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September 20, 2022

Big news Monday as Adnan Syed, whose case was chronicled in the first season of the popular podcast “Serial,” had his murder conviction overturned.

For now, he is out of prison.

Did the podcast help him get released?

Syed spent more than two decades behind bars after being convicted for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. Syed has maintained his innocence from the beginning. Syed and Lee were high school classmates near Baltimore and had an on-again, off-again relationship when she disappeared. Her strangled body was discovered a few weeks later in a wooded area. The theory of prosecutors at the time was Syed killed Lee because she started dating someone else.

Judge Melissa M. Phinn of Baltimore City Circuit, at the behest of prosecutors, vacated the convictions “in the interests of fairness and justice.” Phinn ruled that prosecutors failed to turn over evidence that could have helped Syed, as well as the discovery of new evidence that could have affected his conviction. That includes two possible alternative suspects.

Becky Feldman, chief of the sentencing review unit for the office of the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, told the judge, “I understand how difficult this is, but we need to make sure we hold the correct person accountable.”

Prosecutors now have to decide whether to seek a new trial or drop all charges. The Associated Press’ Brian Witte wrote, “Prosecutors said they weren’t asserting that Syed is innocent, but they lacked confidence ‘in the integrity of the conviction’ and recommended he be released on his own recognizance or bail. The state’s attorney’s office had said if the motion were granted it would effectively put Syed in a new trial status, vacating his convictions, while the case remained active.”

So what about the podcast?

The New York Times’ Michael Levenson wrote, “… questions about whether (Syed) had received a fair trial drew widespread attention when ‘Serial’ debuted in 2014. The podcast became a pop-culture sensation with its detailed examination over 12 episodes of the case against Mr. Syed, including the peculiarities of his lawyer, who agreed to be disbarred amid complaints of wrongdoing in 2001 and died in 2004.”

CNN’s Eric Levenson, Lauren Koenig and Dakin Andone noted that Monday’s ruling, “… comes nearly eight years after the ‘Serial’ podcast dug into his case, raising questions about the conviction and his legal representation. In doing so, the podcast reached a huge audience and set off a true-crime podcasting boom as well as further examinations of the case, including the HBO docuseries ‘The Case Against Adnan Syed.’”

Witte wrote, “The true-crime series was the brainchild of longtime radio producer and former Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Koenig, who spent more than a year digging into Syed’s case and reporting her findings in almost real-time in hour-long segments. The 12-episode podcast won a Peabody Award and was transformative in popularizing podcasts for a wide audience.”

Lee’s brother, Young Lee, said he felt “betrayed” and “blindsided” by the motion to vacate. He told the court on Zoom, “This is not a podcast for me. This is real life — a never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.”

Young Lee said he was “not against investigation or anything of that sort … knowing that there could be someone out there free for killing my sister. It’s tough.”

State’s Attorney for Baltimore City Marilyn Mosby told reporters outside the courtroom on Monday that she understood why Young Lee felt betrayed.

“But I also understand the importance as the administer of the criminal justice system to ensure equality and justice and fairness,” Mosby said. “That is entitled to the defendant, as well.”

Meanwhile, the Twitter account for “Serial” tweeted Monday that a new episode of the series will drop this morning.

Backing CNN’s shift

The Chicago Tribune’s editorial board weighed in on the changes at CNN with “CNN is hewing toward the center? That’s good for our democracy.”

The board acknowledged the dangers of both sideism, but added, “Granted, not every issue has two sides, especially when it comes to the antics of former President Donald Trump, but most of them do.”

The board went on to write that the country needs a news source that all Americans can trust.

Here’s the problem: All Americans aren’t reasonable enough or willing to accept what’s true. And it isn’t just a small minority of those who aren’t willing to accept things such as the 2020 presidential election, the authenticity of our elections and other bedrocks of our democracy. For the editorial board to wrap up the issue by briefly mentioning the “antics of former President Donald Trump” seems overly dismissive and not nearly as comprehensive of what’s truly at stake here.

As NPR TV critic Eric Deggans said on the final episode of the recently canceled “Reliable Sources,” “I hope that what we’re not going to see CNN do is institute some sort of false equivalence where the extremism of one party is balanced with the regular dysfunction of another party. We need to be free to call out when someone breaks the law, when someone breaks norms, when someone introduces prejudices and stereotypes to the public debate.”

The Tribune’s editorial closed with, “Perhaps it’s Pollyannaish to hope that CNN can retrofit itself in a country where each political side believes the other is living in a kind of dangerous alternate reality. But many of (new CNN CEO Chris) Licht’s innovations, including the new national morning show featuring (Don) Lemon, Poppy Harlow, and chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins, are refreshing changes that might just help with this country’s ever-expanding habit of spinning the facts before digesting them.”

