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February 2020 Issue [Reviews]

Selective Hearing

On the specious new history podcasts
Illustration by Joanna Neborsky. Source image: Elizabeth Thompson © Hilary Morgan/Alamy

Illustration by Joanna Neborsky. Source image: Elizabeth Thompson © Hilary Morgan/Alamy


Selective Hearing

On the specious new history podcasts

Discussed in this essay:

Crime Junkie, hosted by Ashley Flowers and Brit Prawat. Audiochuck Productions.
Revisionist History, hosted by Malcolm Gladwell. Pushkin Industries.
Uncivil, hosted by Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika. Gimlet Media.
Nice Try!, hosted by Avery Trufelman. Curbed.
The Secret History of the Future, hosted by Tom Standage and Seth Stevenson. Slate/The Economist.
The History of English Podcast, hosted by Kevin Stroud.
The British History Podcast, hosted by Jamie Jeffers.

Last August, one of the country’s most successful podcasts was accused of multiple incidents of plagiarism. Called Crime Junkie, the weekly show has used what seems to be an irresistible formula to rocket to number-one status in numerous rankings: In each episode, cohosts Ashley Flowers and Brit Prawat give an intrigue-laced account of a serial killing, kidnapping, or other unresolved crime story. Exploring forensics, motives, and police reports, they develop new theories about what actually happened. For all their obsession with evidence, however, it turned out that Flowers and Prawat had at times been remarkably lax in explaining where their own information had come from. According to allegations made by a newspaper journalist, the hosts’ retelling of a case in one episode had matched almost verbatim the text of a series of investigative articles she had written for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette; other episodes were said to have recycled material from a television program hosted by Paula Zahn, from other podcasts, and from a post on Reddit.

At the time the accusations surfaced, Crime Junkie was being downloaded more than twenty million times a month, giving it one of the largest audiences of any podcast; it was also earning millions of dollars in advertising and other revenue. In traditional print and broadcast media, when a journalist for an outlet of this prominence is caught plagiarizing, it can be career-ending. But this case was different. The controversy was briefly covered in the New York Times and on BuzzFeed, and the hosts temporarily removed several episodes from the show’s website. Crime Junkie fans, however, were apparently unmoved, and, with no parent company to mete out consequences, the show almost immediately regained its dominance. It has since held steady as one of the top five podcasts on the iTunes chart, out of hundreds of thousands now available; in November, Flowers also launched Red Ball, a new podcast collaboration with the Indiana State Police that follows the reinvestigation of an unsolved murder case, which debuted at number one. Meanwhile, Crime Junkie was short-listed for iHeartRadio’s Best Crime Podcast for 2019.

Largely overlooked in this curious sequence of events was what it revealed about the podcast industry itself. Nearly all of the most popular shows are non-fiction and based on actual events. They also reach audiences that now rival or exceed the print circulation of newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Yet, in an era in which fact-checking has become a national pastime, podcasts have largely evaded serious scrutiny. In many magazines and newspapers, podcast coverage is limited to top-ten lists of favorite shows. To the extent that mainstream critics have taken them on, they have tended to offer aesthetic appraisals rather than assessments of their uses of sources or evidence. The inattention is striking, since podcasts themselves operate in an environment in which few traditional rules apply. Narrative liberties may be freely taken, as storytelling takes priority over fidelity to facts; the voice of a convincing “expert” or artful use of an audio clip or sound bite may stand in for original reporting. One of the few journalists who has looked at the freewheeling ethics of the industry in a sustained way is Vulture’s Nicholas Quah, who observed recently, “Podcasting is still the Digital Wild West.”

The lack of rules—and critical policing—is especially noteworthy now that the medium is suddenly conquering large swaths of the mainstream entertainment industry. Quah, who also edits the podcasting newsletter Hot Pod, has argued that 2019 is likely to be seen as the year in which “Big Podcasting” began, the advent of a kind of market-driven show-making that is, as he puts it, “farther away than ever from the medium’s makeshift and slow-but-steady origins,” and characterized instead by “a rapid acceleration of money—and . . . corporate interest.” This transformation has been led by narrative shows that make a point of stressing their veracity—and not just regarding cold murder cases or current affairs. One particularly dynamic area of growth has been in history-themed podcasts, a genre that by definition depends on facts and their careful interpretation. The market-research company Edison Research recently found that listener interest in history outranks sports, food, and even true crime, and that the most common reason people give for listening to a podcast is “to learn new things.”

