Congressional Report Says Administration Misled Congress on Bergdahl Swap

11 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Bowe Bergdahl says he left base to expose ‘leadership failure’.

But just as with a “difficult” second novel or the sequel to a blockbusting movie, this new series faces a huge challenge – how can it possibly live up to the phenomenal success of last year’s compelling re-examination of the case against convicted killer Adnan Syed? That extraordinary hit of a podcast from producers of “This American Life” was so thrilling and so unlike entertainment anyone had experienced before, that for a while it was all anyone could talk about.It’s one of the most anticipated digital releases of the year, an online phenomenon so eagerly awaited that servers were reportedly bogged down by the sheer number of users seeking access.

The series focuses on US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured in Afghanistan in 2009 and held by the Taliban for five years before being released in a prisoner exchange. Bergdahl was initially feted as a hero but within hours his triumphant return soured and questions were asked about why he disappeared from his post and how he came to be captured.

Serial is instead a free documentary podcast hosted by a quiet-spoken American reporter who, over several episodes, dissects a single criminal case in meticulous detail. It got 100 million downloads, won awards and opened up long-form narrative possibilities for podcasts, much as The Sopranos changed the rules of television drama.

Serial’s Sarah Koenig has teamed up with filmmaker Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), who conducted 25 hours of phone interviews with Bergdahl with a view to producing a movie. So while few could have predicted Serial’s initial success, it is unsurprising that so much expectation should surround the second series, which debuted on Thursday. Parodies appeared on Saturday Night Live and in The Onion, and millions of listeners became armchair detectives in evaluating the story of Adnan Syed, who was convicted 15 years ago of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

Koenig seems a little more circumspect in her presentation, perhaps consciously avoiding the endless hand-wringing and editorialising for which she was widely lampooned in the first series. His attorney Eugene Fidell says politicians and would-be politicians have been using Bergdahl as a talking point to push their own agendas for months, a situation he described as creating “gale-force political winds.” “Some of the information that is going to come out is inevitably not going to be what we would have preferred in a perfect universe, but net-net, we’ll take it and allow people in our democratic society to form their own opinions,” Fidell said. And here Koenig is entering into strongly emotional and controversial territory for a lot of Americans and that alone will bring Serial plenty of attention.

Bergdahl’s interview is another coup for makers of “Serial,” which established podcasts as a viable outlet when the first season was downloaded more than 100 million times. It is also potentially politically explosive, with the tantalising prospect of Bergdahl dumping a bucket on inept US military leadership in Afghanistan. That much was clear with Koenig’s last few lines after we heard her talking on the phone with a heavily accented man. “The Taliban’s version of Bowe’s capture? And it is once again hosted by Sarah Koenig, the deceptively cool but dogged reporter who forsakes the traditional authoritative journalistic voice for a more uncertain approach: even as she posted up each episode in the last series, she didn’t know how the story was going to finish, another factor in the podcast’s popularity.

In the 12 months or so since Serial first launched the podcast scene has changed markedly and we are now arguably in a golden age of audio story-telling. The episode does not elaborate on what that failure was, but he says he believed at the time his disappearance and his plan to reappear at another location would give him access to top officials. But it’s also about all of the people affected by that decision, and the choices they made,” Serial host and producer Sarah Koenig wrote in an email update to subscribers Thursday.

After leaving the base after midnight, he worries about the reception he’ll get once he reappears, and decides to try to get information on who was planting bombs in the area. As Koenig uncovered inconsistencies in the case, she painted a portrait of Syed’s (and Lee’s) world, all the time remaining unsure whether he was guilty or innocent.

According to the season’s first episode, Boal began talking to Bergdahl a couple of months after Bergdahl’s return, conducting research for a possible movie. Whether it can create the same tsunami of listeners that it managed with Series 1 remains to be seen, but, based on the first episode the signs are at least promising.

There were the armchair detectives on Reddit who outed her anonymous sources; there were the articles that came out afterward, which questioned the journalist’s methods; there were the weird calls the producers got from random strangers with outlandish theories about the case. The two chose to partner for this season of “Serial.” Koenig notes that her podcast isn’t involved at all with Boal’s potential movie, but he put the “Serial” crew in touch with other sources used in her reporting. And that reporting so far seems thorough, speaking to some of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers and teasing an interview with Taliban representatives in the second episode.

It’s mental, like, almost confused. … I would wake up not even remembering what I was.” No personal attacks or insults, no hate speech, no profanity. Anyone involved is most likely already used to the questions, unlike the sources during season one who had no idea what they were getting themselves into. As she states, “To get the full picture, you have go very, very small, into one person’s life, and also very, very big, into the war in Afghanistan.” It’s a lofty ambition, one which introduces the potentially tricky element of geo-politics to a podcast that owed much of its early appeal to its smaller-scaled storytelling.

Serial, after all, is a spin-off of This American Life, the long-running show of loose-limbed non-fiction essays and reports on National Public Radio (NPR), which pioneered the studiedly casual narration style recently dubbed “NPR voice” by The New York Times. That was a late addition to Bergdahl’s plan to slip away from his remote outpost and hike to another base 20 miles away, all to draw attention to what he believed was dangerous and lax Army management, a concern previously reported in the course of his military hearings. It will be interesting to see how this approach, even from a reporter as thorough as Koenig, can deal with as knotty a subject as America’s war in Afghanistan.

Bergdahl still faces possible imprisonment; he currently awaits word on whether he’ll be court-martialed on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. He explains that his intention was to trigger a “DUSTWUN” alert that would ricochet up the chain of command and across military bodies, bringing him the attention and an audience with a General he never could have achieved as a private. And Koenig’s investigative instincts sees her following the most difficult leads: the episode ends with a flourish that leaves the listener wanting more. These details introduce doubt into the story that Bergdahl has already told, explaining that he left his platoon behind because he was a whistleblower who needed to tell the world about the bad leadership within his unit. That season examined a complicated murder case in Baltimore, Md., and hinged on the main source’s proclaimed innocence — a slightly different “true crime” feel than Bergdahl’s story thus far.

Of course the fact that this is a huge exclusive for “Serial” — up to this point, Bergdahl hasn’t spoken to any reporters — makes the podcast all the more compelling. Sounding half-sheepish and half-defiant, the soft-spoken Bergdahl admits there was part of him that had something to prove—that he could be a Jason Bourne-like heroic figure.

He made what seemed to him to be a moral choice to call attention to problems in his unit, even if many would find the methods by which he tried to do so questionable. That’s when he was caught by the Taliban—the specifics to be discussed next week, when Koenig calls in to talk with Taliban figures with help from an interpreter. Serial’s masterful storytelling is in full swing, clips intercut with audio effects that create a resonant world, and rich scripts that promise to tell every side of the story.

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