Concluding Serial; or, Koenig v. Ranke

by Eric on December 19, 2014

The hott podcast Serial concluded this week with its twelfth episode, an episode that crystallized for me why I like it. For all the complaints – that it is white privilege in distilled radio form; that it is really about its host, Sarah Koenig – it is a pretty good dramatization of the historical process.

And it’s not only because this week one of the intrepid reporter/producers descended into an actual archive to retrieve a critical document and, despite some gratuitous mockery of the archivists, gave a sense of what it’s actually like to do that and why you would want to.

It’s ultimately because Koenig held herself to a standard of argument that’s similar to what historians use. She repeatedly questioned herself as she pursued her research over the course of months; she tried to disprove her hunches even as she followed them, and ultimately concluded with “what we know” – which is distinct from “what really happened” (yes, she goes all Ranke on us).

Here’s how she ends (SPOILERS):

What do I think? If you ask me to swear that Adnan Syed is innocent, I couldn’t do it. I nurse doubt. I don’t like that I do, but I do. I mean, most of the time, I think he didn’t do it. For big reasons, like the utter lack of evidence, but also small reasons – things he’s said to me, just off the cuff, or moments when he’s cried on the phone and tried to stifle it so I wouldn’t hear, or just the bare fact of why on earth would a guilty man agree to let me do this story, unless he was cocky to the point of delusion.

I used to think that when Adnan’s friends told me, “I can’t say for sure he’s innocent, but the guy I knew? there’s no way he could have done this” – I used to think that was a cop-out, a way to avoid asking yourself uncomfortable, disloyal, disheartening questions.

But I think I’m there now too, and not for lack of asking myself those hard questions, but, because as much as I want to be sure, I’m not.

Like Linda Holmes, I was afraid Koenig was going to end up with “a contemplation on the nature of the truth.” But she didn’t. She came down on, I can’t say for sure, but the guy I know, there’s no way he could have done this.

Which is what historians generally end up with. We can’t know for sure, but neither should we let radical skepticism stop us from saying what we know. We state the truth as we know it, leaning on the probabilities – “this does not mean,” as Barzun and Graff remind us, “‘a doubtful kind of truth’ but a firm reliance on the likelihood that evidence which has been examined and found solid is veracious[.]”

Koenig has done what few historians have successfully achieved: she has made the process of research and analysis itself a compelling narrative. Mostly when historians go that route, it’s because they’re dealing with a murder or a like crime, in which case we can depend on readers wanting to follow the narrative of discovery the same as they might with a police procedural. (See e.g. the still-brilliant Return of Martin Guerre. Also, Ari Kelman manages it in his book on the Sand Creek massacre, because he’s dealing with competing narratives about violent deaths much as a detective would deal with competing alibis.)

But absent that kind of substance, it’s difficult to arrange a narrative in which the analysis is itself the story.



Tom Slee 12.20.14 at 3:10 am

No one here yet?

I’m glad to see this defence of Serial, as Koenig seems to be getting more and more of a hard time as the podcast became more and more popular. I grabbed onto it a few weeks ago and finished it today, and found it compelling as you did. For one thing, I am surprised how much I have been swayed by tone of voice and delivery (by Adnan Syed) compared to the details of phone calls and other more concrete evidence. So I doubt he did it, for what it’s worth.

To link Serial to a historian’s perspective is fascinating – it helps to sort out about “what kind of a thing Serial is”. The attention that the podcast gained must have been so much more than Koenig and crew could have ever expected that the pressure for the final few episodes must have been intense, and I think they did well with the constraints of the story and the impossibility of a clear ending. So much of the criticism seems to be basically sour grapes.

But I’m not sure whether it’s a thing that can be easily repeated. Going into a story with a more definite intent and bigger goals would corrupt the nature of the project, it seems to me.


Mitch Guthman 12.20.14 at 4:03 am

I wasn’t particularly impressed by Sarah Konieg. Her doubts and self-reflection seemed contrived and self congratulatory. She seems to have begun with a preconceived notion of Syed’s innocence and, having been charmed by him, made only token gestures at investigating his story. In particular, she seems to have had no interest in challenging him or asking him to explain his statements or his actions.

