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True crime and punishment: "Serial" creators on the dark and difficult truths of their third season

Producer Julie Snyder and co-host Emmanuel Dzotsi on going beyond the "myths of the criminal justice system"


Chauncey DeVega
December 5, 2018 9:00PM (UTC)

"Serial" is one of the most popular podcasts in the world. Beyond being a juggernaut in terms of helping to expand the audience for the podcast medium, in its three seasons, the show has focused on questions of truth and justice and the myriad ways that such lofty concepts are muddied by the law as actually practiced.

The first season of "Serial" examined the sensational case of Adnan Syed, a man convicted in 2000 of killing his high school girlfriend. Because of the public's renewed interest, the Syed case has been reopened on the grounds that he did not receive adequate representation by his attorney. The Maryland Court of Appeals began those proceedings last week.

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The second season of "Serial" examined the case of Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. Army sergeant who walked off his base in Afghanistan in 2009 and was subsequently captured by the Taliban and held for five years. After his negotiated release, Bergdahl was been charged with desertion and misbehavior -- crimes which carry a maximum punishment of life in prison. What at first seemed to be a simple case of a soldier who abandoned his responsibilities in a war zone was revealed to be something much more complicated: a story about Bergdahl's delusions of grandeur, the soldiers who resented him for putting their lives at risk, how the Taliban viewed their prize prisoner, and America's long, fruitless war in Afghanistan with all its human and political drama.

The recently concluded third season focused its attention on America's criminal justice system, as seen at ground level in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas in Cleveland. For almost two years, host and lead reporter Sarah Koenig and reporter-producer Emmanuel Dzotsi learned what justice looks like from the point of view of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys all the way down to the victims of crime and the alleged perpetrators.

What "Serial" reveals is a subculture where what counts as "justice" is often ambiguous and where America's criminal justice system operates in way that is far from ideal or fair. There is the law as it exists in statutes and on the books, and there is the law as it is applied by human beings as part of a huge bureaucracy. In such a system "justice" is often steamrolled for convenience.

How does "Serial" balance truth-seeking, storytelling and narrative? Who is the podcast's intended audience? In what ways do race and class inform how different individuals and groups respond to "Serial's" exploration of our criminal justice system? How is "Serial" different from "true crime" fables in which America's carceral society is made into public entertainment? Do "Serial's" white and other more privileged listeners have a moral obligation to try to fix a broken criminal justice system?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with executive producer Julie Snyder and season 3 co-host Emmanuel Dzotsi.

How do you feel about the success of "Serial"? Are you used to it all, or has the novelty worn off?

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Emmanuel Dzotsi: I feel like I’ve been both on the outside and the inside. This was my first season on "Serial." I am consistently surprised -- particularly with this season -- that anybody is listening to us because of the news cycle and all that is happening. The news is, to be honest, pretty depressing and dire. And on "Serial" we are not exactly talking about like sunshine and rainbows. The fact that people can go a whole day of watching the news, following the Trump administration and all of the things related to that and then listen to a show about criminal justice is pretty crazy to me.

Julie Snyder: The fact that we have our own show is still shocking to me. When we first started "Serial" four years ago it was an experiment of sorts. "Serial" is still part of "This American Life." We are two separate companies but we’re in the same office. "This American Life" involved a great deal of experimentation. "Serial" was the result, and we didn't have to make it its own show. But once we were able to do it as a podcast we wanted to see what would happen. Why not?

For this season I'm surprised at the response that we’ve gotten. As Emmanuel said, this season of "Serial" is heavy. People have told me "My god I'm listening to 'Serial' and it’s so great -- and also pretty intense.” I feel apologetic and almost have to tell them, “I know. You don’t even have to  listen right now. If you want to just put the show away you can just come back to it later.” I live in the same world as everybody else.

I’ve been really heartened by the response to "Serial." But sometimes my biggest frustration is with audience expectations. At times it feels as though there are audience expectations that "Serial" is supposed to be like a "true crime" podcast. This season does not focus on a mystery, so there was anxiety and concern about that as well. But it seems we’ve gotten a lot of  listeners telling us that they felt like this was the strongest season yet, which is really saying something because of the amazing response to season 1.

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What do you think your listeners want from "Serial"? How do you balance narrative and truth-telling?

Snyder: Balancing narrative and truth-telling is very easy. I don’t feel like we struggle with that at all. If anything, by sticking to the truth -- because so often the truth is a complicated mess and there's usually a lot of nuance -- this just makes the storytelling stronger. But I appreciate what you are getting at: How do you balance the truth with entertainment? That is something that I have struggled with. I came from "This American Life." I have been doing this for a little over 20 years now and I feel that I'm really good at it. I'm really good at structuring stories. I'm really good at telling stories. I know how to do pacing very well. I know how to establish characters and to move emotions.