We are in the midst of an unprecedented flowering of artfully scripted, crisply edited, long-form history podcasts: from More Perfect, on the Supreme Court, to Slow Burn, on the Nixon White House, to The Chernobyl Podcast, on Chernobyl, to This Land, on the Cherokee Nation. Many of these shows are ambitiously high-minded. But many of them are also up to something else. Frequently, they emphasize extravagant connections between the distant past and our own era: a 1960 plane crash, say, is blamed on a line in Shakespeare’s Henry IV; the rise of online dating apps is traced to the advent of the bicycle in the 1890s. Some of the new shows are pointedly aimed at contemporary America. Rachel Maddow’s Bag Man, about the largely forgotten investigation of Spiro Agnew, explores the question of whether a sitting president or vice president can be indicted; Uncivil, Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika’s highly praised Civil War podcast, begins with the 2017 Charlottesville riots.

A number of shows, like Gimlet Media’s Undone (“How big stories we thought were over were actually the beginning of something else”) or Stuff Media’s Unobscured (“To dig deep and shed light on some of history’s darkest moments”), have explicitly set out to unravel falsehoods, unearth previously ignored events, or expose continuing historical misconceptions. (“Un-” has become a popular history-podcast prefix.) In doing so, they follow on the wild success of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, in which, the show tells us, “every episode reexamines something from the past—an event, a person, an idea, even a song—and asks whether we got it right the first time.”

Since its inception in 2016, Revisionist History has been credited with spurring on “its own podcast micro-genre,” as the New York Times put it, noting that “seemingly every podcast company [is] starting or partnering with its own history-bending show.” At the height of its fourth season last summer, the show ranked just behind Serial, the true-crime series widely considered to be the most popular and influential podcast ever, on the iTunes charts. And yet, as in the case of so many of its peers, the show’s methods have been left largely unexamined.

That Revisionist History’s use of source material might be less than reliable first came to public attention in November, when it emerged that Gladwell was in a dispute with the families of victims of the serial child molester Larry Nassar. The controversy concerned the audio version of Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers, which discusses the Nassar scandal and which, as Gladwell has highlighted, introduces many of the same audio techniques he has employed throughout Revisionist History, including live interviews, archival sound clips, theme music, and reenactments. According to the Detroit Free Press, Gladwell had strong-armed Michigan Radio into providing him interview tape with some of the victims’ parents, which he used in the audiobook to support his thesis about our weakness for trusting people we don’t know. But the parents had not been informed of his use of their voices, and the Free Press reported that many found basic factual errors in the section; in an email, one of them told Gladwell that “many of your statements are wrong! Not distorted, wrong!” Michigan Radio also lodged its own complaint, informing Gladwell that “we feel betrayed by the use of audio clips in the out of context manner in which they were presented.” Gladwell defended his work, but the interview clips have since been removed from the audiobook.

As podcasts occupy an ever-increasing share of our information diet, such controversies over methods and sourcing raise the question: Is the advent of Big Podcasting making the industry more reliable? And who is checking?

The transformation of podcasting into a mass entertainment business has been accomplished with remarkable speed. Following years of relative stasis, the industry was shaken by Serial’s breakout success in 2014. Since then, fast-paced shows about crime, politics, and history have proliferated while the number of monthly podcast listeners has more than doubled, encompassing nearly one third of the total U.S. population. But the real explosion has been much more recent. Some sixty-two million Americans now hear at least one podcast a week—an increase of fourteen million listeners over just a year ago—and the rate of growth seems to be increasing. Confronted with such irresistible numbers, Big Media has spent much of the past year muscling in. Spotify, which recently acquired the podcast startup Gimlet Media, has been talking about pouring as much as $500 million into its podcast business, and Luminary Media has rolled out its own subscription-based podcast service, which is backed by nearly $100 million in capital. Meanwhile, corporate sponsors have ramped up their ad buys. One study estimates that the industry as a whole could generate as much as $1 billion in annual ad revenue by 2021.

