What do I know after listening to every episode of Serial? Nothing. I know absolutely nothing, except that it wasted my damn time, and I really hate it when that happens. Did you know sometimes we send people to prison on flimsy evidence? Did you know investigators can manipulate a witness narrative to fit the evidence they think they have? Did you know sometimes the wrong people go to jail? Did you know the American criminal justice system sucks?
Yes. You did. Either you did, or you should have before listening to Serial. If you didn't, please don't be proud of just now realizing this. That's like admitting you just learned where to vote; it implies all those times you weren't voting. And you gotta ignore a lot of things to think anything Serial showed us was new. Unless, of course, you get most of your news from public radio, which mostly ignores local murders, making you that person who has no idea about the local string of smash-and-grabs at the 7-Eleven, but knows all about the government in the Balkans. Great: That person learned something. Maybe that counts for a bonus point.
Let me back up a little. Serial is a podcast that's been putting out a new episode each week for 12 weeks; it's from the people behind This American Life, so they know how to tell a story. This story was supposed to be about Adnan Syed, found guilty in the murder of his high school ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Was he falsely convicted? Syed has maintained his innocence for years, and in the first episode of Serial, host Sarah Koenig lays out some pretty solid reasons why Syed might be right. The first episode also was launched on TAL, incredibly popular in its own right, giving the enterprise an insane boost right out of the gate. Serial took that and ran with it. I listen to TAL and quickly got hooked on this, too. The first three episodes were great. The next three were decent. And then there's a shift. To me, it felt like Koenig ran out of reporting.
I know what it feels like to run out of reporting, because I have run out of reporting. It happens to crime reporters all the time. Your boss tells you they've saved a 15-inch hole on 1B for the story, but you've only maybe six inches of copy. The witnesses aren't talking (this happens to Koenig). The cops aren't talking (this happens to Koenig). The victim's family won't speak (this happens to Koenig). Here's the backwards relationship of all crime stories: The minute it happens is when most people want to know everything, but it's also when you know the least about what happened. So you plug. You describe the people crying, the blood splatter, the evidence strewn across the ground, the sounds of the tears, the tagging of the bullet shells, the sheet strewn across the body, how wide an area the cops taped off, even the weather. You talk about what you don't know: the questions the cops won't answer, the stoic silence of the family, the open-ended questions that naturally exist in these situations. The fancy term for this is "reporting with your eyes." Sometimes, these details do come in handy later. Other times, you look back on the story and go, "Yeah, I just had to fill."
Crime reporters do this every day in America. It's just part of the job. We cover crimes, and years later, we revisit crimes. If you're lucky, your story gets on 1A and maybe earns some Internet love. If you're really lucky, somebody prominent blogs about it. But somehow Serial has convinced America this is some fancy-pants new take on radio journalism/longform/podcasting/nonfiction/true crime/magazine writing/all writing forever and ever and ever. It's not. Gene Miller (famously of my journalism alma mater, the Miami Herald) won the Pulitzer Prize twice for his reporting showing four cases of people in Florida wrongly convicted of murder. One case involved a pair of black men, Freddie Lee Pitts and Wilbert Lee, convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death in Florida's panhandle in 1963 for a murder they did not commit. Their case was awash in police brutality, bad lawyers, and straight-up racism. Miller's reporting freed them and was expanded into a book, Invitation to a Lynching. You can get it on Amazon right now, used, for less than $3.
And even less value than those $3 should be assigned to Serial, because 20 years from now, that's where it should be: in the bargain bin of journalism. Throughout its run, people have tried to decide what makes it "problematic." Is it race? Is it a lack of understanding Baltimore at the time? Is it our own biases? No. I think these all stem from one big problem right at the source: Nobody involved knew what they were doing. That's why Koenig is surprised to learn the phrase "gen-pop." That's why half the episodes go by before looping in the Innocence Project. That's why Koenig unfairly spends too much tape whining about her angst over whether Syed is a good person or not, as if she can't wrap her brain around the idea that sometimes good people kill people while many assholes go their whole lives without murdering. Crime reporting is a skill. You get better at it over time. And when you don't do it, you sound like an idiot—like Serial does, over and over and over, until it's practically tripping over itself near the end to pretend like it didn't pick a dud.
Serial does nothing particularly great: The structure is sloppy, the reporting brings us little clarity, there's filler all over it, promises go unfulfilled. This is not a master class of investigative journalism, because it accomplished zero. Ultimately, Koenig does what reporters do when they don't nail a story: She makes it about herself, her quest, and what she learned instead. I got that same advice years ago in a writers group about what to do when you can't nail a story your boss wants. It's the ultimately writerly punt. And here's a punt being called a revolution. But boy, does listening to Serial make you look smart! Kinda like talking about the Balkans! All this show did was make a bunch of sheltered, oblivious, middle-class Americans feel very smart about themselves. Out here, stuck in real life with the rest of us, it was just another day in the courthouse.