Could a revolutionary podcast change America’s criminal justice system?
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Interview

Could a revolutionary podcast change America’s criminal justice system?

When Sarah Koenig launched the law-oriented ‘Serial,’ she had no idea how big it would be. But after over 340 million downloads, will success mean reform on the ground?

Journalist and podcaster Sarah Koenig. (Sandy Honig)
Journalist and podcaster Sarah Koenig. (Sandy Honig)

NEW YORK – When journalist Sarah Koenig launched “Serial,” a 12-part podcast about a 15-year-old case involving a murdered high school girl, she not only revolutionized podcasting, she created binge listening.

Downloaded more than 340 million times, “Serial” became the first podcast to win the Peabody Award. It was the kind of storytelling that people dissected at work over the proverbial water cooler. It was so popular, comedian Cecily Strong played Koenig in a “Saturday Night Live” skit and HBO recently aired a three-part special about the case.

But beyond the inherent drama and cliffhangers that come with reporting true crime, that first season did something else: It inspired Koenig to spend a year inside one courthouse to try and make sense of the byzantine bureaucracy known as the United States justice system.

“I’ve been in and around courthouses in my career. I’ve gone into a courthouse to cover a certain case or profile a judge. I had never stepped back like this,” Koenig said in a telephone interview from her Pennsylvania home with The Times of Israel.

Its third season has wrapped and is available for binge listening. In its nine episodes, listeners will find Koenig and her co-reporter Emmanuel Dzotsi inside the Cuyahoga County felony courthouse in Cleveland, Ohio.

During the year they spent there, the pair interviewed judges, police social workers, attorneys, defendants, and victims. The myriad cases they followed included a bar fight, a drive-by shooting, and a marijuana charge. It is “the extraordinary stories of ordinary cases,” according to the podcast’s website. 

Before setting out for Cleveland for Season 3, Koenig read Amy Bach’s book, “Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court,” which the latter used as a springboard to launch Measures for Justice (MFJ). Under Bach’s direction the nonprofit developed a set of performance measures from arrest to post-conviction, and compares the results across the country’s more than 3,000 counties. MFJ’s data, online and available to anyone for free, can be broken down by race and ethnicity, sex, indigent status, and age.

On April 29 Koenig will host a discussion, by invitation only, with Bach, the 2018 recipient of the Charles Bronfman Prize. The annual award of $100,000 goes to a humanitarian under 50 whose innovative work, informed by Jewish values, has significantly improved the world.

After graduation from the University of Chicago in 1990, Koenig worked for ABC News and the New York Times in Russia. In 2004 she became a producer on Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life” and in 2006 she won a Peabody Award for an episode about Guantanamo detainees called “Habeas Schmabeas.”

Koenig credits her love of words and storytelling in part to her father Julian Koenig, the legendary Jewish advertising copywriter who created scores of catch phrases including, “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” for Timex, and “Think Small” for Volkswagen.

As for the Yiddish that sprinkles some of her narration — for example a prosecutor presents “the whole megillah” to a grand jury — Koenig credits that to growing up Jewish in New York City.

“Any Yiddish I have is garden variety,” Koenig said.

Sarah Koenig. (YouTube screenshot)

The following conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.

How much did you know about issues within the criminal justice system? Was it a case of, “I knew it was pretty bad, but I didn’t realize how bad?”

If you’re someone who has not had contact with the court system you might be surprised by what goes on, but I think a lot of people know this [the degree of injustice] about our system.

I thought the problems would be a lot subtler. I thought they’d be covered over in layers of bureaucracy and not immediately apparent. I thought it would take me a while to decipher what was going on and have to have it explained to me. So I think that surprised me.

In her book “Ordinary Injustice” Amy Bach wrote she soon realized that no matter how well-intentioned prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys may be, they have become so inured to patterns of injustice they no longer see them. Was that your experience inside Cuyahoga County?

I think the defense side tends to see patterns [of injustice] more than prosecutors. But even some of the prosecutors and the judges and the police say, “Yeah, this isn’t how it should be, but this is how it is.” There is a feeling of being trapped in the system. There are some people fighting for reform, but mostly you are really trapped.

It’s especially true in a building where everyone knows each other and your reputation matters. You don’t want to rock the boat; you don’t want to get a reputation for being troublesome. It could hurt your career and it could potentially hurt your client.

