped Syed dispose of Lee’s body. Wilds had chosen not to speak with Serial’s producers.
Serial’s premise is not revolutionary; revisiting crimes and questioning the innocence or guilt of the convicted has been the stock and trade of network and cable news shows for decades now.
Which is what makes Serial obsession even more puzzling.
By all accounts, it’s a hit. According to the Wall Street Journal, by mid-November each episode of Serial had been downloaded 1.26 million times; the UK’s Guardian called it a “global success” after Apple announced that 5 million people worldwide had downloaded or streamed the show from its servers.
Impressive, especially for a podcast, but in the grand scheme of things, not really. There’s a little more than 317 million people in the U.S. More people watch The Walking Dead, and last year, more than 111 million people tuned into the Super Bowl.
Yet the media coverage of Serial is relentless. On a continuum — stuck between the scant coverage of domestic terror (including last week’s attack on an NAACP office in Colorado) and the blanket coverage of the Charlie Hebdo terror attack and its aftermath — Serial hovers in the pop cultural firmament, fetishized, like a kind of porno for journos.
Almost two months after the last episode dropped, the number of news articles about Serial — praising it, vilifying it, condemning the host and her journalistic credibility — and parodies (Funny or Die, Saturday Night Live, and the latest, Serial Dating) continue unabated. Ever found yourself wondering what Serial and Geospatial Analysis have in common? Glad you asked.
A survey of the articles, especially during the podcast’s early days, show a reverence and appreciation — according to CJR, it’s part of the “golden age” of the podcast. As the series progressed, however, there was the predictable backlash, especially within the media; a case of journalistic one-upmanship — culminating last week with the case’s prosecutor telling The Intercept that the affair was “pretty much a run-of-the-mill domestic violence murder.”
What a kill-joy.
Meanwhile, a host of news and entertainment companies race to launch similar “true crime” podcasts, from Reddit to the Discovery Channel. It’s media at the height of a kind of solipsistic wank-fest; a needless re-invention of the wheel.
Serial’s tragedy is not whether Adnan Syed is guilty or innocent — that’s almost incidental to the podcast’s cultural impact. It’s that it has become a closed conversation between a media elite and its bourgie followers; the cool kids having a secret conversation the plebes can’t enjoy. Even the #FreeAdnan hashtag lacks the gravitas of #FreeOurGirls or #JesuisCharlie.
Serial isn’t a cause, it’s a trend. Less a rallying cry for justice denied and more a parlor game for hipsters played over boozy brunches in Williamsburg, Silver Lake or the Hayes Valley, before they go off to listen to the MOTH Radio Hour.
I’m a huge fan of This American Life and I’ve no doubt Serial’s first season was as compelling as anything its producers have ever created. (This from the guy who found himself weeping in traffic while listening to the show’s “Harper High School” when it first aired back in 2013.)
But this preoccupation with Serial — even the show’s criticism is criticized — just exacerbates the argument that the news media is an elitist club, that’s more than a little smug, pandering to an audience with shared, insular values.
Serial appears to be “a good story, well told,” which, of course, is the hallmark of This American Life’s productions. But if a crime of injustice has been committed, it’s that those other, far more relevant stories have taken a backseat to the media’s inexplicable Serial obsession.
… And one final full disclosure: I’m not a fan of podcasts. It’s not that I don’t want to listen, I’m just one of those people who doesn’t go through life wearing headphones. Not at the office, not working out, not walking or cycling through the city. I don’t let anything get between my ears and the world around me.
Sure, I hands-free in the car, or on the phone in general; and out of courtesy in a communal office I’ll put them on if I need or want to hear something. But it’s never for a long time. I’d love to hear Serial on New York’s WNYC on a Saturday afternoon as I drive around running errands.
You know, just before I listen to the MOTH Radio Hour.