That significant sums are now being spent on programs ostensibly aimed at improving our historical understanding is a remarkable development. At a time when the humanities are in retreat on campuses around the country, issues and events that used to be relegated to sterile academic discussions are being dug up and presented in dramatic form to broad audiences; instead of taking in another dreary newscast, commuters can learn about U.S.–Soviet cultural exchanges during the late Cold War (Radiotopia’s Spacebridge) or the strange history of utopian communities (Curbed’s Nice Try!). It is no longer a stretch to imagine a point when, for a sizable segment of the American population, much of our historical literacy could be shaped by what comes through our earbuds.

This emerging genre has little to do with the old-fashioned history that has long existed in the DIY podcasting world. For years, there have been a number of rigorous amateur history podcasts that aim to provide an exhaustive investigation of a single theme or subject: The History of English Podcast, which begins with the Indo-Europeans and has accumulated some 130 episodes; The British History Podcast, with 335 episodes and counting; American Revolution Podcast, with 125 episodes to date. In style and sound, these shows are kindred to those of the early, open-source days of podcasting. Generally, the hosts do all the narration, without interviews, and the shows rely on listener donations for financial support. The reputations of these podcasts depend in significant measure on their reliability and accuracy, and the hosts are apt to air corrections whenever issues are raised.

The slick history shows that have emerged since Serial are driven by quite different priorities. Episodes do not accumulate indefinitely, but tend to be packaged in TV-drama-like seasons of ten or twelve installments. Drawing on techniques pioneered by public-radio programs such as This American Life and Radiolab, storytelling is carefully interposed with first-person recollections, ambient sound, participatory scenes, and theme music; there are commercial breaks at cliff-hanger moments. Serial (which began as a spinoff of This American Life) demonstrated that making use of a suspenseful narrative to try to get to the bottom of a complicated set of bygone events—in its case, a decade-old murder—was an approach that could have almost universal appeal. It has been equally potent in telling histories. And as writers, journalists, and even television personalities who have created narrative podcasts have discovered, the format also offers unique powers of persuasion. Michael Lewis, who recently took a break from non-fiction writing to produce the podcast Against the Rules, has emphasized the emotive force of simply hearing characters’ voices. “If I just told the story, you might think I had my thumb on the scale. You wouldn’t quite believe it. You would think I was exaggerating,” he said in a conversation with Gladwell at the 92nd Street Y last spring. “But when [the protagonist] just tells it straight, you’re weeping. . . . The sincerity just jumps off the tape in a way that I would have to try to persuade the reader of. And I don’t. You just let her speak and it’s magnificent. Incredibly moving.”

At the same time, narrative podcasts tend to attract audiences that are ready to be moved. People who are prepared to invest the substantial time required to hear them are self-selecting, and those who find them unconvincing are—in the absence of a critical culture of podcast debate—apt to simply stop listening. Gladwell’s show is a case in point. For nearly two decades, reviewers have chewed over his bestselling books, often subjecting them to withering criticism for their cherry-picking of social science and history. Yet Revisionist History, despite its outsized influence in the podcast industry, has rarely been reviewed on the merits. Like other acclaimed shows, its reputation has been forged almost exclusively by fans.

In the new world of Big Podcasting, commercial backing is predicated on being able to reach a very large number of people, and it is often the shows with the boldest arguments—the shows willing to take the greatest narrative risks—that receive the most downloads. Among the many dozens of history podcasts currently in circulation, only a handful have access to venture capital, ad revenue, highly professionalized editing, and large-scale promotion. To compete, shows have to be strategic in their choice of themes and events. And they need to present them in ways that will hold our attention for a thirty- or forty-minute stretch—no mean feat in an age of constant distraction. To paraphrase the hosts of Uncivil, the new history shows have set out not merely to retell the past but to “ransack” it for maximum effect.

