American Scandal

Every scandal begins with a lie. But the truth will come out. And then comes the fallout and the outrage.

Scandals have shaped America since its founding. From business and politics to sports and society, we look on aghast as corruption, deceit and ambition bring down heroes and celebrities, politicians and moguls. And when the dust finally settles, we’re left to wonder: how did this happen? Where did they trip up, and who is to blame? From the creators of American History Tellers, Business Wars and Tides of History comes American Scandal, where we take you deep into the heart of America’s dark side to look at what drives someone to break the rules and what happens when they’re caught. Hosted by Lindsay Graham.

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The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst | The Appeal of True Crime | 5

The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst | The Appeal of True Crime | 5

Tue, 29 Nov 2022 08:01

The journalist Sarah Weinman digs into the history of true crime. Weinman, the author of "Scoundrel" and "The Real Lolita," also explains why the genre has continued to soar in popularity.

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Hey, Prime Members, you can listen to American Scandal Add Free on Amazon Music. Download the app today. Music From Wondery, I'm Lindsey Graham, and this is American Scandal. In 1974, the nation was captivated by a new story that seems stranger than fiction. Patricia Hearst, the granddaughter of publishing Magnet William Randolph Hearst, had been kidnapped from her home in Berkeley by a group of radical political activists. The group called itself the Symbianese Liberation Army, and although her kidnappers threatened her life, and kept her trapped in a dark closet for weeks, Hearst would soon agree to become a member of the SLA. Hearst went on to take part in bank robberies. She trained to be a guerrilla fighter, and after she issued scathing condemnations of her family and their worldview, it appeared that Hearst had become a different person, a convert to a radical cause. As the saga unfolded, it stirred debate about wealth, politics, and even the nature of free will. But for many, the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst was a story about the media and the public's appetite for shocking and sensational news coverage. It's a discussion that re-emerged decades later with the rise of true crime, a genre that's forced conversations about the media's responsibilities when telling stories about criminals and their victims. My guest today is journalist and author Sarah Weinman, who writes the crime column for the New York Times book review. She's the author of The Real Lolita. Her latest book is Scoundrel, which tells the story of a convicted murderer who grew famous and was set free, only to attempt murder once again. We'll discuss how the coverage of Patricia Hearst was part of a longer lineage of true crime. We'll look at what explains the enduring appeal of the genre, and how true crime can be both a force for good and ill. Our conversation is next. The American Scandal is sponsored by Audible. If you're like most adults, you have chores to do, commutes to make, waiting rooms to wait in, and time to yourself, you crave. I do too, but I make the most of all of them by listening with Audible. Titles like Confidence Man by Maggie Haberman, and like all Audible members, I get one credit every month, good for any one of the many classics, bestsellers, and new releases, regardless of price to keep for a lifetime. Let Audible help you discover new ways to laugh, be inspired, or be entertained. New members can try it free for 30 days. Visit slash AS, or text AS to 500-500. That's slash AS, or text AS to 500-500 to try Audible free for 30 days. slash AS. Are you wasting money on subscriptions? 80% of people have subscriptions they forgot about. Help is here, with rocket money, formerly known as True Bill. The app shows all your subscriptions in one place, and then cancels for you whatever you don't still want. Rocket money can even find subscriptions you didn't know you were paying for. You may even find out you've been double charged for a subscription. To cancel a subscription, all you have to do is press cancel, and rocket money takes care of the rest. Get rid of use of subscriptions with rocket money now. Go to rocket slash wandering. Seriously, it could save you hundreds per year. That's rocket slash wandering. Cancel your unnecessary subscriptions right now at rocket slash wandering. Sarah Weiman, welcome to American Scandal. Thank you so much for having me. Now anyone who's enjoyed any sort of popular programming recently, let alone podcasts, know that True Crime is a cultural phenomenon. But let us start this conversation with getting a definition. What do we mean when we use the term True Crime? It's interesting to get that question because I don't often take a step back and just go, what is True Crime? The way I define it though is that it is nonfiction or entertainment that relates to real crimes that have occurred. And as a result, there's this whole entertainment complex that has developed around it, creating not just nonfiction and journalism about crime, but also entertainment and media related to it. Now of course, the issues about True Crime as a medium is because real crime is often used for entertainment purposes. And as a result, that can lead to a lot of tricky and thorny questions about when we transform real life trauma and pain into entertainment, what happens to the people who have suffered and who are still living with that ongoing trauma and pain that the worst thing that has happened to them becomes something that you can watch on your television, or read on your phone, or read in a book, or anything along those lines. So True Crime is a genre that is durable, it's perennial, we have long been fascinated by everything lurid, but questioning why we do that and what that means is really