The board also wrote that there are journalists at CNN who are “worried that the network was abandoning its original mission statement.”

The editorial got this right: It is Pollyannaish to think that way. I’ll add another word to at least consider: dangerous. Pushing for fairness and completeness in journalism as well as fewer “hot takes” is never a bad idea. But that’s not the same as making sure you present both sides. Sometimes, the other side shouldn’t be given a voice, particularly if that side’s argument is based on lies or pushes harmful agendas.

Questionable coverage

The TV networks — cable and broadcast — took quite the social media pounding Monday for their extensive coverage of the funeral for Queen Elizabeth II and, because of that, not having more coverage of Hurricane Fiona’s impact on Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

The slow-moving Category 1 storm left what Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Pierluisi described as “catastrophic” destruction on many parts of the island. To be fair, CNN and other cable news networks did cover the hurricane story. But yes, it dedicated most of the early part of the day to the queen’s funeral.

CNN commentator and occasional “The View” co-host Ana Navarro tweeted, “Folks, I respect the Queen as much as the next person. I offer my condolences to the Brits and all who loved her. But can I please get some news and footage of the effects of Fiona in Puerto Rico? For those who need reminding, they are American citizens in distress.”

Veteran journalist Soledad O’Brien tweeted, “All the tv news networks are running the funeral for a monarchy we ousted and basically doing little or nothing on Puerto Rico. Which has been devastated in a storm.”

Jezebel editor-in-chief Laura Bassett tweeted, “Puerto Rico: **has no power or potable water** Every cable news network: ‘Was that?….yes, I believe a spider just crawled across the queen’s coffin.’”

And it wasn’t just journalists weighing in. Florida Democratic Congresswoman Val Demings, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat against Marco Rubio, tweeted, “I understand why the TV news networks want to cover Queen Elizabeth’s funeral but it is also critical that they do not ignore what is happening in Puerto Rico.  The safety of our fellow Americans must be a priority.”

The latest with Fiona

Playa Salinas is flooded on Monday after the passing of Hurricane Fiona in Salinas, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Alejandro Granadillo)

By Monday afternoon, most major news outlets were leading with the latest coverage of Hurricane Fiona. On Sunday night and into Monday, we all heard the reports about massive power outages in Puerto Rico. At one point, the entire island — about 1.5 million people — was without power.

The New York Times’ Charo Henríquez reported, “Some Puerto Ricans said the formation of Hurricane Fiona took them by surprise.” Henriquez talked to one woman who said, “I think the government minimized what was going to happen. I found out it was a hurricane at 11 a.m. on Sunday, so I left everything and ran to the supermarket. I had not prepared for a hurricane.”

Another part of the problem might have been how the storm was categorized. As The Washington Post’s Kasha Patel wrote, “Hurricane Fiona knocked out power to all of Puerto Rico, dropped nearly 30 inches of rain so far and caused catastrophic flooding. Yet it was classified as ‘only’ a Category 1 hurricane, perhaps understating its devastating effects.”

Hurricanes are categorized between 1 and 5 based on wind speeds, with 5 being the most devastating. Patel wrote, “However, the scale only considers wind speed and wind-related damages, not rainfall-induced flooding, storm surge, tornadoes, mudslides or other cascading effects from the storm — an issue for storms like Fiona.”

And it appears that rain had the most impact on Puerto Rico.

Smoking gun

Good work here by Popular Information’s Judd Legum, who did some good, old-fashioned digging in “The smoking gun in Martha’s Vineyard.”

Legum wrote he obtained evidence that migrants from Venezuela were given false information to convince them to board a flight chartered by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Legum writes, “The documents suggest that the flights were not just a callous political stunt but potentially a crime.”

What were those documents?

Legum wrote, “… a brochure that was provided to the migrants who ultimately agreed to the flights. It was provided to Popular Information by Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR), a Boston-based legal organization that represents 30 of the migrants. The brochure says that migrants who arrive in Massachusetts will be eligible for numerous benefits, including ‘8 months cash assistance,’ ‘assistance with housing,’ ‘food,’ ‘clothing,’ ‘transportation to job interviews,’ ‘job training,’ ‘job placement,’ ‘registering children for school,’ ‘assistance applying for Social Security cards,’ and many other benefits. None of this, however, is true.”

Legum added, “There could be real consequences for migrants who were convinced to board the flight under false pretenses. Seeking asylum is an ‘often years-long process through immigration courts that requires (migrants) to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement periodically.’ Some migrants now find themselves thousands of miles away from where they need to report for their next check-in. A missed appointment can ‘be detrimental to their case.’”

The topic of migrants being flown to Martha’s Vineyard will be the topic on today’s “The Daily” podcast from The New York Times.

Media tidbits

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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