I love the energy and even excitement that Sarah Koenig pumped into the podcast genre and radio storytelling with "Serial," a 12-part series on a Baltimore murder from 1999.
But as I listened to the final segment today, I couldn't help but feel frustrated and even annoyed by the ending.
For those who haven't been following, the weekly, non-fiction account of a Baltimore murder involving students at Woodlawn High School is the media hit of the fall. At the center of "Serial" are Hae Min Lee, who went missing in 1999 and whose body was found a few weeks later in Leakin Park, and her former boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was convicted of murder, sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison.
Sarah Koenig, a former Sun reporter, is host and executive producer of the series, from the producers of public radio’s “This American Life.”
Down the home stretch of the 12th episode, which became available today, Koenig said the magic words I have been waiting to hear for weeks, "What do we know? Not, 'What do we think we know?' But what do we know?"
That is the business and core mission of journalism as I know and practice it: What do we know to be true?
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" I wrote on a note pad.
I was right to be excited about this series, I thought. I was right to want to spend time interviewing Koenig in an effort to get inside the engine room of this series to see how it works.
But instead of answering that question by detailing what's known to be true the way a journalist would, Koenig quickly betrayed that mission and assumed a different persona for her listeners.
"As a juror," she said less than a minute later, "I vote to acquit Adnan."
There are too many holes in the prosecution's case and not enough evidence by the standards of law to send him to prison where he resides today, she explained
But then, she quickly jumped out of her juror's persona and said, "So, as a human being walking down the street next week, what do I think?"
Her answer here in the persona of a "human being walking down the street next week" (as opposed to, what, someone from another planet hanging out at the 'Star Wars' wookiee bar?): "If you ask me to swear Adnan Syed [is] innocent, I couldn't do it."
I can handle the persona shifting from beat to beat. But, she had barely assumed this "human being" mantle when she undercut that with, "Most of the time, I think he didn't do it."
"For big reasons, like the utter lack of evidence," she said. "But also small reasons like things he's said to me almost just off the cuff. Or, moments when he's cried to me on the phone and tried to stifle it so I wouldn't hear."
Here's where I really became annoyed: "... moments when he's cried to me on the phone and tried to stifle it so I wouldn't hear."
Wow. Goodbye, journalism, and all that high-sounding talk about what do we know to be true. Koenig's making this call in part on things she couldn't come close to knowing to be true.
Was he really crying? Who was he crying for? Maybe himself, no? How hard was he trying to "stifle" it from her, anyway, if she heard it?
You're kidding me, Sarah, right? After all these hours together of my trust as a listener and my faith in you as a journalist, in the final two minutes, you're talking to me about the tears on the phone that he tried to "stifle" from you.
Was he maybe even playing you? Did you consider that possibility? If so, why didn't you tell us? You told us every other second, third, fourth and fiftieth thought you had during the 12 weeks? I'm just wondering why the tears appear at such a key point in your closing argument without qualification?
Earlier in the final podcast, Koenig commented on how conflicting but convincing testimony from one of Adnan's friends had made her wonder if, "It's all just in the delivery."
In other words, if the listener isn't in the end convinced not by the logic or truth of what's said, but by the way it's delivered.
I think that's what happened with me. I was dazzled by the reaction to "Serial," but that was largely a reaction to the way Koenig and her team from "This American Life" delivered it on an ever-changing media landscape. And I still praise them to the heavens for what they accomplished in terms of showing the potential of podcasting and how what's thought of as old media can suddenly be recast as vibrant and new.
But once you opened the package that "Serial" delivered with its final episode today, there wasn't much inside -- at least by the standards of traditional journalism that Koenig said she adhered to with her talk of what "we know to be true."