important and I think will continue to be important. Well, let's question it. I mean, the idea that trauma and pain is entertaining is confusing at best. And recently, the True Crime genre just seems to have gotten bigger. When did this occur? I can date it to the premiere of the first season of serial in the fall of 2014. I mean, there were something like 350 million downloads from the time that the first season of serial premiered to, I'd say, about the middle of 2018. So we don't even know how many downloads that particular podcast has had. But the reason that I date the ongoing and the current True Crime boom to that first season of serial is that it convinced a whole swath of people who never would have imagined themselves as True Crime consumers to get really interested in the murder of Hayman Lee and whether a non-sayed was her killer. And now eight years later, we can look at that season of serial in light of the news that a non-sayed has been more or less exonerated. The prosecutors in Baltimore County decided that there was a wealth of evidence that pointed away from him and they elected not to try him. So it's like all the things that we think about in True Crime be it fascination with the case, wondering if there's doubt, seeing new developments, and then questioning how entertainment was made can all be found in that first season of serial. So if this was a pivotal moment when True Crime took off in recent years, why? The serial, of course, was an exceptional and engaging story, but what made it so alluring to new listeners or new consumers of True Crime? There were a number of different things. One was a podcast and as a medium, while it wasn't new in 2014, it was still new enough for people to kind of latch onto it as something they'd never heard before. The whole conceit of it was a story will tell week by week. And also the fact that serial came out of this American life, which was the storytelling radio medium. So it already had a built-in audience of people who were more inclined to be, think of themselves as intellectual and less inclined to necessarily be in down market spaces. They weren't going to be watching 2020 in deadline. They were most likely going to be listening to NPR. So it kind of straddled the sort of high and low medium in a way that no other True Crime property had to that date. And then the other big reason that it took off, of course, is the nature of the internet, the fact that you weren't just listening to serial, you could then go online and talk about it in whatever online water cooler you could choose. So you could talk about it on Facebook, you could talk about it on Twitter, you could talk about it on Instagram, you could definitely talk about it on message boards like Reddit and other maybe crime related ones. So it wasn't just about being passive listeners to serial, but active participants in thinking, hey, I can be an amateur sleuth. But that also led to the flip side of it, which is that some of those who thought of themselves as amateur sleuths decided to really actually take it into real life. And so when you go from passive consumer to active participant and don't remember that there are actual real life people involved, that can lead into some potential trouble. There had been some instance of that the year before with the Boston Marathon bombing case when a possible suspect was falsely identified by those on a Reddit message board. And that had to be retracted and then they figured out who actually did it. So there's always this danger when people decide to take it upon themselves to be actively sleuthing out what in many cases they don't have nearly enough information for because they are not rigorous journalists or they're not in law enforcement. And that's a tricky needle to thread. So you've pointed to cereals dressing up of true crime to be palatable to a new audience and the internet as an enabler of discussion for of this case. But was there anything maybe broader in the cultural moment that led also to this increased appetite for true crime? I mean, anytime that society is in a state of a people, people tend to gravitate more towards true crime narratives. And it's because I think of it as we sort of split into two broad camps. One camp wants escape. They don't want to deal with the issues of the day all of the time. So most recently we have dealt with major political polarization. We have dealt with a global pandemic. We have dealt with a word Ukraine. There's all sorts of upheaval every single day. And so how are people going to escape? So one way is to just marinate in happier narratives, sort of the cozy or side of things. And another is to dive head first into what we fear most and how we can feel less alone, and tackling the worst things that might happen to us. So true crime kind of feeds off in a way on both of these competing narratives. And so it's no accident that especially in the last I'd say eight years when there's been so much of people that people want to start talking about and being in community with other people who have some kind of true crime obsession. This is a way for them to cope not just with the cases and the people that they're obsessed with, but also as a way of displacing themselves from the wider world of problems and issues that are really hard to deal with. Like we all want to escape in some measure. And true crime can offer that. So crime's popularity as you hinted at has sparked debate about whether it's doing harm or not. The mere fact that other people's trauma and pain is entertaining is difficult to wrestle with. But you wrote an essay in the Washington Post a few years ago defending the genre saying true crime always risks exploitation, but it can still make the world a better place. I was wondering if you could lay out the arguments for both sides. I'd say broadly the arguments of both sides is that on the one hand true crime is an exploitative medium that transforming people's trauma and pain can only lead to bad outcomes. On the flip side