Her reasoning (and, evidently, the reasoning of others, too) seems to rest on the idea that a charming man is incapable of murder. But I don’t understand why a people believe that a charming man can’t also be a killer—surely that belief goes against so much of our society’s shared experience. I think she was satisfied that he was charming and she felt that she didn’t want to push or cross examine him in a way that might cost him his freedom.


Fuzzy Dunlop 12.20.14 at 5:18 am

This is a really interesting take on Serial, and it reminds me of the saying that journalism is the first version of history.

PS the 3rd and 4th links don’t seem to lead to the right place & are broken, respectively.


Eric 12.20.14 at 7:26 pm

Thanks for that, Fuzzy; links fixed, I think.


Fuzzy Dunlop 12.20.14 at 11:34 pm

Welcome–the link to Barzun & Graff is also broken.

Having enjoyed Serial, I was hoping to read some incisive criticism of it, but the ones linked to were really unsatisfying. Priya Chandrasekaran’s criticism of race-blindness was so incoherent that even though I don’t agree with that criticism, I’m left wondering if somebody else hasn’t articulated it more effectively? And, she seems to have completely missed what I think was Serial’s subtle but consistent & coherent way of thinking about race. (The main problem: she starts out suggesting that the ‘ordinariness’ of Syed and Hae depends on the audience’s seeing them as model minorities, then actually brings up Islamophobic prejudice, but never makes the connection that the latter thing might undermine her argument about the two teenagers being seen as model minorities. The main racial dynamic, which I think Koenig expects viewers to expect or intuitively grasp, and which is (thus?) addressed relatively little until near the end of the season, is that Syed, as a Muslim man, is expected to have a propensity for perverse and violent sexual behavior towards ‘ordinary’ (read: white or, perhaps, Asian) women. If Chandrasekar felt like this could have been about anybody, anywhere, I don’t think she was listening to the same podcast.)

Likewise the criticism that it’s all about Koenig misses what I think is much of the point of her approach, which is that her own ambivalence and self-doubt is a stand-in for that of the audience–hearing these things acknowledged by the ‘author’ allows us to reflect on our own engagement with the story, & to continually question our own role as audience. The writers/investigators are also part of the audience here, or are an audience, in a different way from the podcast listeners–a direct ‘audience’ of the evidence itself, or ‘history-as-past-actuality’.

I suspect people pick up on this fluidity between roles of audience and writer and see that as something emblematic of the internet age, where audiences are more participatory and interactive, but this is something that has always been true about reading & writing history–I as a reader have to put all the facts together to follow the narrative, just as the historian did to write it, so in a sense I am also playing the role of historian. Heck, people even treat some fiction as history, becoming ‘experts’ on Middle Earth and whathaveyou.


Ben Vernia 12.22.14 at 1:59 am

I had great hopes for Serial when I listened to the first few episodes, but I found them increasingly self-centered and unfocused, and was not a big fan by the end. I am an attorney, and have worked on criminal cases which were simultaneously dissected in the press. I understand that reporters are often ill-equipped to understand the process of investigating and trying a criminal case, but the last few episodes really struck me as offering very little knew information and essentially no synthesis of what had come befoe. I assume that the Serial reporting team was as diligent as the podcasts made them sound to be, but they seemed incapable of sorting through and logically presenting the evidence they found, and Sarah Koenig, in particular, seemed nearly Hamlet-like in her struggle to reconcile her perception of Adnan Syed with the evidence and the trial’s result.


Lynne 12.22.14 at 12:27 pm

Just dropping in without reading the post because I have three more episodes of Serial to listen to, but I am really enjoying this podcast. I have begun riding an exercise bike, which has to be a contender for the most boring activity on earth, and Serial is the only thing I’ve found so far that makes the time pass at a normal rate of speed. In fact, some episodes have made the time speed by. Invaluable! I’ll check in again and read the OP when I’ve finished the series.


MG 12.23.14 at 5:11 pm

Glad to see the defense of Serial! I thought it was the best kind of reporting — thoughtful, less about ego than about truth/justice. It was compelling in a way I think only radio can be without the visual distractions. I also found Koenig to be simply fantastic to listen to — kind, warm, engaging, smart, self-deprecating, intelligent.

Also, this from SNL was hilarious:

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