White Reporter Privilege

by Jay Caspian Kang

Serial, the hit crime podcast from the hit podcast makers at This American Life, is an immigrant story. Adnan Syed, the man currently serving a life sentence for the murder of Hae-Min Lee, comes from a Muslim family; the deceased is the daughter of Korean immigrants. Sarah Koenig, the journalist telling their story, is white. This, on its face, is not a problem. If Serial were a newspaper story or even a traditional magazine feature, the identities of all three could exist alone as facts; the reader could decide how much weight to place upon them. But Serial is an experiment in two old forms: the weekly radio crime show, and the confessional true-crime narrative, wherein the journalist plays the role of the protagonist. The pretense of objectivity is stripped away: Koenig emerges as the subject as the show’s drama revolves not so much around the crime, but rather, her obsessions with it. Syed and Lee’s lives, then, are presented through Koenig’s translations of two distinct cultures.

To borrow a This American Life-ism: What happens when a white journalist stomps around in a cold case involving people from two distinctly separate immigrant communities? Does she get it right? (Spoilers ahead.)

On Tuesday, I called Rabia Chaudry, one of the prominent voices in Serial. Chaudry, a civil rights attorney, grew up in the same circles as Syed; it was she who initially reached out to Koenig to see if she might be interested in the story. Chaudry said that while Koenig had spent upwards of a year talking to people in the community, she has faced significant stumbling blocks in her understanding of it. “Initially she was kind of confused by the dynamics, especially that dating was such a difficult thing and the extremes people take to cover it up,” Chaudry told me. “I could sense when she was telling the story, the parts where she was confused.”

An example: In the show’s second episode, Koenig says, “Since [Syed] and Hae both had immigrant parents, they understood the expectations, and the constraints: Do well in school, go to college, take care of your younger brother, and for Adnan, no girls.”

Koenig follows up with this statement from Syed:

“You know, it was really easy to date someone that kind of lived within the same parameters that I did with regards to, you know, she didn’t have the expectation to me coming to her house for dinner with her family, you know, she understood that if she was to call my house and speak to my mother or father, I would get in trouble, and vice versa.”

At first blush, Koenig has done her job as a journalist. She has supported her statement about immigrant parents with a quote from the source. The problem is that Syed never says the word “immigrant.” Instead, he says “parameters,” which is about as neutral and clinical of a word as one could come up with in that situation. It’s possible that there are other parts, not heard, in which Syed explains the point further, but if they exist, they have been excised, meaning that all we’re left with is Koenig’s inference that those “parameters” necessarily mean “immigrant culture.” In a startling omission, the Lee family has not yet appeared in Serial. Without their presence, and Koenig’s insistence on directing the reader towards the typical immigrant family who raised the typical American teenager, the Lees and the Syeds have been rendered as Tiger Parents — overbearing and out-of-touch. The problem isn’t just the leap itself — that we would hear about strict parents and assume they were all similar — but Koenig’s confidence that we will make it with her.

It gets worse. Also in the second episode of Serial, Koenig reads passages from Hae’s diary. Koenig notes, “Her diary, by the way — well I’m not exactly sure what I expected her diary to be like but — it’s such a teenage girls diary.” (My emphasis added.) This statement seems to suggest a colorblind ideal: In Koenig’s Baltimore, kids will be kids, regardless of race or background. But I imagine there are many listeners — especially amongst people of color — who pause and ask, “Wait, what did you expect her diary to be like?” or “Why do you feel the need to point out that a Korean teenage girl’s diary is just like a teenage girl’s diary?” and perhaps, most importantly, “Where does your model for ‘such a teenage girl’s diary’ come from?” These are annoying questions, not only to those who would prefer to mute the nuances of race and identity for the sake of a clean, “relatable” narrative, but also for those of us who have to ask them because Koenig is talking about our communities, and, in large part, getting it wrong.

The accumulation of Koenig’s little judgments throughout the show — and there are many more examples — should feel familiar to anyone who has spent much of her life around well-intentioned white people who believe that equality and empathy can only be achieved through a full, but ultimately bankrupt, understanding of one another’s cultures. Who among us (and here, I’m talking to fellow people of color) hasn’t felt that subtle, discomforting burn whenever the very nice white person across the table expresses fascination with every detail about our families that strays outside of the expected narrative? Who hasn’t said a word like “parameters” and watched, with grim annoyance, as it turns into “immigrant parents?” These are usually silent, cringing moments — it never quite feels worth it to call out the offender because you’ll never convince them that their intentions might not be as good as they think they are.