true crime as a medium can highlight injustice. It can spotlight cases that have gone cold and it can lead to actual real change. So we've seen that with the Adnan Sayed case from the first season of serial subsequent podcasts and documentaries and now Adnan Sayed's vacated conviction. We've also seen that with the second season of in the dark from American public media, which highlighted the case of Curtis Flowers. And because he had been tried six times for a crime that he did not commit, which ultimately the Supreme Court ruled he should have his convictions vacated and he will not be retried. And that case has pretty much been resolved at least for him. There are other examples that I can bring up, but ultimately I do fall on the side of that if true crime can lead to great change, then ultimately it is a medium that has great worth. So the tension between entertainment and exploitation and the commercial impulse behind entertainment is well understood. But in true crime, there is this bleeding over between entertainment and journalism. What is the true crime storytellers obligation to be a journalist? And how does anyone navigate the competing demands from the public for salacious coverage and also performing what might be considered responsible journalism? I mean, I can only speak as a journalist. And so the way that I do true crime reporting and journalism is to try to come from a real place of moral culpability that I go in and ask my sources to tell me about the worst possible things that had happened to them. And to do that, it requires an incredible amount of humility, empathy, responsibility. It also means that I try to be as upfront as possible about what my reporting might lead to, what they could expect in terms of a response, why they should be mindful that in speaking with me, this can lead to a domino effect in terms of coverage, in terms of attention, and the like. So I think the more that true crime storytellers have conversations, be it with sources, with family members of victims, with anybody in the sphere of what they're dealing with when it's possible, I think that does lead to more responsible true crime entertainment all around. Again, I have high expectations and I would like everyone to achieve that ideal all the time. I recognize that that's just not possible most of the time because even anything I do is part of a commercial landscape and requires me to sell stuff. So automatically I am facing down this sense of moral culpability and this sense that you know nothing is pure and nothing is ideologically 100% possible. So I think just a sense that people are doing the best that they can most of the time goes a long way. 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We have just finished our series on Patricia Hearst a story that got an enormous amount of media attention in its time how much do you think the news coverage then resembles what we're discussing today in terms of true crime. Well I think certainly in 1974 no one was having a discussion about the ethics of true crime that is still a very recent conversation and I think we're still developing what that even means I do think that if a Patricia Hearst case happened today I would like to think that we would be more responsible in terms of how the media would cover that case in terms of understanding the dynamics of victims becoming perpetrators and abusive elements and what was actually happening. I'm enough of a skeptic to think that there might be more similarities in media coverage today versus how the case went almost 50 years ago because of how let's say the Gabby and the little disappearance and ultimate murder became such a social media spectacle and the fact that even as she was chronicling what was happening on Instagram and trying to get away from her fiancee and abuser that she was then deemed to be the abuser in a particular law enforcement situation and also comparing it to coverage of Johnny and how it seemed as if there was a massive misunderstanding of what happened to Amber heard and she was painted as a perpetrator in ways that were a lot more binary than I think the truth is bearing out. So I think that there has been some improvement but we still have a long way to go. If Patricia Hurst's story were to happen today and you've hinted that you're afraid that much of the coverage would be similar to what it was 50 years ago in one way do you think it might be radically different. I do think there would be a greater understanding that she was a victim and that her behavior after she became known as Quotania and participated in the robbery that there was this greater question about how much she was actually able to consent to what happened and the fact that she was 19 and that yes a 19 year old in 1974 is different than a 19 year old in 2022 but at the same time you're really a young person trying to figure out the world and still somewhat immature and what happened after doesn't negate the fact that she was kidnapped and a great trauma was done to her and affected her for the rest of her life. And so I can understand too why in the aftermath that she wanted to take control of her own story and that all the attempts to transform her story into entertainment by other people. Well she's still here she's still alive she is making her way in the world and so who gets to write her story I think a lot interesting enough of an essay that Amanda Knox who was wrongfully convicted for the murder of Meredith and her daughter in Italy what she wrote after there was this film still water that was not so loosely based on her case and she wrote about what it was like for her as a person to see this narrative which was often wrong just be perpetuated over and over and over again. So I think maybe the lessons that we can learn about the Patricia Hearst case is who actually gets to control their own story and how do we both accept that but also perhaps get around that if that only turns out to be part of a larger story. So bring up Amanda Knox and her