Even before twittering demagogues turned public debate into a game of trolling, the decline of in-depth news-gathering was widely mourned. The ripple effects of shrinking newsrooms and budgets were clear.
“Those cutbacks have a very literal result,” notes Madeleine Baran, renowned investigative journalist and host of the Peabody Award–winning podcast In the Dark, on the line from her Minnesota office. “You don’t know as much as you used to as a listener or as a member of the public, because there aren’t as many reporters out there who can find stuff out. And so what our podcast hopes to show, and lots of other investigative reporting hopes to show, is the value of having that service in a democracy.”
Baran and her team have set out to prove this value by turning against the current. At a time when most cultural bets seem to be on the short and immediate, they’ve taken meticulous long-form journalism to what can only be described as an extreme—and to great popular response.
As she’ll describe when she appears at the inaugural Vancouver Podcast Festival, creating the 11-part documentary that makes up the latest gripping season of In the Dark required Baran and four colleagues to move to the small town of Winona, Mississippi, for nearly a year. They were there to pursue the weirdly shifting facts in the case of Curtis Flowers, a man tried and convicted no fewer than six times for a crime that has haunted Winona for decades: the unwitnessed slaying of four people in a family-owned furniture store on a summer morning in 1996.
“To us, what was interesting about it was not just like, ‘Wow, this is a lot of trials,’ but why did Curtis get tried that many times,” Baran says. “Part of the answer was that, in the first three trials, every time he was convicted and he appealed, the court overturned his conviction because they said that Curtis didn’t get a fair trial. But the remedy for that was just another one.…What we came to realize and report on in this story is that there really is no one who is saying ‘Enough. Maybe we need to look at this prosecutor. Maybe this should stop’—that there is no check on it.”
That Flowers is black and the prosecutor in each of the six trials is white—with an apparent penchant for picking all-white juries—only deepened the dynamics. Indeed, as the listener follows Baran and her colleagues through their months on the ground in Winona, through hundreds of interviews and weeks of poring over mouldering records, the evidence that brought Flowers repeatedly to death row begins to creak and totter. And with that, says Baran, a larger issue emerges.
“A prosecutor has tremendous power, and in the United States at the local level, the district attorney or county attorney is elected,” she tells the Straight. “These are elected officials who are often running unopposed who have the ability to charge you with a crime, or ask the jury in certain cases and places to have you executed. And so whenever as reporters we’re looking at a position or person or institution that has that much power, it’s often a really important area to direct resources, because the question obviously becomes ‘Is this person using their power responsibly? Is this system set up responsibly to be fair to people?’”
But don’t mistake the project for advocacy. An independent, impartial stance wasn’t just a matter of journalistic principle, but an essential method over their long stay in Winona. Without it, large parts of the community, and thus the story itself, would have been closed to them.
“We were very noticeable in the town—we were the public-radio people who were there reporting on the criminal justice system or reporting on Curtis Flowers’s case, and I think by being there for that long you can really build trust with people,” Baran points out.
“Our job as reporters is to understand what’s going on, and so we have long conversations with Curtis’s family, we have long conversations with victims’ families of the murders,” she continues. “And in fact, I think one of the ways we were able to be as successful as we were in getting people to talk to us was because of that. One of the first things we would say when we showed up was ‘We’re not a lawyer, we’re not on either side. We don’t actually have a stake in this.’ Which is sort of a unique position to be in. Our job is to report the facts, to contextualize those facts, and then in a democracy to put that information out there. And then everyone else gets to decide what they want to do about it.”
The Vancouver Podcast Festival presents In the Dark on Friday (November 9) at the Rio Theatre; Baran takes part in the panel Podcasting and/as Journalism on Thursday (November 8) at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch and hosts a masterclass Saturday (November 10) at the Post at 750.