This week, Adnan Syed was released from prison, nearly eight years after the debut of Serial, the This American Life-spawned podcast about his conviction for the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee. On Slate’s podcast about internet culture, ICYMI, Rachelle Hampton, Daisy Rosario, and Rebecca Lavoie—host of Crime Writers On…—discussed Syed’s release and the legacy of Serial. Though the groundbreaking podcast drew attention to Syed’s case, it also cast doubt on his innocence using disproven evidence, and for years never posted a correction or update. What role did Serial play in this remarkable development? And what are the ways Serial fell short? This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Daisy Rosario: I want to acknowledge Rabia Chaudry, whom Rebecca has worked with and become friends with, she’s one of the hosts of Undisclosed.* But more than that, anybody who listened to Serial knows who Rabia is because Rabia is the person who brought Sarah Koenig the story. And one of the things that I’ve been seeing online a lot are people—and this has been going on for years—people telling Rabia that she should feel so grateful.
Rebecca Lavoie: Imagine a situation where you know, with 100 percent certainty, that your loved one is innocent. And you have a bunch of evidence that he didn’t do it, and you bring it to a reporter and that reporter rightly says, “I can’t just take everything in its word. I’m going to reinvestigate it and try to do my own thing.” And that reporter does that, elevates the story way up, and so you think, “Finally something is going to happen.” But eight years later, people are still saying, “But Sarah said there was a Nisha call. But Sarah said that the pings put Adnan Syed at the burial site. But Sarah said that Adnan went to Kathy Not Kathy’s house that day.”
Rosario: This is something that Rabia tweeted on Sept. 16: “People keep telling me we wouldn’t be here without Serial. True, but here’s the best analogy I can come up with about it. Imagine you ask someone to help renovate your house. Instead, they set fire to it. The story about the fire brings thousands to your aid that rebuild the house. Serial set fire to Adnan’s story, to some extent deliberately and has never apologized or made amends. Should I be grateful? I find it hard to be. But I am grateful to the thousands that responded to the fire to help rebuild this house.”
Lavoie: Yeah, but the fire’s still burning, that’s the problem. I have a haircut tonight and if in two chairs down from me, some lady asked the woman cutting her hair says, “Hey, I’m just getting into podcasts. What should I listen to?” The person in the chair next to them will say, “You should listen to Serial.”
Rachelle Hampton: One of the things I remember most from the immediate aftermath of Serial is the way it became fodder for party chatter, where people would be like, “Do you think Adnan did it? Do you think Jay did it?” We are almost discussing it the way we talked about Game of Thrones. There’s something specific about the way that Serial presented the case that made that kind of discussion feel okay.
Lavoie: I think it’s because these are all high school kids, frankly. It was the diary, the passing notes in class, the dating. The story was framed around high school gossip. A lot of high school gossip was used as potential evidence in the storytelling about whether or not Adnan was lying, whether or not … And so that, I think, lit something on fire in us that brought to life our innate high school gossip. You know what I mean?
So I’ll tell you, my day job, I work in public radio. I don’t, generally speaking, hate This American Life. There are many of This American Life episodes that I love, there are things they do very well. They make you feel it. They make you care a lot about it. But you think about using those same techniques here and it really did in retrospect cause some harm.
I think we can also agree that an investigation, especially when we’re taking their police at their word, should not be done in real time.
Lavoie: Because it’s going to send you places that are probably not the right places to go. It was a cool experiment if you think about it, but it also put a tremendous amount of pressure on the team to come up with some sort of conclusion. I think the Dana Chivvis monologue about luck is incredibly harmful. I cannot believe that was left in the podcast. I actually couldn’t believe it at the time.
Rosario: Correct. If you don’t remember it, it’s that Dana basically says, “Well, after having done all of this, I can only come to two conclusions. He either did it or he had the unluckiest day ever.” So yeah, that’s another example of something that just doesn’t fit. And the idea of not taking police at their word: There have always been people that have been pushing for that. Especially families of victims in poorer communities where they’re not necessarily getting the respect and the treatment that they deserve as citizens.
Lavoie: I was talking to somebody about this the other day and they were like, “Well, it was a different time, like 2014, 2015.” And I’m like—
Hampton: For who?
Lavoie: Baltimore was still Baltimore in 2014 and 2015. I still just can’t believe that in a piece of reporting done at any point after the year, I don’t know, 1980 something that someone would characterize Baltimore detectives as basically good guys.
Hampton: I can’t help, but think that it has a lot to do with the demographic makeups of the Serial team and of This American Life, which was based in Chicago for the longest time. I’m from Chicago. Chicago and New York are some of the most diverse cities in the United States, and having an almost entirely white team in those cities is, at that point, a very deliberate choice. It comes through in a lot of the reporting.
Lavoie: I think that this team, to some extent, is made up of the kind of people that don’t have TVs and that aren’t really on Twitter. Really, I really think so. I really do think there’s an intentional horse-blinders approach. I don’t think it’s an intentional slight—literally they just are unaware that these issues are around the world, that people feel this way. That it would actually feel good for a lot of people to hear, “We got that wrong.” And that’s something that would have been so easy for them to write.
Correction, Sept. 25, 2022: This piece originally misspelled Rabia Chaudry’s last name.