Serial is a reflection on a murder case and the criminal-justice system reported over "just" a year, which is to say, it is researched with more effort and depth than 99 percent of journalism produced on any beat in America. "Even the best works of journalism produced by white journalists about minority communities ... have the same problem," Kang writes. "The writer can feel like an interloper, someone who will stay long enough to write a story and then leave." But wouldn't any professional journalist spending a year in Woodlawn, Maryland, investigating a case that the victim's family doesn't want reopened feel like an interloper who'd write the story and leave? After all, that's exactly what they would be.
Nearly all journalists are interlopers by necessity. (So are police detectives and prosecutors and defense attorneys. That's just the job.) When white journalist Radley Balko's reporting helped spring African American Corey Maye from death row, I'm sure Maye didn't mind that Balko didn't stick around Mississippi afterward.
Reporters should be critiqued when they get something wrong about any community they're covering. White reporters covering minority communities should proceed with great care, thoughtfulness, and sensitivity—and scrutiny of their coverage is important. But such critiques shouldn't hinge on whether the journalist "feels like" an interloper, or was disabused of ignorance in the reporting process, or is slightly ambiguous on a peripheral matter that could be interpreted as offensive but, by the critic's own admission, may not have an offensive meaning.
Most of all, the response to mistakes should never be to discourage white reporters from telling important stories. Insufficient coverage can mean that murderers are never found, that civil liberties are violated, that police abuse with impunity, that cities are more corrupt than they might be, that innocent people stay locked in prison for life without parole, that Americans have less empathy for their neighbors. "The staffs of radio stations, newspapers, and magazines tend to be overwhelmingly white, which leaves reporters and writers with a set of equally troubling options," Kang writes. "Either ignore stories from communities of color, or report them in the same sort of shorthand that Koenig uses throughout Serial." To which I can only say:
Those are not equally troubling options!
An exhaustive, year-long inquiry into a possible wrongful conviction is not, by virtue of minor, speculative transgressions of tone and interpretation, troubling in just the same way as not even covering injustice. Whether one is invested in journalism, social justice, or both, minimizing the number of times that people cringe should not be elevated to a primary goal. American history is filled with people interacting across racial, ethnic and religious lines in ways that were fraught, uncomfortable, and highly successful.
There is no other way to live together in a diverse society.
For the curious, Kang's other example of Serial getting it wrong is no more persuasive. He writes:
In the show’s second episode, Koenig says, “Since [Syed] and Hae both had immigrant parents, they understood the expectations, and the constraints: Do well in school, go to college, take care of your younger brother, and for Adnan, no girls.”
Koenig follows up with this statement from Syed:
“You know, it was really easy to date someone that kind of lived within the same parameters that I did with regards to, you know, she didn’t have the expectation to me coming to her house for dinner with her family, you know, she understood that if she was to call my house and speak to my mother or father, I would get in trouble, and vice versa.”
At first blush, Koenig has done her job as a journalist. She has supported her statement about immigrant parents with a quote from the source. The problem is that Syed never says the word “immigrant.” Instead, he says “parameters,” which is about as neutral and clinical of a word as one could come up with in that situation. It’s possible that there are other parts, not heard, in which Syed explains the point further, but if they exist, they have been excised, meaning that all we’re left with is Koenig’s inference that those “parameters” necessarily mean “immigrant culture.” In a startling omission, the Lee family has not yet appeared in Serial. Without their presence, and Koenig’s insistence on directing the reader towards the typical immigrant family who raised the typical American teenager, the Lees and the Syeds have been rendered as Tiger Parents—overbearing and out-of-touch. The problem isn’t just the leap itself—that we would hear about strict parents and assume they were all similar—but Koenig’s confidence that we will make it with her.
Kang himself has excised some important facts here. Why would we hear about strict parents like Adnan's and Hae's and assume that they were similar? Perhaps because in a passage spoken just before the one that Kang quotes, Adnan tells Koenig, "We had a lot of real similar types of situations with our families." We're making the leap with Adnan, not Koenig, and the leap isn't that all immigrant families are similar, it's that some, e.g. the two in question, are similar in one respect.