experience in watching her fictionalized true account in film and how Patricia Hearst seems to have been able to take control of her narrative which is interesting because a Hollywood film about the Hearst kidnapping was planned but then canceled in 2018 after Patricia criticized the sensationalization of her capture and rape. Why do you think she was successful in taking control of the narrative and others like Amanda Knox were not. I mean, consider Patricia's last name. I mean, the Hearst name still carries some degree of power. She was a descendant of William Randolph Hearst who was the famous newspaper baron and he was a rich guy and that wealth carried through to subsequent generations. You also see the Hearst name with respect to magazines that the company owns and so I think having that name and having access to power means that someone like her will be more listened to than someone like Amanda Knox who at least at the time that everything was happening did not have the same degree of power. Now that she has been a civilian and out in the world for a number of years, she has podcasts of her own, she has written books, she's written other articles. That is a way of amassing autonomy and power but it only goes so far. So it's very difficult. Most people do not have that kind of buy in that Patricia Hearst has, but on the other hand, having that sense of power does not negate when actual harm and trauma is done to a person. So it rich people are just as likely to be traumatized as poor people are. It's just a question of how they can deal with it in the aftermath and what resources and access they have. I'm glad you mentioned William Randolph Hearst, Patricia's grandfather because it's not lost on anybody that he might be one of the grandfather of true crime. So let's talk about the history of the genre. How long has true crime been a favorite genre? I mean, I like to say that true crime has been having a moment for at least three centuries, if not more. I often dated to the pamphlets that the preacher Cotton Mayther wrote. He became known as someone who was involved in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Benjamin Franklin, when he was working on a newspaper, he often wrote lurid true crime narratives. This certainly picked up steam in the 19th century and the birth of the tabloids. But yes, Hearst as a newspaper man loved the lurid and crime narratives definitely sold. We've always been fascinated by crime and especially when there's a new developing technology, be it newspapers or radio or television or the internet or social media, crime seems to kind of get piggybacked alongside it. So I think of radio and various crimes in the 1920s. There was a murder of a preacher and his mistress, the Hall Mills case about a hundred years ago, certainly with the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby in the 1930s. The fact that there was available technology like the radio and even early television to propagate and to saturate media with all sorts of coverage. That certainly contributed. And obviously too, with television and the internet, there are always going to be true crime cases that take advantage of it. Certainly in the 90s, the OJ Simpson trial, the fact that you had wall-to-wall coverage on cable news, that helps sort of solidify it as a trial of the century. So wherever there's new technology, we have true crime that is coupled to it. And no doubt as we have new technology's surface, I'm interested to see what AI-related true crime will be. But we'll see what happens on that front some years from now. In the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned a theory that true crime is popular because it allows us to kind of get an escape by imagining the worst of the world. Something that's far outside our own experience and therefore provides an escape. But it occurs to me that there are lots of different types of lurid. There's plenty of grisly stories. But we don't for instance have a thriving genre of car accident stories, even though they are dramatically painful and trauma inducing. So I was wondering if there's a specific kind of crime or victim that draws in audiences more than others. I believe it was Gwen, I feel, who coined the phrase missing white woman syndrome some years before her death in 2016 because there has been and continues to be a preponderance of media coverage focused on young, often pretty white women who go missing. And doing so at the expense of those who belong to more marginalized communities who don't fit that package. It has been heartening to see more coverage of people from all sorts of different communities because that reflects our country much more accurately. But once again, we still have a long way to go. Now the fans of true crime are more often women. They are the bigger consumers of the genre than men. It occurs to me that it could be that they are more often the victims of these crimes in these stories. And that might be why they're drawn to them. But I was wondering if you have any other theories about the gender split. I do think that women are drawn to true crime because they can address their greatest fears. I mean, being a woman in contemporary society can seem very terrifying. That this idea that if you are alone at night that something might happen to you. And even if the actual frequency of something happening is a lot less than what is portrayed in the media, the very media portrayal ups that anxiety and that fear. So delving into true crime media is a real coping mechanism. And it's something that does foster community, especially among women who listen to certain podcasts or watch certain television shows and find that they feel less alone. And that is a powerful feeling. But I think it's also important to temper this by looking at actual crime statistics or actual frequency of major crimes. It's not so likely that you are going to end up dead because of a serial killer. It is, as you pointed out, about car accidents, a lot more likely that you're