But lately there have been moments where I was unsure. I have heard some responses to "Serial" where people said they like a plot twist. That made me feel really uncomfortable. Is that how people are consuming these stories? Is that because of how I'm structuring these stories? But I don’t know what the alternative is. Should I make the stories on "Serial" this season more boring? I don’t know.

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You are dealing with very serious matters -- often of life and death -- on Serial.  You have an ethical and moral responsibility to the truth.

Dzotsi: One of the responses that I have seen to the show is, “Oh, this is crazy! This is so shocking!” In a way, that is what we want you as listeners to feel. But at the same time we want you to feel that it is shocking because what is happening on "Serial" is real life. These events are something that you feel connected to. The show should not be shocking in the way that, “Oh my god, it’s crazy what happens in X place to those people.” One of the things that we struggle with on "Serial" and the narrative frame for this season is that we are focusing on a particular place -- Cleveland and the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas -- but we’re using it as a way to discuss much larger problems in American society and the criminal justice system.

What we are reporting on this season is taking place all over the country. One of my fears is that we are reporting some pretty serious and shocking things and I hope that listeners understand the bigger picture. This is our system. This is the system that we voted into power. This is the system that we have basically made happen.

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What does America's criminal justice system reveal about the country and its values?

Snyder: There are lots of rules and norms which are codified as part of a taken-for-granted way of being. The legal system has an air of nobility, fairness and evenhandedness about it, but then those principles and ideas are used to paper over a great amount of injustice, unfairness and an unequal balance of power. It also masks the ways that the system itself reinforces all those imbalances as well. When you are inside the machine, like we are on "Serial," you feel like you're being told one thing while watching something else happening. Yes, you see rights being protected, a vigorous defense being provided, a vigorous prosecution, and matters feel fair and just. You do see that, but not everywhere. It feels a little arbitrary.

Dzotsi: What struck me is just how vulnerable the rules and norms of the American criminal justice system are to people. You can see how much power individuals within the system have to shape outcomes. For example the way a prosecutor can shape a jury and thus impact a verdict. I did not think that individuals had that much power in the system. I left feeling pretty pessimistic.

Reflecting on the audience of "Serial" for a moment. The fact that America's criminal justice system is corrupt, broken and punishes innocent people is a given for many Americans, especially black and brown people. But if you are a white person, especially someone who has money or other types of privilege, there may be genuine shock at the world as it actually exists. How have you tried to reconcile those divergent life experiences and perspectives?

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Snyder: Who's the audience for "Serial"? We struggled with that in Season 2 because it focused on Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who walked off his base in Afghanistan. A lot of interest in the second season was from the United States military. How do we balance what their experience and knowledge is, relative to the overall narrative of the story? We have been very aware of similar questions relating to season 3, in particular with the racial divide among the audience. For upper-middle-class white people, much of what they are seeing on "Serial" may seem crazy. They may be shocked, but the reality is they are the group with societal power. They are the ones who are sustaining this system they are then shocked by. I would tell them to change it or at the very least be aware of what is really happening and do not believe myths about the criminal justice system and how it operates.

Dzotsi: I grew up very middle-class. I am also a black man. I came into this season thinking, "I'm making a show that probably a lot of black people listen to. But there are going to be many more white listeners." So I am always trying to find a balance between what the average white person on the street believes to be reality and what black listeners may personally know to be true from lived experience and necessity about the criminal justice system.  

I feel like as someone who is a black journalist -- and I have seen this often -- we are reporting stories about things that we know from our own experience to be true but we overcompensate because we believe that when we’re writing or producing things for a white audience, we must use tons of data and evidence to convince them this is a real problem. Black folks have been explaining these matters for hundreds of years, but there is still an expectation that we have to provide all that additional information. As a reporter, I am always trying to define and perfect that balance with things I know to be true.

On this season of "Serial" we are actually discussing things we have personally witnessed occur at the courthouse. Sarah [Koenig], for example, as a white reporter, often channels a perspective that a white audience may, more likely than not, be thinking about. She is very cognizant about white privilege in that way. When I am on the mic in "Serial" I also try to acknowledge where I'm coming from as a black person watching these events unfold.