Why are Hae's parents absent? As it turns out, Koenig tried as hard as any reporter could, for months, to interview them. For understandable reasons, they're not interested in participating. But what I find most confounding about Kang's characterization is the notion that stereotypes drove the portrayal of the Syeds, when in the same episode Koenig describes and interviews Adnan's mom as follows:
Adnan did most of his lying to his mother. She figured out something was up pretty early on. She found his crown from prom in the basement where he'd tried to stash it along with his tux. Shamim came to the United States in 1976. Her husband was already here working as an engineer for the state of Maryland. She's from Peshawar in Pakistan, where you do not date. You are either married or unmarried. There's not much of a middle ground. So Adnan's girl contact put Shamim in a state of high alert. She would check the mileage on his car to see if he'd driven farther than she said. She eavesdropped when he talked to girls on the phone. I know this makes Shamim sound terrifying. But she's not at all. She adores Adnan, her middle son.
Shamim: "He would talk to the girls, yes. I would pick up the phone and I would—(laughs) he would say mom, I know you are listening to me."
And that conflict must have been constant?
Shamim: "Of course, yeah, because for me this was unacceptable. So we used to argue a lot. I'd say you cannot do that. If you like somebody, all right, you can get married. But not without marriage you cannot. Of course, me and Adnan had a problem."
Adnan's father was a little more loose about it?
Shamim: "Yes. My whole family was. Even my older son, he'd say, 'Mom, everybody's doing it.' Even my husband would say that the boys are doing it, but I'd say, no, not my children."
Adnan wasn't getting punished for this. It wasn't like he was about to get kicked out of the house. It was more like he was about to get reminded of his responsibilities. Both at home and at his mother's request, by his youth leader at the mosque.
Then came the homecoming dance in the fall of senior year. Adnan and Hae had been together for about seven months by then. This dance would become a big deal at trial. Proof of just how fraught their whole relationship was. And how tormented Adnan was about his double life. Here's what happened. Adnan's parents got wind that very night that he had taken Hae to homecoming. Adnan says this kind of thing happens in their community all the time. Someone sees someone's kid at a dance or at the mall and before you can even hide behind a potted plant, four aunties are on the phone to a kid's mother.
Anyway, this time, Adnan's parents did not wait to deal with it at home. They showed up at the dance and chastised him, made a scene. The prosecutors argued that this scene would come to haunt him until the day he killed Hae.
This is not a portrait based on stereotypes of immigrant parents. It is a specific, individualized look at a mother, told partly in her own words, that notes her particular place of origin and its attitudes toward dating. Koenig goes out of her way to mention that the immigrant father had a totally different take on appropriate behavior and was totally in touch with how most American boys were dating, a strange distinction to draw if she's supposed to be stereotyping all immigrants. Adnan's mom is, I suppose, portrayed as overbearing, but not because Koenig thinks all immigrant parents are overbearing—she's portrayed that way because, by her own admission, she eavesdropped on her son's phone calls, directed the family's imam to intercede on behalf of conservative dating norms, and showed up at Adnan's high-school dance to shame him for attending. Is that not overbearing? And these aspects of her parenting are chosen not arbitrarily, but because they're exactly the attributes that are relevant to Adnan's case.
Given the specific "parameters" under which Adnan lived—dating restrictions grounded in the cultural and religious norms found in his mother's country of origin—his comment that Hae lived within "the same parameters" might lead one to suppose that the known strictness of her parents and their known status as immigrants had some connection. Yes, Koenig makes a small leap without explicitly documenting the ground between. The reason to make it with her, rather than treating a minor ambiguity as clear evidence of her "getting it wrong," is that her notion of Hae's "parameters" was not just shaped by one conversation with Adnan.
Kang writes as if everything turned on how Koenig interpreted that word. But she has spoken to Adnan for countless hours. She read Hae's diary, interviewed her teachers, read every word said about her at trial, interviewed her friends and acquaintances. No journalist backs up every assertion with a direct quote to support it. Why is Koenig's failure to do so on a very minor narrative point taken as evidence of cultural ignorance when the depth and effort of her reporting is so obvious? Spending a year on a story, interviewing scores of people, and vetting episodes with veteran colleagues doesn't guarantee against mistakes of the sort Kang discusses, but surely it explains why she'd expect to be spared accusations of getting it wrong where, once again, the critic doesn't know she got it wrong.
He just thinks she might have.