The Intercept is trolling Sarah Koenig: Why the site took such a weirdly antagonistic approach to "Serial"

Natasha Vargas-Cooper's follow-up "Serial" reporting is a great scoop -- but it's being executed pretty trollishly

Published January 11, 2015 8:00PM (EST)

Like many fans, I was sad when "Serial" ended. Still, I came to accept that it was the end. I bid farewell to Koenig’s soothing radio voice, deactivated my Mail Khimp account, and acknowledged that this might be the last time I thought about Woodlawn High School or cell tower technology for a long time. Little did anybody know how soon we’d get more grist for the “Serial” mill, when, less than two weeks after the final episode aired, a strong and divergent counternarrative emerged, based on reporting from Natasha Vargas-Cooper, a reporter at First Look Media’s the Intercept.

While "Serial" was ostensibly evenhanded, it’s pretty widely viewed as a pro-Adnan narrative. Conversely, over at the Intercept, Vargas-Cooper and her colleague Ken Silverstein have planted their flag firmly in the anti-Adnan camp, kicking things off with an explosive three-part interview with star witness Jay Wilds, and following up with a two-parter (part two not yet released) with prosecutor Kevin Urick, neither of whom was interviewed on air by Koenig.

Vargas-Cooper and Silverstein are doing good work, to be sure. Jay’s absence left a gaping hole in "Serial’s" narrative, and Jay absolutely deserves to be heard on his own terms. Vargas-Cooper has arguments as to whether a Jay-less “Serial” should even have gone to air at all, telling the Observer’s Ken Kurson: “If I were to come to you at the Observer and say I want to write about a case and I don’t have the star witness, I don’t have the victim’s family, I don’t have the detectives, I don’t think you would run it, you know.” (FWIW, Kurson said he would have). If there’s a false innocence narrative springing up around Adnan based on biased reporting, then it’s the duty of journalists to uncover that. Plus, this is some juicy, crowd-pleasing stuff -- as a "Serial" fan, I felt like a giddy child on Christmas morning when I heard that Jay had finally decided to speak on the record.

Yet, somehow, the Intercept’s work doesn’t just feel like a professional attempt to fact-check issues and gather new information about a high-profile story (like, say, the Washington Post’s sharp follow-up work on the UVA gang rape story). Useful as it is, in the way it's been executed, it feels a little bit like trolling.

While the Jay interviews contained limited editorializing, the Urick interview was staunchly polemical, kicking off with a 1,400-word hit piece where the authors question not just the basis of the case but the existence of the podcast as a whole. The authors seem to suggest that Koenig deliberately crafted a sensationalist, pro-innocence narrative premised in weak evidence, writing:

"When a jury of 12 people comes back with a guilty verdict in two hours, you’d think that rejecting their decision would require fresh evidence. Yet the show did not produce new evidence, and mostly repeated prior claims, such as an unconfirmed alibi, charges of incompetence against Adnan’s deceased lawyer, and allegations that information derived from cellphone records is unreliable.

Had “Serial” accepted the jury’s conclusion—that Adnan strangled a teenage girl —there would be no storyline, no general interest in the case, and hence no audience. So, Koenig dismissed the decision of the 12 jurors who heard the case, and even though she found nothing that would exonerate Syed, she shifted the burden of proof back onto the state."

“The justice system in America frequently doesn’t work. This is not one of those cases,” they conclude.

Many of the rabid "Serial" fans on Reddit have taken issue with Vargas-Cooper and Silverstein’s reporting; specifically, the fact that they didn’t press their subjects enough on the narrative inconsistencies and holes in Jay’s timeline that Koenig focused so strongly on. It also feels a little odd that, in contrast to Koenig, whose work was all about investigating every side exhaustively and looking for holes in the narrative, the Intercept seems to have handed over the microphone to Wilds and Urick without subjecting the sources to the meticulous scrutiny they weathered during the podcast. Even if Koenig had a bias, she spent months with the case, poring over conflicting accounts and meticulously crafting the story she wanted to tell. The Intercept's reporters have working on the story for less than a month, and Vargas-Cooper told the Observer she had never listened to "Serial" when she got the interview with Jay less than a month ago.

But my biggest problem is with the personal nature of the attack the Intercept appears to be waging on Koenig, and the fact the reporters seemingly feel no qualms about calling her journalistic integrity into question. To dismiss Koenig’s months of in-depth research as a bad-faith effort rooted in bias seems deeply unfair. It’s clear that Koenig, not Adnan, is the one on trial here, and much like with Adnan, I’m not sure she’s being given a fair hearing.

A large portion of the interviews focused not on the facts of the case but on "Serial" and Koenig’s failures of reporting — like Jay’s allegation that Koenig acted unprofessionally in her dealings with him and stoked public sentiment against him, and Urick saying that Koenig only once tried to reach out to him. As Vargas-Cooper and Silverstein write, "The most troubling part of 'Serial' is Koenig’s underwhelming efforts to speak with Urick, the state’s lead prosecutor." It’s important to ask these questions (and damning, if true), but the statement that "Serial" released to the Intercept seems to quite convincingly refute Urick’s claims that they didn’t reach out. To emphasize "Koenig’s underwhelming efforts" even after receiving this statement seems tantamount to calling Koenig a liar.

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The trolly tone of the enterprise is especially pronounced on Twitter, where the Intercept journalists have been engaging in a public show of high-fiving, seeming to relish the criticism and consternation they’ve sparked among "Serial" fans. It seems like a concerted effort to stir the pot and lower the level of discourse, and it’s a marked contrast to Koenig’s delicate and evenhanded tone. While Koenig (who is wisely staying out of fray so far) certainly did come off as pro-Adnan, it’s not as though she ignored the case against him, and it seems bizarre that things have devolved into this pro-con, black-white, "Serial" vs. Intercept dialectic. Yet it also feels like this was precisely the goal here.

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Of course it's fine to have fun with your reporting, especially when you land a scoop this big, but to be so glib and flippant about a story that so many are heavily invested in — not just fans, but the many people involved in the case for whom this is still an ongoing nightmare — makes it seem a little bit like you aren’t taking it seriously, like the whole enterprise is being done for self-aggrandizement.

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While this sort of tone might work when exposing NSA abuses, I'm really not sure why the Intercept's reporters felt it was necessary to strike such a caustic and self-righteous tone with these pieces. Sure, the Intercept was designed to be adversarial, but Sarah Koenig and "Serial" seem weird targets, and prosecutor Urick a strange bedfellow, for a site that has a stated goal to impose transparency and accountability on powerful governmental and corporate bodies. It nicely illustrates just how crazily this whole "Serial" phenomenon has snowballed that we’re in a situation where a scrappy true-crime podcast could be the Goliath to the Intercept's David.

By Anna Silman

MORE FROM Anna Silman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Adnan Syed Jay Wilds Journalism Natasha Vargas-cooper Sarah Koenig Serial The Intercept