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At the end of this season I want listeners to know that they can and should do something about injustice. If you hear things in the show that you are shocked about, know that you have an opportunity to change them. I think it’s the voters who can make a difference. I really think it’s the bureaucrats who can make a difference. I think it can change. The question remains with this sort of reporting on "Serial" and elsewhere, and the truth that we’re telling and which black people and other people of color have been telling this country for centuries, will people listen? I don’t know.

How do the agents of the criminal justice system -- the attorneys, judges, clerks, police and the like -- make sense of  their power to impact other people's lives?   

Dzotsi: The reaction for many people that I interacted with at the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas was, “Well, I know I have this power but also I'm just a regular guy trying to do my job and I'm just going to do my little part in this machine. Then this case gets passed over to somebody else."

We heard phrases such as, “I’m just a goalie.” We also heard staff and other people who work at the courthouse and in the system say things such as “I'm not going to think about things that don’t have to do with my job. I'm really going to think of the nuts and bolts of what I got to do for my 9 to 5.”

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In every social system, individuals and groups internalize the rules and norms to varying degrees. What are the stated and unstated rules of the courthouse and broader criminal justice system you experienced and observed in Cleveland?  

Snyder: "Don’t rock the boat" was a strong rule of that subculture. "Don’t call foul on your colleagues" was another one.

Dzotsi: "Do what you have to do to get through another day and make it along" seemed to be a kind of guiding ethos as well. For example, prosecutors also have political considerations because state attorneys general and district attorneys are elected. I often heard people say, "I have to balance trying to do the things that I believe in and push the things I believe in while also trying to keep my job." I think that’s where a lot of people who work within the system are at. By saying this one thing and by standing up to this one person in this one moment, am I actually ruining the chances for my client down the line? I think people are making those sorts of decisions all the time.

What does justice mean for the two of you in the context of this season of "Serial"?

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Snyder: For me justice involves the health of the community. In a courthouse I feel like you can really see that. Somebody’s committed a crime, and so in order for there to be justice, it means we need to try to repair that tear, the harm which was done. What would be fair to everybody around us? What would be best for the community?

That doesn’t mean not to punish an offender. But looking at the whole community, and in particular the black community in Cleveland -- and I think that’s probably true for most places -- the most vulnerable population is the one that are usually the defendants in the courthouse. They didn’t seem like they were considered part of the community. A considerate and properly weighted evaluation of how we restore a community when harm is done to it is necessary. When I saw that happening it was admirable. But unfortunately that doesn't happen everywhere and all the time.

What about injustice? 

Snyder: Acknowledging the injustice would be the first step. I would be so happy if we just got to a point as a society where we were acknowledging injustice. I think that goes back to where I was speaking earlier about the audience for "Serial." Public opinion needs to be changed. Maybe that is where "Serial" is helping by acknowledging and exposing the injustice and doing this beyond a type of whodunit or true-crime mystery narrative.

Dzotsi: Trust in the system is a central question. Do you trust that the police are going to solve the murders in your community? Do you trust that those interactions with the police are going to be positive? I feel like that kept coming down for me again and again. The criminal justice system as it exists in large parts of the country cannot function properly because there is a rift between the communities the justice system serves and the system itself. The fact that we’re even talking about it in terms of "the community" and "the justice system" reveals a lot.

America is what sociologists describe as a "carceral society." Consequently in this country mass incarceration can become spectacle and entertainment. How does "Serial" exist relative to the genre of crime and punishment as entertainment?

Snyder: In the United States there is no shortage of crime reporting. There are entire networks devoted to "crime entertainment" and murder stories. So often in that kind of storytelling everything feels very fake to me. The people do not seem real. You don’t see complicated people who are doing things for complicated reasons. In those "crime entertainment" stories you rarely have a good person who did a bad thing. You rarely have people who are conflicted about the position that they're in. Stories of that type lack any kind of substance or sense of reality where you could actually recognize yourself or anybody else that you might know.

Our approach with "Serial" is to tell stories where nobody gets flattened to a caricature, where every person is treated as a three-dimensional person who has complicated and sometimes contradictory thoughts and feelings and directions. From there, when you recognize people's humanity you can then have some empathy and some intimacy and it feels emotional.

What are the ethics and morality of "Serial"? How do you want to impact the audience?

Dzotsi: On "Serial" we work really hard not to say anything about a person that we have not said to them or run by them at some point. I think that simple rule alone helps us to represent people as full human beings. I think that was particularly true with the second half of this season, where we really tried to let people speak for themselves in a way that might be difficult for some listeners to accept: Matters are not clean-cut, they are definitely complicated. But these are the people who are grappling with the way our criminal justice system works each and every day, and it’s not simple. It is incredibly complicated.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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