Serial, a new podcast spin-off of This American Life, may have created a new form of media consumption: the binge listen. New listeners are likely to ingest every episode (eight so far) of the real life murder mystery in a single day. Once hooked, fans start debating, speculating, and comparing theories in the same manner they do Game of Thrones or Lost. There is an entire subreddit devoted to theories and discussion, an online parody, and weekly recaps on a Slate podcast.
Serial follows journalist Sarah Koenig's present-day investigation into the 1999 murder of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee. The murder was pinned on her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, but the motive is vague and much of the evidence and testimony sketchy. The story is filled with twists and mysteries, and also forms a brilliant portrait of both the slipperiness of truth and the effort that goes into real investigative journalism. If you haven't listened yet, go play the first episode. You'll understand why BuzzFeed called it the best crime drama of the year.
For a nonfiction show to develop the same kind of addictive feel as prestige TV dramas is surprising, and for that nonfiction show to be purely audio is remarkable. The phenomenon also raises some tricky ethical questions. The characters in Serial are all real humans and the crime was a real crime. What does it mean for fans to be spinning fantastic conspiracy theories about real people with the same vigor they debate the ending of The Sopranos or the parentage of Jon Snow? Are the untrained online fans doing their own investigations — tracking down Facebook profiles, studying documents mentioned in the podcast — helping to solve the case or merely being irresponsible? And how much of our interest is in the truth and how much in a satisfying narrative?
Recently I was discussing the show with some acquaintances who were saying how angry they would be if the show ends on a "we'll never really know the truth" note. I said that seemed like the most likely outcome, as any legal change or truly revelatory evidence would likely be reported by other news outlets. One person suggested it was possible that Koenig could be preventing the reporting of relevant details until the podcast was over — as if "spoilers" were a more pressing concern than criminal justice.
I binge-listened to Serial last weekend and immediately went online to read people's theories. The show is highly engrossing and the case does feel like a genuine mystery. The way Koenig structures the "chapters" leaves the listener changing their mind about the case a half-dozen times an episode. It is frequently compared to Truman Capote's brilliant true crime novel In Cold Blood. While listening and reading the surrounding commentary, though, I couldn't help but think of my favorite true crime book: Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer. This is one book that every fan of Serial should run out and read.
Malcolm's book is relevant to the show on several levels. First off, the book investigates another real-life murder case and a (possibly) wrongly incarcerated man that will captivate Serial fans. In 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald's pregnant wife and two young daughters were found brutally murdered. MacDonald claimed he had been knocked out and that his family was murdered by a group of evil drug-crazed hippies. He was initially let off by an army investigation, but in 1979 he was found guilty by a criminal court. To this day, he maintains his innocence. The murder has been the subject of three important nonfiction books: Joe McGinniss' Fatal Vision that declared MacDonald "a narcissistic sociopath," Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murder that declares the case unsolvable, and Errol Morris' A Wilderness of Error that argues MacDonald was innocent.
Even more important than the murder investigation is the fact that Malcolm's book is an investigation into the ethics of journalism. Like Koenig, Malcolm gives you a fascinating look at the investigative process as well as commentary on the process itself. Koenig regularly interjects her reasons for withholding information or explains why she is backtracking on previous claims or opinions. Many fans have claimed her self-aware style of reporting is what got them hooked. Malcolm is self-aware as well, but goes even further to point out the ethical issues inherent to journalism. Here are the opening lines of the book:
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know"; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.
Harsh words for one's own profession. Here's where — Sarah Koenig style — I should back up and explain that Malcolm's book is not only an investigation of the MacDonald murder case, but also an investigation into a second case involving Jeffrey MacDonald. Remember how I said several books were written about MacDonald's case? The first, McGinniss' Fatal Vision, was written after McGinniss became embedded in MacDonald's legal team. In the years after the case that it took to write Fatal Vision, McGinniss kept up a close friendship with MacDonald and never let on that he had already decided that MacDonald was guilty and was about to damn him with a best-selling book. When Fatal Vision came out, MacDonald sued McGinniss for violating his life story. And he won — largely, it seems, because the jury was horrified at how McGinniss pretended to be MacDonald's friend.
At years of deception and false friendship, McGinniss might be an extreme case, but Malcolm alleges that the journalist is always complicit in this moral issue. No one is saying Koenig is intentionally leading Adnan on, but some have found the relationship the strangest mystery on Serial. Strange or not, Koenig and Adnan's relationship is at the heart of the podcast and, Malcolm would say, necessarily problematic. The journalist is always duping the subject into thinking they are going to tell the subject's story, when they are always planning to tell their own story.
There is a moment in episode six of Serial when Adnan asks Koenig why she is so interested in the case. Koenig says that she's grown to really like and be interested in Adnan. "You're a really nice guy," she says. (One can't help but think Koenig is holding back from saying that he makes a good character for an engrossing serial narrative.) Adnan becomes annoyed and says that just once he'd like someone to be invested in the case not because he is "a really nice guy," but because they think the evidence was insufficient and the case was faulty.
I'll step back here again and say that I am not critiquing Koenig's ethics or journalism at all. Serial is compelling in large part because Koenig, like Malcolm, is well aware of the issues and traps of journalism. Serial is utterly captivating as entertainment, and Koenig's journalism strikes me as being as fair and honest as journalism can be. But what The Journalist and the Murder shows is that even this is necessarily a partial and distorted picture — nonfiction journalism always involves lies, distortion, and deceit.
Malcolm also points out that this duplicity goes both ways. MacDonald was trying to use McGinniss for his own purposes as surely as McGinniss was using MacDonald for his. The journalist and the subject(s) always have conflicting interests. Additionally, even true crime stories are necessarily stories. Koenig is constructing the narrative of Serial based on the logic of storytelling as much as the truth. Many of the twists and mysteries that Serial expertly places would unravel if you listened to the episodes in a different order. And is Koenig truly on the fence about Adnan's guilt, or is she only pretending to be to keep us interested?
Serial is one of the most compelling shows around on any medium. I'll be eager to listen to today's episode. When I do, I'll be keeping the lessons of The Journalist and the Murderer in mind. You should too.
Lincoln Michel is the online editor of Electric Literature and co-editor of Gigantic. His work appears in Tin House, The Believer, Oxford American, Pushcart Prize XXXIX, and elsewhere. His debut collection, Upright Beasts, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. Sometimes he draws authors as monsters. He tweets as @TheLincoln.