Syed case and S.C. shooting show outsiders, pros working the same ground
The past week has been a lesson in journalistic humility for me.
After a career of thinking and writing about how the kind of mainstream journalistic institutions at which I worked set the local and national agenda, I had a moment of clarity with a voice in my head saying, "Not so much any more, my self-important friend."
It came Thursday afternoon as I was thinking about two articles — a piece to advance the Monday launch of a new "Serial" podcast connected to the 1999 murder of a Woodlawn teen and an analysis of TV news coverage of a police shooting in South Carolina that was captured on cellphone video.
The original "Serial" podcast, which was produced by Sara Koenig and other members of the "This American Life" team, was one of the biggest stories of the 2014 media year. It was downloaded 76 million times and discussed passionately on every platform imaginable last fall.
But as Rabia Chaudry told me about her plans for the new podcast that she and two other lawyers are producing, I realized how the idea for the original "Serial" story started with her. I also came to understand how much she was the one inititially driving the media bus that ultimately led to millions of listeners coming to care about the fate of Adnan Syed, who was convicted 16 years ago of killing his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
A longtime friend of Syed's, this immigration attorney was the one who brought the case to Koenig. Now, with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals having agreed in the wake of "Serial" to hear Syed's appeal in June, she was launching the podcast "Undisclosed: The State v. Adnan Syed" and raising money online for his legal fees.
She was the one putting Syed's fate on the national agenda. The media — me included — were mostly following the trail of her bread crumbs.
At the same time I was interviewing Chaudry on the phone, the silent TV on my desk was showing the video over and over of a black man running away from a white police officer and the officer then firing multiple times at him until the fleeing man stopped and fell to the ground.
After the Chaudry interview ended, I couldn't help but think how much the onscreen story of this police shooting was again the result of what was done by a single citizen with a cellphone — not by a network or a cable news channel with all their multimillion-dollar talent and resources. In this case, the citizen is a 23-year-old barber, Feidin Santana, who placed himself in danger to record video of the shooting that the cable channels couldn't stop playing.
I described the phenomenon of raw video from cellphones or surveillance cameras tearing through the culture as the media story of 2014 in a year-end analysis.Think Ray Rice in an elevator punching his then-fiancee in the face, or Eric Garner gasping his last breaths as police put him in a chokehold and brought him to the ground in Staten Island. But I still thought of those as exceptional events last year. I am now coming to see them as a part of the regular news mix.
I know that Chaudry and Santana are different. In addition to being a lawyer, she is a self-described "social media activist." There's a degree of manipulation involved in what she does.
Santana, meanwhile, appears to be a media amateur, a citizen, who says he was on his way to work when he came upon the shooting and decided to record it on his cellphone. He told CNN's Anderson Cooper that he kept filming even after police told him to stop because he believed what was happening to Walter Scott, the man who was killed, was an "abuse." I say "appears" because I have not yet been able to interview Santana about the video.
But what Chaudry and Santana do share is that they are both nonjournalists using digital media tools and skills to impart the kind of information that drives national conversations. We in the mainstream media used to own that turf. It's not even close any more.
But even if we can no longer call it ours, we still need to help our audiences understand what is different — or, perhaps, the same — in the information you will get from a podcast like "Undisclosed" as opposed to information from us.
Take "Undisclosed." Chaudry said she is putting her digital media skills to use in this project because she and two lawyer-partners in it, Susan Simpson and Colin Miller, believe there's an audience to be had that they weren't reaching with the blogs they were writing about the case.
In addition to her legal work, Chaudry is a fellow at the New American Foundation, which identifies on its website as a "non-profit civic enterprise" that is "dedicated to the renewal of American politics, prosperity, and purpose in the Digital Age."
"I run a project that's funded by Google and Facebook, and I basically travel the country showing activists how to use social media effectively. And so I've managed to work those skills into Adnan's case in trying to elevate it. I believe it would be remiss of me if I didn't apply it," she said.
She aims to use "every medium I possibly can," she said. "So, I'm on Twitter, I'm on Facebook. Now we're adding a podcast. I did Google Hangouts. Whatever tools are at my disposal. These are all generally free, easy-to-use tools, and I'm trying to use them all.
Chaudry acknowledges that "journalists definitely have different roles than activists and advocates."
"As activists, we want to make people do something, act a certain way or think a certain way. ... In this particular podcast, I wouldn't say we're only going to present a particular type of information. We're going to look at what's available on any given issue. ... There's going to be some information that doesn't work well for Adnan, and there's going to be some that does. But the idea is that it should provide a fuller picture."
Chaudry said there would be a more in-depth analysis, for example, of the cellphone tower information used to track Syed's movements on the day Lee went missing. The autopsy report will be revisited as well.
While acknowledging her own "bias" in favor of Syed, Chaudry said, "This is not an advocacy blog. I'm an advocate, definitely. My bias is there. But Susan and Colin are not. They have never said that they think Adnan is innocent."
I am dazzled by how skillfully Chaudry has navigated the media landscape in bringing Syed's story to millions. But understand that she does want listeners "to think a certain way" about him, and, in the end, that makes "Undisclosed" an advocacy podcast in my book.
As for the kind of raw video Santana captured this week, not only can we never totally own it, we don't even have the gatekeeping power any more to determine what images will or will not be seen by audiences.
But there are still valuable roles for us to play. Such video needs to be vetted by the highest standards of journalism, and when it meets those standards, we can use our platforms to further drive it through the culture.
And, more important, we in the mainstream media can serve as a public forum for a responsible, contextualized discussion of what the videos show about the events they cover and say about us as a society. I saw cable TV doing quite a bit of that last week — even in such unlikely places as MSNBC.
Taken with similar videos of police shootings, Santana's suggests how deeply ingrained racism remains in our civic life. Journalism can help its audiences accept that fact about our nation without forgetting how many good and honest cops there are.
Without such context, videos like the one that surfaced three days after the South Carolina shooting only make us angrier and more polarized and pessimistic about the possibilities of American life.