Consider the strange story of the Victorian artist Elizabeth Thompson as told in the first episode of the first season of Revisionist History. If you’ve never heard of Thompson, you’re not alone. At the prime of her career, she was regarded as one of the nineteenth century’s greatest painters; today, she is virtually forgotten. For Gladwell, Thompson is a perfect example of how societies prevent outsiders from entering the Establishment. The story begins in 1874, when her monumental Crimean War painting, The Roll Call, was given the most coveted spot in the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. At the age of twenty-seven, Thompson was a superstar. The painting went on a national tour and tens of thousands of people clamored to see it. (“The only contemporary equivalent I can think of,” Gladwell tells us, “is people camping out in line for two days to buy Beyoncé tickets.”) The Roll Call even caught the attention of Queen Victoria, who acquired it for the Royal Collection. Soon, Thompson seemed destined to gain the ultimate prize: membership in the Royal Academy itself. But the all-male institution was horrified by the prospect of a woman in its ranks. Her nomination was defeated and she never stood for election again—effectively banished into obscurity. No woman would join the Academy until well into the twentieth century.

As a parable about glass ceilings, the tale is searing, and it is clearly intended to establish the narrative template for the whole series: the story of a forgotten or unknown person is recounted to prove some general sociological truth. It is also dangerously inaccurate. Far from an “unknown outsider,” as Gladwell describes her, Thompson came from a well-known family (her parents were introduced by Dickens); by the time that The Roll Call was introduced to the public, she could get hundreds of royal troops in full uniform to stage military tableaux at her request. As for membership in the Royal Academy, she was only defeated by the narrowest of margins—she had twenty-five out of a needed twenty-seven votes; history very nearly went the other way. In any case, for years after, the Academy continued to exhibit her paintings. Still more glaring are the omissions about the Academy itself: unmentioned by Gladwell, not one but two of the institution’s founders were women. So Thompson was neither an “outsider” nor the first to try to “break through”—the premise of the whole episode. Art historians concur that her obscurity today owes simply to the eclipse of military painting as a genre. And yet there has been no public criticism of this highly misleading account of Thompson’s career and of the Academy itself, which has been downloaded millions of times.

While Revisionist History may be especially prone to bending material to serve a particular argument, it is hardly alone. Take the episode of Uncivil devoted to the Civil War hero Mary Bowser, a former slave who the show claims became a Union spy in the household of Jefferson Davis. Like Elizabeth Thompson, Bowser has, apparently, been erased from popular memory. “It’s almost impossible to find anyone who’s heard of her,” one of the cohosts tells us. In the brisk, half-hour episode, we are given vivid glimpses of Bowser’s exploits; we are also told about the Richmond society woman and secret abolitionist Elizabeth “Bet” Van Lew, who became Bowser’s “partner in crime.” As presented, it is a tale of invisible ink, messages hidden among loaves of bread, and a freedwoman with a photographic memory who, while impersonating a dull-witted servant, is daringly memorizing war plans in the Confederate White House. Thanks to Bowser’s efforts, as Uncivil tells it, Union forces received military intelligence almost in real time; Jefferson Davis himself complained about the leaks. According to a descendant of Van Lew who is interviewed on the show, “Mary Bowser probably contributed more to the Union cause in that espionage . . . than anybody else.”

Unfortunately, little of this thrilling story holds water. Far from forgotten, the former slave once identified as Mary Elizabeth Bowser has been a celebrated, if shadowy, figure since William Gilmore Beymer wrote about her in the pages of this magazine in 1911. In subsequent decades, the Harper’s Monthly account was repeated and freely embellished. There was a made-for-TV movie about Van Lew and Bowser in the Eighties and, more recently, a novel based on Bowser’s life. Yet no known nineteenth-century document places a Mary Bowser in the Confederate White House at all. “Very little hard evidence exists to corroborate the stirring stories of her heroism,” the University of Virginia historian Elizabeth R. Varon concluded, in her 2003 biography of Van Lew.

Over the past few years, a different story has emerged. As Varon established, Van Lew had a slave named Mary Jane Richards, who was educated in the North and was in Richmond during the war. Varon also showed that numerous Van Lew slaves in Richmond helped the Union cause. More recently, a postwar newspaper account has been discovered in which Richards mentions having gone “into President Davis’s house while he was absent,” on the pretext of retrieving washing, to look for papers related to the war. But we don’t know whether this foray was part of a regular position in the household or if it yielded any intelligence. Civil War documents make no mention of a female informant living in the Confederate White House, but there is evidence that a male “table servant” to Davis furnished naval intelligence to Union forces in early 1864. Richards herself, in speaking of her wartime exploits, apparently placed greater emphasis on other covert activities, such as helping Union prisoners of war escape and eavesdropping on the Confederate Senate.

