Rabia Chaudry Sets The Record Straight For Serial Fans

Photo: Courtesy of Rabia Chaudry.
Rabia Chaudry's new podcast, Undisclosed, debuts on Monday, April 13, picking up where Serial left off. In anticipation of the new series, we're excited to share our one-on-one interview with her originally published on November 18.
Last year, Rabia Chaudry contacted reporter Sarah Koenig with the story of her incarcerated friend, Adnan Syed, trying to drum up media interest in his appeal case. Mission accomplished. Serial is currently the number-one podcast in the country, being followed by millions of listeners all playing armchair detective in the murder case of Hae Min Lee.
Chaudry, a lawyer and national security fellow at New America Foundation, provided the initial documents and research in support of Syed, who was convicted of the murder in 1999. She's been writing weekly installments along with the series on her blog, Split The Moon. Her voice provides a unique and grounding perspective on the crime drama that's captivated the country.
Last week, Chaudry's interview with The Awl brought up the issue of "white reporter privilege" — much to her dismay. BuzzFeed followed up with a piece on the "model minority myth," but Chaudry thinks all this discussion takes away from the real issue at the center of this story.
We got the chance to talk with Rabia about Serial ("The only thing people want to talk to me about, even when I go to work,") and hear her take on this and more of the controversial twists in this knotty tale.
Have you been in touch with Adnan and his family? How do they feel about Sarah's take on the case? "Early on, when Sarah told us she was working on this, we thought she must really believe he's innocent. It took time to realize maybe that’s not the conclusion we should draw. It wasn’t a let down but maybe a reality check for us — and Adnan, too. Listeners have been sending him transcripts of the show."

Oh, of course. Because he has no way to listen to it.
No. No Internet in maximum security. He doesn’t really know what the global response has been, and he has not been exposed to social media. He was locked up in '99 when there was no such thing as social media. I can explain that’s trending on Twitter but that’s almost meaningless to him. He’s much more concerned about the legal scrutiny on the investigation — not whether or not people think he's nice. He wants something that is concrete that can change his circumstances. He's taking all this with a grain of salt. But, having The Innocence Project say they believe he's innocent was really meaningful."


The moment you referenced in the show (where Adnan and Sarah have the "nice guy" chat) was so tense for the listener, but a really important reminder: It’s really not about his niceness. It’s about the case.
"I mean, he is. He’s a really kind, gentle, thoughtful person. That’s the only way I’ve ever known him. But, that couldn't help him in the case. The witness against him has all kinds of terrible things in his track record, and he just walked. He didn't spend a day behind bars, even for the involvement he actually confessed to."

You mean Jay?
"Yes, of course. There’s no other witness than Jay."

There’s been a lot of talk about Jay, specifically regarding racial issues in reporting this story. BuzzFeed wrote about the model minority myth, and I know you were interviewed in The Awl's piece on white-reporter privilege. Do you have any comment on that element? "Honestly, that piece in The Awl...If I had known that was the angle I would not have interviewed with him. That’s not what I meant when I spoke with him. We all come with certain privilege, that doesn't make you a manipulative or malicious person. To me, that’s not a condemnation of Sarah. It just means she’s a white woman. She put more time and energy and nights away from her family into this case than other Muslim Pakistanis who just walked away.
"As far as the descriptions of Jay, she used his friends' language and quotes in describing him. That’s not Sarah’s language. People can say 'I read a piece that was a very stereotypical of an urban black boy,' but these are the facts. No one is making that up. If that’s how his friends remembered him, then that’s how it is. Sarah didn’t come away with that impression when she met him. She said he was gentle and polite. I don’t agree with these criticisms. The fact that the Serial team is all white means that maybe they won’t quite get some things about Korean culture or our [Muslim] culture, but so what? Then we explain it."
Photo: Courtesy of This American Life.
I do think that question was inevitably going to come up once the show became such a hit. "People want to criticize this. What is she supposed to do? It’s not easy to tell a story like this."
Overall, do you think all this hype is a good thing for the case? "It is a good thing. The conviction is over and he’s gotten the maximum sentence. All these years, he’s been wanting to wait for the appeal process, and I understand that strategically, the media attention could have hurt. But, as we neared the end of the process I said, 'screw it.' I was looking for a local Baltimore reporter who would be familiar with the players, who maybe had contacts in the community, or who maybe grew up with Jay. Sarah was one of the first people I found because she had done a story on Adnan’s attorney years ago.
"Now, I look at the polls, and — I know it fluctuates every week depending on what Sarah says — but still, at any given point at least a third of the listeners respond saying 'We just don’t know.' And, maybe 20% are convinced he’s innocent. It’s created enough doubt which, to me, means that people don’t quite buy the state’s case, and they shouldn’t. That wouldn’t have happened if Sarah wasn’t working on this case."
When you first met with Sarah, did you know this was going to become a series? "Oh no. We met a couple of times and I gave her documents. Then she started finding police records and other things that were not in my files. I thought maybe it was going to be a one-hour This American Life feature. It was only a few months ago that she told me it was going to be a series, and I said, 'Oh wow! Okay.' I had no idea that it was going to be a brand new podcast until the first episode was up and she sent me a text."

Do you have a sense of how this has impacted it from the legal side so far?

"There’s a lot more movement. Adnan’s attorney for the post-conviction appeal is great and believes Adnan is innocent. From what I understand, now the state’s attorney’s office is reviewing the case. So, maybe the media attention is forcing them to take a closer look at the investigation and what they might have missed. It’s been a good thing — not an easy thing but a good thing."
Photo: Courtesy of This American Life.
A lot of people have engaged with you on social media. How has that been for you? "It’s been good and bad; 99% of the messages have been really positive, but every now and then you’ll get something weird. On certain platforms, the people who are the most vocal have a lot of criticism of Serial or don’t buy Adnan’s innocence."
I asked because you're the only one in this story who engages with listeners outside the show. I think that's been helpful because so many have lost sight of the fact that this isn't just a juicy story. It involves real people. "The entertainment value is necessary for awareness. I've been asked by friends to come and be part of their listening parties and I’m like, 'This is not a party for me.' If you want to have a discussion, I’m willing to do that. But, this is too personal for me, and it’s really painful."
I can’t help but think about Adnan and Hae's parents in all this. "I have no idea where Hae’s parents are. I know a number of people had tried to find them, but they must not be in the States anymore. I talk to Adnan’s mom pretty frequently. His youngest brother was on Reddit for a few days and we told him to get off it. He was only nine when Adnan got locked up and it shattered his world. He is the only one of the family I think being really impacted by the attention. His parents are kind of sheltered. They’ve been getting media requests and I’ve advised them just to do whatever they're comfortable with (and if they're not, it's okay). I remind them that there are professionals working on this, and that I'm advocating for them, too, so they don’t have to put themselves out there. They are very private people and no one is pushing them."
Is there anything you’d like to set the record straight on? "I’m glad you brought up the racial aspect of it. I’m not saying there weren’t racial dynamics that might have impacted the case at the time of the trial. Of course there were. But now, in the present, I want to put to rest. I don’t malign Sarah at all for what she has done. I don’t see anyone else from the Muslim community doing anything about it."
What made you decide to blog along with each episode of Serial? "I want to elevate Adnan’s narrative. That’s not the job of the This American Life team, so somebody has to do it. The show will end, but we will still deal with the issue, which is the case itself. We have to take advantage of this time."

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