Brow Beat

Was It Wrong for Maxim to Report That Serial Is Eyeing the Bowe Bergdahl Case?

U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl poses in front of an American flag. 

Photo by U.S. Army via Getty Images

On Tuesday, Maxim reported that the juggernaut podcast Serial (best known from sentences like “Did you listen to last week’s Serial?” and “I am so obsessed with Serial”) is eyeing the case of Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier who mysteriously vanished from his post in Afghanistan in 2009.

Bergdahl says that Taliban insurgents captured him after he intentionally walked off-site in order to protest poor conditions at his camp. His comrades have claimed he snuck dishonorably away and fell into hostile hands. The U.S. government negotiated Bergdahl’s release by freeing five prisoners from detention at Guantanamo Bay; it then turned around and charged the former POW with desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy.”  

Not hard to see why Serial, which last year attempted to unravel a cold murder case from 1999, might be drawn to such a complex and emotionally charged story. And assuming that Maxim’s evidence is solid, its speculation seems pretty sound. According to writer Matthew Farwell, host Sarah Koenig was seen at Bergdahl’s recent court hearing in San Antonio, Texas. And Farwell says he spoke to two former members of the soldier’s unit in Afghanistan, both of whom reported being interviewed by Serial producers. (Both seemed wary of Koenig’s motives: “Anyone who tries to benefit from Bowe’s situation has little interest in the truth,” said one. “I get it that … Serial is trying to make a nifty diorama for hipsters to marvel at, but I think it’s the height of crassness for them to do this when it could potentially affect the legal proceedings,” said another.)

When I reached out to the Serial folk for comment on the Maxim piece, producer Emily Condon replied only that the “team hasn’t confirmed their topic for Season 2 yet. Over the last few months they’ve been reporting on a variety of stories for both seasons 2 and 3 of Serial, along with other podcast projects.”

Yet, pressed for information, Condon sent a more sharply worded email to Maxim’s Farwell. “We’d very much appreciate if fellow journalists would give us some room and not feel the need to attempt to dig into and try to figure out what you think we might be doing, especially since we’re actively reporting stories, and having a bunch of wild speculation out there makes our job reporting harder,” she wrote. “Doesn’t feel very menschy.”

Well, consider me a non-mensch with questions. First and foremost: Was it wrong of Maxim to disclose the topic of a future Serial season before the producers were ready to announce it? On one hand, publicizing the case might make it more difficult for Koenig and her team to uncover the “truth.” When Adnan Syed’s innocence or guilt formed the mystery du jour, amateur detectives and Reddit rumor mills sprang into action; new characters crept out of the woodwork; a sizeable clump of contradictory data became, if Koenig’s self-questioning narration is to be believed, a hugely cumbersome mess. On the other hand, did something useful lurk in all that noise? Would valuable witnesses have returned the producers’ calls had the podcast not exploded as it did? Is the Serial team reaaaally concerned about the integrity of their investigation, or just annoyed that another outlet is stealing their thunder?

I’m tempted to view all this through the lens of “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Koenig is doing her job, which is to report on a story—Bergdahl—she believes will fascinate listeners. Maxim is doing its job, which is to report on a story—Serial—it believes will fascinate readers. Though Cordon’s request that Farwell respect Serial’s process may be reasonable, her borderline-huffy tone is not. A show crafted as one-part entertainment and one-part earnest journalism is not entitled to the rest of our reverent silence, nor should “menschiness” even necessarily outweigh newsworthiness in the principled reporting climate Serial holds so dear.

In fact, while Serial episodes overflow with ambiguity and uncertainty, this case seems pretty clear-cut. Reporters gonna report, and for Condon to reserve the privileges of reporting for her team but not for the rest of us seems condescending and hypocritical. Hey, other journalists, her email implies, please leave investigation to the pros. You’ll only get in our way. Clearly media ethics have tremendous importance for the Serial crew, and for that they deserve a lot of credit. (They also produce a riveting and extremely successful podcast.) But they can best express their values at the moment by honoring Maxim’s practice of those same values, instead of slamming the outlet for opportunism. “Not very menschy,” indeed.