For some things, such as overcharging [and inflated sentencing] for marijuana, you would have everyone at every level recognizing it’s messed up and everyone agreeing it needs to change. And so you ask, “Why are we doing this?” But you realize the architecture of the system is staying put.

So I’m sympathetic to the people involved. It’s maddening, but I’m sympathetic.

The Bronfman Award is about honoring work that is informed by Jewish values. How have Jewish values and Judaism informed the work you do as a journalist? The kinds of stories you tell?

Amy Bach, founder of Measure for Justice. (Carlos Ortiz/Democrat & Chronicle)

I don’t think so. I’m not sure. I wasn’t raised Jewish, but I was raised by Jews, if that makes sense. And of course my values were hugely informed by my parents, and maybe their values were shaped by Jewish values to whatever degree. But no, I don’t really think about my work as deliberately or intentionally connected to my Jewishness. More that I feel like I’m Jewish, but I’m also a mush of a lot of other influences, and they all probably shape my work in ways I can’t fully tease out.

Amy Bach’s book “Ordinary Injustice” talks of impartial ways to remedy some of the issues you raise in “Serial,” such as sentence length, plea-bargaining and bail. In your interviews with those in the court system did you find people who embraced the use of data to make change?

We found a dearth of data, actually, in Cuyahoga County. A lot of those records just aren’t kept. MFJ helped us find data or told us how to find what we were looking for.

There is enough national data to know what the problems are, and what we need to fix. What Amy’s book did so well was to show different systems within the larger criminal justice system. I also liked and appreciated how much she showed a lot of generosity and empathy to the people she was writing about.

She showed us that these are normal people doing their jobs, sometimes screwing up, and sometimes not even knowing why.

How much did your father Julian influence your love of words and storytelling?

Hugely. His forte wasn’t storytelling — he wasn’t a guy who’d hold forth with a yarn or anything. But he had a never-ending capacity to produce clever, weird, imaginative sentences. He was really, really funny, my dad. And subversive. He loved words, and he especially loved the rhythm of language. He spoke beautifully, with this old New York accent nobody has anymore, a mix of high and low New York. He read and read and read, and he’d always delight in strange words and look them up, and deliberately try to remember them and use them. And he’d rhyme things that no one else would think to rhyme. He really was a strange, wonderful iconoclast in the way he used and wielded words.

My stepfather was the writer Peter Matthiessen. He told stories. Long ones, sometimes. He’d tell and retell them, like a comic working out a set. Which makes a ton of sense, actually, because he was often figuring the best shape of the thing for his writing. He was a novelist, but he also wrote a lot of non-fiction and did a lot of reporting.

The first season of “Serial” was parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” How did it feel to have Cecily Strong play you? Were you given advance notice?

I was not given advance notice — I found out about it because someone I knew texted me the morning after it aired. I was totally surprised — and I also remember being confused, thinking that the “SNL” audience would be confused, because I couldn’t imagine all that many of their viewers knew what “Serial” was at that point. But I guess people got it.

Part of me was thrilled by it, and obviously flattered — Cecily Strong was great and funny — but my overall feelings veered more towards anxiety and dread. I’m pretty much the world’s worst audience for that skit, is the thing. Because I was aware by then that the story had become entertainment for so many people, they were interacting with the story as entertainment. And that freaked me out. I felt very protective of the people in the story, and I also felt guilty that I’d dragged them unwittingly into pop culture in this way.

Of course we had no idea that the show would become hugely popular, so I couldn’t prepare anyone I’d interviewed for that, and we ourselves weren’t prepared for it. So yeah — the “SNL” thing was a little complicated for me. But I totally get why other people would like it! It’s just me. Every time I talk about it I feel like this awful wet blanket. But that’s the truth: I kind of am a wet blanket about it.

In Season 3 listeners get the feeling that we are so far down the rabbit hole when it comes to problems in the system that there’s no hope in sight. Did doing this series depress you? Or do you see hope for reform?

I fluctuate. I tend to despair, but then I remind myself that great things are happening, such as prosecutorial reform. There were a lot of elections where reform candidates have gotten in on a platform of reform, not as a stealth reform candidate. There is a lot of energy on this issue now and there is starting to be some real money behind initiatives.

And you’re starting to see national conversations that mass incarceration is real and it’s shameful and we need to deal with it.

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