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‘Serial’ Has One Of Those Big Flapping In The Breeze Red Flags Of Journalism

Serial has no resolution. Which wouldn’t be a problem if the creators hadn’t had one in mind before they started.

Spoiler warning.

Serial has no resolution. That wouldn’t be a problem if the creators hadn’t had one in mind before they started.

If you haven’t yet listened to the near-universally acclaimed podcast, here’s a short synopsis: Serial is the story of an inquisitive and affable public-radio journalist named Sarah Koenig who sets out to prove the innocence of a man named Adnan Syed in the 1999 murder of Baltimore County high school student named Hae Min Lee—and fails.

Serial is a critical and commercial sensation. Nearly everyone I know loves it. And Koenig’s conversational style coupled with her exhaustive reporting is a compelling format. Messy, but compelling. Hopefully, the show’s success means that other journalists will be given similar space and time to explore gripping stories. Maybe someone will even revisit this one. Because by episode six, I couldn’t trust Koenig to tell it.

“As a juror I vote to acquit,” Koenig states near the end of the final episode. As if anyone expected another conclusion.

There was the pretense skepticism hovering over the narrative, but the driving force of Serial is Koenig’s advocacy—which is one of those big flapping in the breeze red flags of journalism. “I nurse doubt,” adds Koenig, as she’s wrapping up her year-long investigation, “I don’t like that I do, but I do.”

Why wouldn’t she like nursing doubt?

Detectives were sure Adnan did it. The jury convicted him of murder after deliberating for a mere two hours. To believe Adnan was innocent, you’d have to believe he was one of the most unlucky people to ever set foot in Baltimore. You would have to believe that he was a victim of a string of improbable incidents—or, perhaps, that he was set up. You’d have to believe his lawyer was negligent and that the district attorney was, basically, corrupt. But you’d have to believe all of those things—and more—happened in the same case. And I might believe all those things. Koenig does a good job of raising reasonable doubt in the case. But that’s why trials have two lawyers, rather than a single advocate.

And after more than a year of investigating, fact is, Koenig was unable to unearth any useable exculpatory evidence. (Although Deirdre Enright, the head of the Innocence Project Clinic at University of Virginia Law School, who dropped a mysterious serial killer into the mix at the end of the series, is on the case.) As the end of the project neared, Koenig pleaded for Adnan to recover a memory to help her exonerate him—“I still want to know what you were doing that afternoon.” He has nothing for her.

As a journalistic moment, it’s not pretty. Koenig clearly nurses an affection for Adnan. I don’t mean it in an unseemly romantic way. Yet, listen to those friendly phone conversations she has with a man convicted of the premeditated murder of his girlfriend and subsequent dumping of her body into a shallow grave in a city park. She has doubts? Some of these conversations went on before Koenig came to the realization that Jay’s timeline might be off or that “Nisha call” might be a butt dial. On those rare occasions that an unpleasant question crops up in their friendly exchanges, Koenig is almost apologetic for making Adnan uncomfortable. She gives him the space and time to get back to her with a tidy story later on.

In one instance, Koenig has to be reminded by the convicted killer that she doesn’t really know him. Not in any genuine sense.

KOENIG: My interest in it, honestly, has been you. Like, you’re a really nice guy. Like, I like talking to you, you know? So then, it’s kind of like this question of, well, what does that mean, you know?

ADNAN SYED: Yeah… Oh, I mean, you don’t even really know me though, Koenig. I’m—you don’t. I’m—maybe you do. Maybe, you know—I don’t—we only talk on the phone. I don’t understand what you mean.

You’re a really nice guy? Not to dismiss all the excellent questions she brings up or any of her superb journalistic follow-up, but Koenig spends an inordinate amount of time pondering various preposterous reasons nice-guy Adnan might not be guilty. For instance:

1 – He was too courteous and nice. You can’t fake it.

2 – His friends say he wasn’t the type of guy to do it.

3 – He loves his parents.

4 – He’s probably not a sociopath.

5 – No one lies for 15 years.

6 – He almost cries sometimes when they’re on the phone.

7- “Why on earth” would a guilty man cooperate with her in this type of investigative journalism?

I’d answer most of these like this: It takes a special conceit to believe your emotional IQ is so high you can’t be manipulated. Then again, the one way to avoid being exploited is by vigilantly nursing skepticism—and even then, you can’t always escape being duped. I’d answer number six like so: If someone going to advocate for my cause, why wouldn’t I cooperate? If I’m serving a life sentence for murder, and someone has intimated that they can prove I didn’t strangle my ex-girlfriend, why wouldn’t I oblige them? What do I have to lose?

And speaking of Hae … well, Serial doesn’t. Not in a way that offers us a real insight into the pain her family went through or the sort of young woman she was. Though Koenig spends many hours painting a vibrant, fully-realized picture of a good-natured and intelligent Adnan, what we learn about Hae is largely superficial. She is “smart” and “stubborn.” There are a few hasty words from her other ex-boyfriend (they only dated for 13 days, but she changed his life) and lines from her diary entries (lines that, incidentally, undermine Adnan’s narrative of their post-breakup relationship.) Obviously, there are barriers to telling Hae’s story. But had she been fully realized, listeners may have had a better moral awareness of what Adnan was accused and been more dubious. Who knows? The reporter might have, as well.

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