Koenig does ultimately address Syed’s Muslim faith in Serial, but only to debunk the state’s claim that Syed’s murderous rage came out of cultural factors. The discussion feels remarkably perfunctory — Koenig quickly dispenses with Syed’s race and religion. She seems to want Syed and Lee, by way of her diary, to be, in the words of Ira Glass, “relatable,” which, sadly, in this case, reads “white.” As a result, Chaudry believes Koenig has left out an essential part of Syed’s story — that his arrest, his indictment and his conviction were all influenced by his faith and the color of his skin. “You have an urban jury in Baltimore city, mostly African American, maybe people who identify with Jay [an African-American friend of Syed’s who is the state’s seemingly unreliable star witness] more than Adnan, who is represented by a community in headscarves and men in beards,” Chaudry said. “The visuals of the courtroom itself leaves an impression and there’s no escaping the racial implications there.”

“I don’t know to what extent someone who hasn’t grown up in a culture can really understand that culture,” Chaudry added. “I think Sarah tried to get it, but I don’t know if she ever really did. I explained to her that anti-Muslim sentiment was involved in framing the motive in this case, and that Muslims can pick up on it, whereas someone like her, who hasn’t experienced this kind of bigotry doesn’t quite get it. Until you’ve experienced it, you don’t really know it or pick up on it”

Koenig and Serial are hardly alone. The staffs of radio stations, newspapers, and magazines tend to be overwhelmingly white, which leaves reporters and writers with a set of equally troubling options: either ignore stories from communities of color, or report them in the same sort of shorthand that Koenig uses throughout Serial. In loftier media outlets, the second choice usually goes unnoticed because the writer comes from the same demographic as the intended audience. Even the best works of journalism produced by white journalists about minority communities, which includes The Last Shot, Darcy Frey’s chronicle of high school basketball in Coney Island, have the same problem: The writer can feel like an interloper, someone who will stay long enough to write a story and then leave.

This certainly doesn’t mean that people should only write and report about the communities they know or are born into, but if we judge lengthy narratives by their thoughtfulness, the depth of their inquiry and their care, Serial lacks the hard-earned and moving reflections on race found in Frey’s book, or, in, say, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family. Instead, the listener is asked to simply trust Koenig’s translation of two distinct immigrant cultures. I can think of no better definition of white privilege in journalism than that.

There’s a reading of Serial that’s a bit more sympathetic, one in which Koenig has been intentionally presented as a quixotic narrator with Dana, her occasional sidekick on the show, playing the role of Sancho Panza. There’s ample evidence that this is what’s the show is striving for — from the unexpected asides where Dana interrupts one of Sarah’s obsessive rants with a roadside observation (“There’s a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib!”) to the reporting blunders to the callous way in which Koenig sometimes talks to Syed, as if he should be eminently grateful that she, a journalist, has decided to dig into his life. But if Serial is not so much a story of a murder, but rather, the story of how a journalist goes about reporting a story that has grabbed her; and if Koenig is a flawed, unreliable narrator, we should add “cultural tourist” to the list of flaws. That Koenig keeps in the bad, impolitic parts is a testament to the integrity and ambition of the project. But while I am willing to cut “Serial” enough slack to regard it as an experiment in form, I am still disturbed by the thought of Koenig stomping around communities that she clearly does not understand, digging up small, generally inconsequential details about the people inside of them, and subjecting it all to that inimitable “This American Life” process of tirelessly, and sometimes gleefully, expressing her neuroses over what she has found.

In a recent interview with Vulture, Koenig admitted that she was mostly making Serial up as she went along. “Yes, I could say, there was a point where I thought I knew the truth,” she says. “And then I found out that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and I did more reporting, and now I don’t know what I don’t know again! Are you mad at me? Don’t be mad at me!”

When one considers the full extent of what Koenig does not know, this tone, which runs throughout the show, becomes particularly frustrating. Sarah, we’re not mad at you for accomplishing the difficult feat of both whitewashing and stereotyping Hae and Adnan. We’re just cringing, silently, every time you talk about them.