Troubling Revelations in “Serial” Episode 10

I’m not usually very analytical or serious on this blog, but as I was hunkering down on my day off—because I’m sick to my bones—to listen to another episode of Serial, I found myself jolting upright immediately when I heard the following quote:

“You can hear me not believe her, right? The notion that the cops and prosecutors in this case were driven by anti-muslim feeling, by racism, and by racism alone—that, I felt very hard to believe. And I still don’t believe that, by the way. But I didn’t want to write off what she was saying either, because maybe anti-muslimness crept in, contributed in some way to how the investigation and the prosecution operated, advertently or inadvertently.”

I immediately took to Twitter… but God damn it, looks like I have to do this again. And I’m not the only one. But I’m going to start from the beginning, from when I was listening to her interview with Slate done by Mike Pesca on Thanksgiving.

Her Recent Interview with Slate

In lieu of another episode of Serial during Thanksgiving week, Sarah Koenig went onto Slate’s podcast for an interview about her work. And although I’m sure the interview was more in the vein of understanding her as a person and discussion Serial as a new-age phenomenon, it contained something else. During this episode, it was made abundantly clear that she had no critical thought at all about the consequences of her podcast. Never mind the fact that she’s been reviving the scarred and buried incident that tore apart a largely-minority community, but the fact that she had no additional thought of her work in the scale of America’s culturally changing tapestry is mind blowing to me.

And, to solidify my opinions, I forced myself to listen to the interview yet again. This is what I’ve personally transcribed, without the bits of broken conversation in between:

Mike Pesca: the stakes are pretty high here (paraphrased)… there’s a lot on your shoulders.
Koenig: Yeah… I mean… I…. I don’t feel like life-and-death is on my shoulders, I feel like, you know, this girl was killed fifteen years ago and that’s a hard—that’s not going to change no matter what I do [laughs].
Pesca: I mean the stakes of getting this WRONG… I would imagine—they’re higher than any reporting I’ve done. If you get it wrong… if you mischaracterize something, if you point a finger that turns out not to be the case—even if your reasons are great that has higher stakes than anything you’ve ever done.
K: [Makes dissenting noise] Trying to think… Maybe! Maybe, yeah, thanks for that. Now I feel great!

K: I guess… I don’t feel crushed by that, um, in terms of the level of anxiety, just because again—and I don’t say this in a way where I’m tooting my own horn or something, I just say it because out of necessity, we’re having to be so careful for this reason, that I feel like we are being very careful and very responsible in our reporting. And so I just—I’m not… I don’t feel so scared.

And I get where she’s coming from. She wants to be the journalist. The one that’s unfazed by anything thrown her way. The one that is focused solely on her work. But that is simply a non-realistic view of journalism—any art or creative forum simply cannot operate under these rules. Anything and everything creatives do is a large part of current events and helps in shaping a culture. Why? Because it affects other people.

Dismissing the Minority Experience

People have different experiences. Still with me? That is basically FACT by now. People of different ages, yes, people of different socioeconomic status, yes. However, when it comes to “People of different races have different experiences,” how are people still denying that? And that experience shapes how they view their world—how secure they feel in a predominant, entho-centric culture?

Let’s get this out of the way: Sarah Koenig is a white woman, and that gives her a certain perspective that lends a blind eye to certain experiences that she is not be privy to. One of these experiences include the minority experience.

The notion that the cops and prosecutors in this case were driven by anti-muslim feeling, by racism, and by racism alone—that, I felt very hard to believe.

First of all, that quote shows how easily she dismisses the minority experience; how easily she dismisses what someone else feels after their experiences in the US. The woman is outright telling you that she has been on the receiving end of many off-color comments, treatment, etc, due to her race and Sarah Koenig refuses to believe that it’s even a possibility. What gives Koenig the authority to dismiss that woman’s experience? Do you know why minorities talk about race so often? Because it’s such a large part of our experience. And I’m not just talking about the outright racial slurs that certain individuals choose, but subconscious behaviors that are a reaction to certain racial biases.

Overt racial bias vs. subconscious racial bias

I think we as a nation have the most difficult time understanding this concept. Yes, we may have largely eradicated overt racism, although certain gems in our pop culture history (see Roo’s death in the Hunger Games movie) reminds us that no, even OVERT racism we haven’t overcome.

But let’s disregard overt racism, because that’s just too easy. It’s too easy to know when someone’s an overt racist, when someone’s being overtly prejudiced against someone else due to unchangeable factors. Let’s focus on the subconscious racial prompts that we’ve all been taught throughout our lives, specifically in relation to criminal justice. Again, I would prefer people to read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow because it’s so much better stated in that book.

  • There are systems built into our criminal justice system that make targeting people of certain races easier: sentencing on crack vs. cocaine. Although pharmaceutically similar, crack is more prevalent in poor black neighborhoods and receives a punishment of 5 years for possession whereas cocaine, more prevalent in affluent white neighborhoods, it takes more than a few ounces for incarceration. [source]
  • Both drug use and transfer are statistically done more by whites, however it is the black community that gets targeted more.
  • When you hear the term “welfare queen” and “drug lord,” what comes to mind?

Like Koenig’s work, our thoughts are not in a vacuum. From the minute we are born, we process all the information that we receive each day—a large amount of the facts we receive come from the media and how often can we say that they offer a completely unbiased perspective of an event? And whatever we receive subconsciously, we therefore produce subconsciously, no matter how “careful” you’re trying to be with something so high-stakes as this.

But in Serial‘s case, we’re talking about muslims, who are still a minority. The anti-muslim backlash after that was severe and very real; what may have been covert prejudice before this event occurred became overt; airport security were now allowed to openly profile muslim people as potential threats. Although this case did happen in 1999, before 9/11 even happened, Sarah Koenig’s lens is definitely post-9/11 and it’s still refuting the possibility that there is prejudice in our legislative system… so much so that minorities that are second- or even third-generation still feel like an “other” in society.

In Light of Current Events

Last, but certainly not least, her glib comment makes me wonder if she lives in a vacuum. Prior to the airing of this episode, I did wonder why race was not mentioned at all in her investigative journalism. Was it because she honestly didn’t see race as part of this case (ignorance on her part) or because she was trying so hard to make it not about race (fault on her part/to appeal to the This American Life audience)? After the interview and after episode 10, however, I realized. It was truly ignorance that explained the gaping hole of racial discourse in the podcast. And for a journalist that has such an impressive resume, this is a shame.

In light of what has been happening in America for the past few weeks—the Ferguson events in Missouri, the death of Eric Garner—both events, which have been plaguing all of the news has affected her not at all. After all the rallies, protests, and online participation (look up #CrimingWhileWhite), she still completely refuses that race plays a role in the American environment. Or, maybe this is her way of presenting her opinion. Maybe she has been keeping up with current events—after all, you’d have to be dead not to at least glance at a headline somewhere—and this is her way of saying that she condones what’s going on, that she condones sidelining the minority experience, advertently or inadvertently. Either way, it’s a bias.

There’s one thing in not letting her audience and events color her perspective, but it’s completely a different thing if you don’t acknowledge the possibility at all. We don’t live in a vacuum, whatever we do, there are consequences to these actions. And it’s about time Sarah Koenig realizes that she has more of an responsibility than most journalists because it’s such a personal medium (she is so ingrained that she is essentially a character in the show) and because she is reaching a lot of people with this podcast.

Additional Readings

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