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S*Town is S*

People are really into the 7-episode podcast about Woodstock, Alabama from the producers of Serial and This American Life: S*Town.  I don’t like it.  I don’t like the reporter Brian Reed who thinks he is engaged with Americana, but is really just incredibly condescending.  I finally threw my hands up in frustration in Episode 5, when the colorful character, John B. McLemore, who gets Reed involved in the project, tells Reed that he knows what Reed really wanted to ask when Reed asks if McLemore felt like a friendship was a two-way street.  Reed says, “Do you think your guy’s friendship was more of a friendship or more of a paternal relationship?”  McLemore says, “What you wanted to say but you didn’t come out and say it is, is your guy’s relationship more of a friendship or more of a usership?”  Reed responds, “No, it wasn’t what I wanted to say.  It’s what you wanted to say, apparently.”

This exchange might capture everything I do not like about the podcast.  Reed is trying to be the nice thoughtful sympathizing reporter, and McLemore straight called him out and said, this was what you were really thinking, the thing that was not quite as nice.  First, the thing that McLemore asks is not even that different than what Reed asks, and McLemore seems to capture what is meant by “paternal relationship” well, so it is surprising that Reed resists.  I’m not sure how to interpret that resistance, but it felt like Reed was upset at not having the interview control he wanted to have.  Reed’s response came across as petty and inauthentic to me.  McLemore shared the basic sense that Reed has, why does he have to quibble with the language in an accusatory way?  Is he upset with what McLemore might be accusing him of thinking?  But he is thinking that.

The exchange is so painful to hear.

From the beginning, I haven’t really quite understood what the point of this podcast is.  I mean, I know how they describe it.  They were contacted about a possible murder that a rich kid got away with, which turns out to be a dead-end.  Then someone else dies, and the reporter wants to find more information.  Oh, and there is a “hunt for a hidden treasure.”  But [SPOILER] there isn’t really a hunt for a hidden treasure–there’s speculation of family wealth and fights over custody of someone’s mother, which seems connected to inheritance issues, which leads to a situation that some friends of the deceased find unjust.

The story feels mean to me.  If some reporter I had been speaking to took advantage of a tragedy to go around asking my friends for gossip in order to develop an engaging character sketch about a guy who is a bit of a conspiracy theorist and yet turns out not to be your average dude from Alabama  to market to This American Life-listening crowd, I would not be pleased.  Now I’m not saying that reporters need their interview subjects to be pleased, but I think journalists have to weigh the public value and import of a story with the violation of personal privacy, and I just do not see the public value.  It doesn’t just lack value, it makes us all into voyeurs of people who sound less educated and less well-off, and sort of amusing in the process.

The very idea of the stereotype “average dude from Alabama” that the NPR-listening audience can then find themselves happily surprised to see punctured by the story buttresses the stereotype in the storytelling even as it allows for some characters to elbow their way out of the stereotype.  Look, this guy sounds like he is not intelligent, but this story will show that in fact he has quite talented and smart.

Muira McCammon at Paste Magazine describes the story as one about “the detours and dead ends that misinformation begets.”  I’m not sure I agree.  I mean, it seems to me that there is a crucial difference between the ways that families and communities tell stories about their interactions that involve multiple versions, and the ways that misinformation leads to some guy from Florida thinking that child pornography is happening in a pizza joint in DC so that he arms himself and goes to the pizza joint, and fellow conspirators continue to think there is a cover-up.  The latter seems of general public concern, I’m not sure the former is.

I generally like TAL reporting, and I enjoyed the reporting of Serial too, but I wonder if the personal interest story can become a journalistic ethical quandary.  Journalists need to tell us stories that explain the world, often the world that is out of sight, but having a significant impact on our lives.  After the last election, many people argue that small towns in the Midwest and the American South are part of that world. And I see the importance of seeing the obstacles that people face who exist in very other contexts within our larger political community.  But the personal disclosures feel violating in a way that makes the story serve the listener or the reporter in a way that the subject of the story has very little control over, very little opportunity to clarify or explain, a problem that you’d think Reed could recognize from knowing the person he is reporting on, especially since a friend of the subject reports to Reed his concern that others think that he is beneath them.

As Julia Turner at Slate’s Culture Podcast notes, Brian Reed reports on something he was explicitly told off the record and his justification is that the person he tells about is dead, who doesn’t believe in God, so reporting it can’t hurt him.  Another reason Reed gives for disclosing the information is that he says helped him understand the person he is speaking of so much better, and he thinks that “trying to understand another person is a worthwhile thing to do.”  That might be true, but such a defense would make “off-the-record” a pretty meaningless journalistic ethos if a journalist could just argue, it will help you understand my source, which is worthwhile for its own sake.  I think there needs to be a compelling reason for all of your listeners to understand this person through this person’s secrets, especially when they are told from another person with his own interpretation of the secrets.  Is this the only way to get this understanding of the world?  Is there a less compromising way to get it?  It is especially strange, since he warns another person not to tell him something if it comes to pass, and then willingly goes off the record, so not believing in an afterlife seems to be the thing that’ll let a reporter violate his journalistic ethics.  The arrogance of this decision compound the other moments of condescension in the podcast, which is ironic because it seems like the point of the series is to help the listener know and understand instead of to make an object lesson out of a person’s tragedy.

Other moments that this reporterly shaping of a story for consumption with the reporter’s notions of what the subject was dealing with was when Reed offers the editorial comment in Episode 6, “So much for romance.”  Or in that same episode, when Reed describes various ways of thinking about love and says, “Too bad that didn’t actually happen, because that’s something you could write a country song about.”  I just thought, dude, shut. up.  The last episode felt particularly like they were judging certain BDSM fetishes and practices–tattooing, sometimes without ink, whipping–as destructive.  Reed calls certain explanations that are offered for these things, twisted.   He draws conclusions and frames a story in ways that aren’t obviously supported by the reporting he has done, and don’t need to be drawn.  The judgments and interpretations make the reporter more suspect.  The last episode seems to consider itself to drop some bombs in the story, why not then report more through this lens, talk to people who can speak more to the practices discussed there?  Why sensationalize and pathologize it?  Especially since the whole point of the series as described by the reporter is to understand someone.

I wonder if anyone at TAL or Serial asked, do we have sufficient reason to run this story or have we just put so many resources into it at this point that we must?  One person in the story at the end of Episode 6 says, “I just couldn’t hear anymore, I couldn’t hear Shittown, Shittown.  I couldn’t hear it anymore.  If you don’t like it, leave it.  You can leave it.” Hm, indeed.

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