The Market for Secrets: A Truce Between ‘Serial’ and The Intercept

The Internet is many things, but it is one thing for sure: a market for secrets. From Wikileaks to the Sony hacks, the secret told online is a story that sticks, a gift that keeps regifting. Meanwhile, we build massive cryptosystems to protect our own secrets, whether financial, sexual, political, or otherwise. In either case: the burying and unearthing of secrets is itself the secret repetition-compulsion that drives, or monetizes, digital media. Gawker began with the secret of the celebrity, Genius with the secrets behind the lyric. Medium is designed to get you to compose your own secrets and perhaps read the secrets of others. Many such outlets or platforms, in fact, can be defined by their relation or proximity to the secret. Vox wonks away the secrets of the day. The little magazine unmasks the secrets of ideology.

The secret is not a secret, you might say. We already know about secrets. Of course. But the sheer volume of secrets shared or concealed, the steadily growing cybersecurity industry, the already existing cyberwars: these are new developments in the secret. So too is the influx of new, well-funded outlets with different orientations toward the secret.

Two such secret sharers, The Intercept and Serial, are now locked in a feud. Or, rather, The Intercept, which sounds like a military-grade weapon, is now behaving like one. The issue, purportedly, is the lackluster work of Serial host Sarah Koenig, who apparently did a shitty job reporting on the case of the 1999 murder of high-school student Hae Min Lee. If you somehow don’t know about Serial: it is a serialized podcast wherein each season is given over to a single story, told over 12 episodes. It is also the most popular podcast in the history of the form.

The Intercept is a different animal. Funded by eBay founder and billionaire Pierre Omidyar, it began as a vehicle for Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill are its founding editors. The majority of its pieces are worthwhile, intelligent examples of highly necessary reporting (and speculation) on events of international political importance. But their pieces on Serial by Ken Silverstein (formerly of Harper’s) and Natasha Vargas-Cooper (who has just departed for Jezebel), are misguided and unresourceful. They should stop doing them, and I’ll explain why. In the process, too, I’ll attempt to broker a truce between fans or followers of one or the other.

Let’s begin with The Intercept. It has lately shown itself to be drunk on secrets. This may have something to do with money. Maybe Omidyar is getting antsy about the need to monetize. But I think it also may also be a symptom of original sin: The Intercept began with a massive hoard of secrets. It was born awash in secrets. The Snowden Leak became the self-replenishing gift, a Secret of Secrets that generated story after story for more than a year. (Lately it seems to have run out of steam.) I’m not suggesting that the world is low on government secrets at the moment, but it’s likely that leaks of that stature come along once, maybe twice, in a lifetime. And the thing is: you have to wait for the leak. Or if you do the hard journalistic work of uncovering secrets of international political importance, you’re up against the protections of powerful people who pay substantial sums to keep those secrets concealed. You cannot, in other words, just make shit up. You can, like a drunkard, lash out. And you can do crazy things like investigate your own secrets.

Serial, on the other hand, can invent its secrets. It can find secrets where there aren’t any. Or it can simply embellish them, make the secrets more interesting. This is the basis for effective parodies of Serial, like this one from SNL. Why can they do this? Serial is not serious journalism, nor was it meant to be, no matter what evidence its producers marshal in their defense. And the reason we know this? Just look at the name.

“The format,” philosopher Peter Sloterdijk once wrote, “is the message.” In the case of Serial, the format is built into the title. Serial what? Serial killer? The show’s title privileges only one thing: narrative. Seriality, in this case, is a form of storytelling and not journalism; the privileging of storytelling over journalism is constitutive of Serial’s identity. To consider what this means, imagine if TV shows like True Detective or American Horror Story were just called “Anthology.” And here’s another thing: Serial’s abstracted emphasis on story allows it to camouflage itself in whatever genre it chooses. This year it’s True Crime. (Imagine The Intercept going nuts on 48 Hours. Ridiculous.) Next season it could be any other non-fiction genre, so long as there are secrets involved.

Nor did Serial ever convincingly pitch itself as a journalistic enterprise. From the first, its identity has been tethered to narrative. Here is its self-description:

Each season, we’ll follow a plot and characters wherever they take us. And we won’t know what happens at the end until we get there, not long before you get there with us.

A plot. Characters. These are storytelling elements. Note, too, that Serial doesn’t exactly promise to unearth a secret. “We won’t know what happens until the end” isn’t the same as “all will be revealed.” In a stroke of genius: it merely promises the existence of a secret, of something unknown. The Intercept doesn’t understand this in the slightest. If they accept that Serial is nothing but an act of storytelling, they’ll realize that each additional piece on the murder is nothing but added value for Serial, a DVD extra produced on someone else’s dime.

So here is the truce: The Intercept leaves Serial alone, but Serial’s fans and producers — everyone involved — must admit that the podcast bears little resemblance to actual journalism. The Intercept can go back to unearthing secrets, or having them leaked. It can go back to doing precisely the opposite of what Serial does. And Serial can go back to embellishing secrets at will.