Esquire Court Reporters
In season one of Serial, host Sarah Koenig made no bones about her bias in questioning the conviction of Adnan Syed. She wasn't pilloried by fellow journalists or the public at large for such subjectivity; that the crime took place so long ago lent a certain low-stakes vibe to her reporting. But for season two, Koenig is focusing on an open case: That of Robert "Bowe" Bergdahl, an American soldier facing a court-martial for deserting his post and misbehavior before the enemy. Bergdahl left his Combat Outpost (COP) in Afghanistan in June of 2009, was promptly captured, and spent the next five years as a prisoner of the Taliban until Obama exchanged five of our prisoners to get him back. Given the higher stakes of reporting on an ongoing investigation, we must ask: did Koenig and her team take on Bergdahl's story to help him or themselves?
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
Advocacy journalism is often about righting a specific wrong by exposing it to the public. Serial's first season was definitely that: an attempt to prove, or at least seriously consider, Adnan's innocence. Is season two serving its central character in the same way?
The first two episodes of the new season were mostly about Bergdahl's background before he was captured. (Save for the crucial fact that, before joining the Army, he was discharged from the Coast Guard for psychological reasons, as I've noted.) have been about Bergdahl's captivity itself: his attempted escapes, his living conditions, his captors, and a host of related details. A large part of the material comes in Bergdahl's own words: While he did not agree to talk to Koenig, he had spoken to screenwriter Mark Boal, who recorded about 25 hours of phone conversation. Boal then shared the material with Koenig.
Let's step back for a moment and look at Army Regulation (AR) 330-30, Section 2-9 SERE Training, Sub-Section b. Security, which pertains to "SERE" (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape). Remember, for those wearing an Army uniform, ARs are literally the law:
"(1) An individual soldier who returns to US control following capture (a returnee) should remember that the following is classified military information and will be divulged only in a debriefing conducted by designated military officials:
(a) Information regarding the means and methods of evasion and escape.
(b) Details of capture and imprisonment.
(c) Release from internment or captivity.
(d) Details of repatriation."
By not following it and thus revealing information about your capture, you are potentially teaching the enemy how to better guard prisoners, what worked, what didn't, and where they could improve. All of which makes it tougher for the next guy to successfully survive or escape. In episodes 3 and 4 there is no doubt that Serial broadcasted hyper-specific information, using Bergdahl's own taped conversations, which directly violates (a) and (b) above.
In other words, Koenig has effectively nudged Bergdahl—who is still an active duty soldier—into committing a new crime, or crimes. At a minimum, the material she is airing is a violation of Article 92, "Failure to obey an order or regulation." The unauthorized release of these details would likely also fall under Article 134 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. It is certainly a violation of "Operational Security", known as OPSEC.
So Serial may actually be making Bergdahl's life worse, potentially for a long time. And this isn't the first time the show might be adversely affecting his case.
Prior to the airing of the first episode of Serial's second season, it was widely thought that Bergdahl would get off without a General Court Martial. That, indeed, had been the recommendation of the officer at his Article 32 hearing (the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing): opt for a lesser trial, one in which the potential penalties are not so harsh. On December 10, shortly after Serial's first episode on the topic ran, the decision was made to pursue a full General Court Martial, a "GCM." Correlation does not equal causation, but the timing is uncanny.
So are Koenig and her team just ignorant about military law, or are they doing this on purpose?
Let's say it's ignorance. When it became a real possibility that they were hurting Bergdahl's chances for freedom, why did they not reconsider? There is no such thing as a journalistic Hippocratic Oath ("First, do no harm"), but when neutral journalism becomes advocacy journalism and that journalism is harming the subject, does it not constitute an ethical dilemma?
So what other motive might there be? Which brings up the question of who benefits. Certainly not Bergdahl. He was formally arraigned on Tuesday. But Koenig et al, who desperately want to live up to the smash success of the show's first season? I think I might be on to something.