In omitting these details, Uncivil misses the chance to unpack what Varon calls the “irresistible legend of ‘Mary Bowser,’ ” and explore the larger network of informants—including slaves and former slaves such as Richards—who advanced Union interests from the heart of the Confederacy. But this would have required discarding the high drama of tide-turning espionage—just as an accurate discussion of Elizabeth Thompson would have undercut Gladwell’s argument about glass ceilings.

It is tempting to view these cases as aberrations. Certainly, it is possible to serve the interests of narrative drama and historical rigor at the same time, and many shows, including these two, often do. Yet errors and omissions can be startlingly frequent. Nice Try!, for instance, kicked off its entertaining look at utopian communities with the story of Jamestown and its legacy. Though this episode is pointedly titled “Utopia for Whom,” it fails to mention that American slavery began in the colony. (The show is mainly fixated on the colony’s lurid descent into cannibalism.) This is not a small oversight; the embrace of slave-owning is one of the most important ways that Jamestown shaped subsequent U.S. history, as The New York Times Magazine has recently underscored in its multipart series “The 1619 Project.” To her credit, the host of Nice Try! has since posted an addendum, but it was listeners, not critics, who pointed out the omission.

One of the ironies of long-form narrative podcasts, surely, is that the qualities that make them prone to historical inaccuracy are also in large part what make them so appealing. For many listeners, the present writer included, there is an undeniable pleasure in the extent to which the genre gleefully jettisons the staid journalistic practices of the New York Times or All Things Considered. Rather than taking shape around a set of dry facts, narrative podcasts are driven by contrarian plotlines and compelling characters, sometimes from vastly different time periods and settings.

Of course, this formula derives in significant part from the public-radio world itself. In devising and perfecting the art of long-form audio narrative, shows such as This American Life demonstrated that almost anything, given the right characters and scenes and plotlines and argument, could be woven into a convincing story. (“I think the world exists as a big splatter of shit,” Jad Abumrad, Radiolab’s cohost, tells the authors of the recent book Podcasting: The Audio Media Revolution. “So there is some . . . fundamental distortion we do when we tell stories. But I think it’s a necessary one.”) Indeed, the influence of public radio looms large in the podcasting world today: quite a few of the leading producers, including the host of Serial and the founder of Gimlet Media, are alumni of these shows.

And yet there are crucial differences. For one thing, grant-funded public-radio shows do not face the same audience-chasing pressures as commercially backed podcasts. But more significantly, Radiolab and This American Life generally use uncertainty as a touchstone; the interest of their meticulously reported stories tends to lie in the clash of competing sets of facts or truths. (To some extent, an underlying sense of uncertainty was a running theme of Serial as well.) The recent shows are more likely to present a loaded reading of complicated events, one that serves a sweeping argument or provides a particular connection to the present age. In the podcast The Secret History of the Future, which is coproduced by Slate and The Economist, we are told that selfies are changing us in much the same way as did the introduction of Polaroids to isolated Papuan villages on New Guinea in the 1960s. Connecting the predicament of advanced civilization to a radical experiment on a stone-age culture, the episode grabs our interest. But it tells us next to nothing about smartphone innovations in an already visually saturated society, nor does it get at the larger controversies in the Papua New Guinea story—in which a maverick anthropologist showed photographs to locals who, unlike us, had never seen their own images before. The aim here seems not so much to investigate the past, but to use it to provide an entertaining new riff on the present.

In the novel ways they are resurrecting poorly understood events and developments, the new history podcasts have given millions of listeners much to think about. But it is time to recognize that, for all their storytelling power, their ingenious splicing of voices, anecdotes, and arguments, many of the new podcasts have come to resemble something closer to non-fiction theater than to expository journalism. And as long as Big Podcasting is allowed to flourish in the digital Wild West—beyond the remit of informed criticism—we listen to them at our peril.

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
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