'Serial' and the White Liberal Media's Race Problem

Hit podcast <i>Serial</i> has come under fire for a perceived racial blindspot: It's yet another pop culture phenomenon about minorities brought to you by white people.

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Nov 21 2014, 8:42pm

Last week, Jay Caspian Kang wrote a ​scathing indictment of the true crime podcast Serial for the Awl. In it, he claimed that Sarah Koenig's investigation of the murder of Hae-Min Lee amounted to a very popular version of cultural tourism and white privilege. If you haven't heard the show, it's about Koenig sticking her white nose into the not-white lives of Lee and the man convicted of her murder, Adnan Sayed, the son of Muslim immigrants, and Kang argues that she gets stuff wrong as a result of cultural differences. Late in his piece, Kang writes, "The listener is asked to simply trust Koenig's translation of two distinct immigrant cultures. I can think of no better definition of white privilege in journalism than that." 

Kang's piece was widely read, especially in certain media-centric corners of the internet, and soon spawned a backlash to his backlash, then a backlash against the ​backlash to his backlash. All this made me wary of actually listening to the show, but my plan was ruined by my choice, made many years ago, to socialize with mostly white people. All of the parties I attend resemble scenes from the movies Mystic Pizza (rent it—Julia Roberts is transcendent) so I had an army of Serial fiends prodding me with questions about whether or not I'm "listening to Serial," if I've "got any theories on who did it," whether or not I know "where the bathroom is," which "freeway I took to get here," and who "scratched my goddamn Fiat."

I caved and listened to a couple episodes. It was exactly what I expected: a disembodied voice, some droll wit, a few quirky music cues, and an old-school theatrical flair for the cliffhanger. Every so often, Koenig calls her cousin, doctor, artisan butcher, personal shopper, or someone like that and asks them what they make of some crazy revelation. You can practically hear the eye rolls through your speakers: OMG, there goes wacky Sarah again with her kooky-pants theories. Good luck with this show. Like anyone will care when this comes out. It's not even on TV! LOL. 

More than just a delightful romp through someone's actual, real-life misery, though, Serial is a bespoke, pastel dog whistle for anyone who absolutely cannot stand the self-satisfied "white liberal media" industrial complex—the well-meaning yet perpetually enraged section of the internet that loves reminding people how evolved they are. These are the kinds of websites that go out of their way to remind me that Ted Cruz is a touch dumb, Sarah Palin is unqualified for every job except waitressing at the Denny's off the turnpike, that Jon Stewart (and now John Oliver) is a saint and was born from the world's cleanest, most respectable vagina, and that Obamacare would work if everyone would just agree to use it. Serial is very popular with these people, which is why it's become both an ideological punching bag for some and a totem for others. Not liking Serial is a synecdoche for hating how monochromatic the highest rungs of journalism are.

This point is pretty inarguable—the media is obviously dominated by white folks. There's never been a minority (or female) host of The Tonight Show. Every few years we all have to debate why there's so few minorities on Saturday Night Live. Can I get an Asian on Monday Night Football or what? Come on, people. 

Koenig isn't the problem in all of this, though. She's simply a person with a soothing voice and the absurdly enviable job of "public radio personality." Though a good number of people have gotten on the "hate Sarah Koenig" bus (don't worry, the bus is a plug-in hybrid), I think many of them are responding to her suddenly exalted position in the liberal media landscape more than the content of her show. It's not so much that Serial is a terrible podcast, it's that people who aren't white never seem to get the chance to make something like that.

By the way, most people who are talking about all this stuff are white. Earlier this week white person Laura Miller, one of the co-founders of Salon (the ultimate white liberal media internet outpost), tweeted out a ​rebuttal to Kang's article by white person Jaime Green. That was around the time white person Sarah Miller wrote her own rebuttal of Kang. The whiteness of the people discussing Serial's whiteness isn't a coincidence—the advantages in access, education, and connections that white people tend to have relative to other ethnicities means that the people with the largest megaphones usually have a certain type of skin pigmentation. That inherently unfair fact about the world is pretty obvious, but talking about that makes some white people—even white people who say the word "problematic" all the time—sort of nervous. 

It's telling that Serial has been called "​The Wire of Podcasts," since the very same (white) people who evangelized on behalf of that show are shoving a feeding tube of praise down my throat like I'm getting fattened up to be turned into foie gras. I get it, white liberals! You like this show! You hate the idea that your enjoyment of the show makes you somehow racist or complicit in racism! It makes you nervous that a nonwhite person is aware of your consumption habits and looking down upon you for them! I hear you. Now leave me alone. I'm going to watch Mystic Pizza again.

Follow Dave Schilling on Twit​t​er.

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