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Prologue: The Columbia School of Crime Podcasting

The health crisis I suffered back in September of 2014 forced me into a few lifestyle changes.  For whatever reason, I’ve more or less stuck with them since.  Call it habit.

Among other things, I’m required to exercise daily.  I’ve thus  taken to hiking six miles a day.  While this has had its downside – the wearing out of shoes, the occasional injury, etc – it’s had one extremely large upside.  I’ve gotten used to downloading a boatload of podcasts to accompany me on the journey.

The podcasts can be informative, naturally.  They can just as often be mis-informative (this is the Internet, after all).   More important, they have opened me up to a lot of diverse takes on some of the subjects I’ve pursued on The X-Spot, and some of the subjects I still wish to cover.   Most, however, don’t have direct bearing on conspiracy stories.  Instead they shed light on a lot of secondary topics brought up by conspiracy research.

Whether you enjoy podcasts or not, I’d like to share a select few that will have some bearing on the upcoming series.  I’ll be separating some of these into categories over the next few posts, You might want to check out a few.


True Crime

Out of all the genres of non-fiction that I read (and I mostly read non-fiction), my least favorite is the true crime genre.  The stories typically offer very shallow coverage of what are often complex events.  There’s a distinct right-wing law-and-order viewpoint of crime that tends to focus on the real (or alleged) pathology of the real (or alleged) culprit instead of on the complexities of human relationships that lead to violence.  These consequently give us more presentation of story than evidence.  And when you read about particular cases in other sources, you’ll find that the establishment of guilt is nowhere as certain as what a writer depicts it to be (which really becomes noticeable when a conviction is overturned after publication).  Moreover, the victims usually serve only as props, with little understanding of who they are or their overall importance in society.   Simply put, true crime stories usually contain biases that are absolute, and generally boil down to a single narrative: people who are somehow different, or who have not completely assimilated into society are not just dangerous, but evil.

On the other hand, I consume a lot of true crime books, television shows, and as of late, podcasts.  While the genre itself has shortcomings that make my eyes roll, it does yield information about investigation methodology, police and prosecutorial procedure, and public reaction to facts.  In short, true crime stories give us a baseline for what to expect in crimes, investigations and adjudications on an everyday level.  So when you’re looking at cases with higher profiles, you can compare what authorities have done or not done with respect to their typical approach. 


Criminal

Co-created by Eric Mennel, NPR alums Lauren Spoher and host Phoebe Judge, this show looks at a number of issues involving a wide range of transgressions, from diverse points of views.  Depending on the episode, you can hear extensive interviews with victims, the wrongfully accused, the guilty, and the families of each. 

Some episodes examine the motive behind an offense, such as the story about a counterfeiter and her boyfriend.  Some examine transgressions that may or may not rise to the level of criminal activity, and how that might differ from state to state (for instance, an episode in which the interviewee habitually gave the finger to cops).  Some, such as the episode highlighting murder ballads, discuss the cultural and sociological implications of both crime and crime reportage.   Some look into police malfeasance and conspiracy/coverup, such as a story about the shooting of former Reds outfielder Bobby Tolan’s son by Belaire, TX cops. 

No matter how small the infraction, Criminal illustrates the human reality and complexity of even minor violations.  And for that alone, it’s worth a listen to.


Sword and Scale 

This series, created by host Mike Boudet, often suffers from one of the most irksome qualities of true crime:   namely an exclusionary examination of the presumed pathology of the accused or perpetrator, sometimes to the point of taking armchair psychoanalysis to the extreme.  His signature opening, promising to present a “...show that will reveal that the worst monsters are real,” misses the point that monsters neither exist, nor do they commit crimes.  People do.  Thus, the complexity of human interaction that so enriches Criminal  is comparatively absent here.

Be that as it may, Sword and Scale has its laudable points.  While it often wallows in the cheap and sensational aspects of a story, it doesn’t always.  And Boudet and his staff (Heather Sutfin, Robert Walsh, and Jesus Rodriguez) routinely do yeoman’s service to ferret out information, and provide the listener with primary textual sources, including 911 calls and recordings of actual courtroom proceedings, with considerable context.  And unlike many true crime producers/authors Boudet will address the nature of justice, and the frustrating plight of the wrongfully accused.  And to his credit he has allowed space for skeptical (in the good and proper sense) examination of conspiracy stories, such as in his interview with Johnny Gosch’s mom, Noreen.

Like The X-Spot, Sword and Scale often contains graphically violent verbal descriptions, and is thus not suitable for children or the sensitive.  It nevertheless gives a good deal of easy-to-understand information about both criminal activity and criminal investigation.

 Serial

The now-familiar plink-plink of the piano has come to signify one of the most widely celebrated true crime narratives in recent memory. 

And for excellent reason.  Serial is about as good as true crime gets, and is very different in its scope, approach and outlook from other products of that genre, which in no small part explains a lot of its massive popularity.  Whereas the genre typically features a smug certainty, producers Julie Snyder, Dana Chiwis, Emily Condon and host Sarah Koenig were anything but confident that they knew what happened on the night of 13 January 1999.

It’s this uncertainty that allows us a better grasp of a particular case.  Very few things or events in this world are cut-and-dry, black-or-white.  So while Koenig, her staff or we cannot completely dismiss the thought that Adnan Syed murdered his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, we can nevertheless concede that there were numerous, reasonable doubts that should have exonerated him in the first trial, among them the glaring mistake in the analysis of cell phone records, and the shakiness of the star witness for the prosecution.  Exacerbating this lack of evidence was the manipulation of said witness (and other witnesses) by police and later prosecutors, the ineffectiveness of his primary counsel because of health reasons, and the overt anti-Muslim prejudice espoused by an early prosecutor, and (at least) one member of the jury. 

For me, one of the key moments occurred during a conversation between Koenig and her private investigator, a former police detective, during which she blurted, “Aren’t all facts happy facts?”  When her PI explained to her the policeman’s job more or less as serving the narrative by the prosecution that it should give everyone pause to think that such could lead to inaccuracy.  And this is something that we see in both wild-eyed conspiracy tales and tone-deaf debunkers of conspiracy hypothesis–the exclusion of facts that give depth to, context to, support or prove an opposing viewpoint. 

The second season of Serial, which focuses on the plight of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, is in many respects superior to the effort of season 1, but has not enjoyed the latter's wild popularity.  If you haven't heard it, check it out.



This post first appeared on The X Spot, please read the originial post: here

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Prologue: The Columbia School of Crime Podcasting

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