MUL­TI­ME­DIA Pod­cast con­fronts the pow­er­ful

The Georgia Straight - - Multimedia - By

EBrian Lynch

ven be­fore twit­ter­ing dem­a­gogues turned pub­lic de­bate into a game of trolling, the de­cline of in-depth news­gath­er­ing 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 11part 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

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