going to die in a car accident. So there is this discrepancy between how one might die and what crimes get elevated that are more extreme. And as humans, we are interested in the most extreme behavior. So that does contribute to why there is this disproportionate interest in outsized crimes. Now, you personally have made your career out of thinking and writing about true crime. What is the draw for you? I think for me, it's always been that crime is a window into society into the ways that people operate in the ways that they behave, in the ways that they can go from functioning normally in a society to crossing over this gospel or thin line into criminality. It isn't that people are criminals. It's that they do criminal activity. It isn't that people are killers. It's that they kill people sometimes more than once or even several times. Crime is about showing us humanity at its most extreme and sometimes at its worst, but it's never that crime is an alien species. It's that crime is very much part of our contemporary fabric. So that whole, that tension of it has fascinated me since I was a child. And I think it will fascinate me for the rest of my life. So tell us about your work. How about we'll start with your most recent books, Scoundrel. That's the about the case of Edgar Smith. You wrote that that was a wrongful conviction in reverse. What do you mean by that? Edgar Smith had been convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a 15 year old girl, Victoria Zalinsky, in 1957. But until he figured out how to get the attention of William F. Buckley Jr., who is founder of the magazine National Review and an architect of conservative thought, that friendship and his convincing Buckley that he did not kill Vicky Zalinsky. That led to a whole host of changes and behaviors and the publication of a book and eventually his getting out. So he was propped up at Grismith as this sort of literary celebrity by influential people. And that turned out to be a catastrophic mistake because only a few years after he was let out, he came close to killing another woman and would spend the rest of his life in prison. So Scoundrel is less about who did it. I make it very clear that Edgar Smith killed Vicky Zalinsky and was responsible for several notorious crimes. It's much more about how did this happen and how were people who should have known better, duped into thinking that he was anything but a convicted murderer. So he was quite successful in controlling his narrative. That is true. He was an excellent letter writer. He was a manipulator. I suppose you could say he was a seducer. He was certainly a con artist. And he was able to make people believe in his narratives, whether they were in letters, in book form, sometimes in real life. And it was very interesting to put my own narrative together and try to make it clear that even though he's the titular Scoundrel, it was the people in his orbit. And especially those that he harmed. And in one instance murdered in another instance got very close that their stories and their lives mattered much more. You also wrote the real Lolita. It's a book that looks at the the 1948 abduction of Sally Horner, which inspired the classic novel Lolita. What was your thesis in this book? Mostly I pursued this project because when I learned that Lolita had a direct reference to the kidnapping of Sally Horner, I wanted to know why that story had not been fully told. So I set out to do that. And when I did that, I realized that what the real Lolita ended up being about was what responsibility do artists have to real life trauma and pain? Like what did Vladimir Nabokov's, what was his responsibility in terms of accurately reflecting Sally Horner's very short life? You've mentioned several times throughout our conversation that you have very high standards for the genre. And it's probably because of the high cost of when the genre goes bad. Now of course true crimes not going anywhere. It's only seeming to grow. So do you have any prescription for the genre? Is there a better way to explore and tell these stories? All I can do is offer a model with my own work to kind of rework what we think of when we think of of true crime. I think that as a genre, it's quite expansive. It encompasses all sorts of questions and subjects that we might not have considered even just a few short years ago. So if true crime has been traditionally thought of as a murder happens, an investigation ensues, it may get solved. In other words, for a long time, true crime has been about finding answers and more and more what's interesting about the genre as it is now and where it's going is it keeps asking questions. So I think as long as we remain open-minded and curious and see that this genre is less about individual stories and more about systemic wrongs that can possibly be righted, then we may have a chance of making even greater good with it. Now that's a call to the purveyors of true crime. But what about the consumers? That's a tough call because it depends on what your impetus is for consuming these narratives. And I think what I land on is we can all do better by listening more. And so if family members of victims are saying a particular documentary or scripted series or podcast is causing harm to them, I think it's important to listen to what they're saying and take that into account. And if we listen more, then we might challenge our own assumptions. So I think just taking a step back and going, who is this for? Who could potentially be harmed? What am I really getting out of this? These are all important questions to ask. So again, it comes down to true crime as a genre of questions and less about answers. Sarah Weiman, thank you for coming on American's candle. Thank you. This was such a pleasure. That was my conversation with Sarah Weiman, a journalist, author and crime writer. Her latest book is Scout Coop. From Wondering, this is episode five of the kidnapping of Patty Hersson from American's candle. In our next series, we're airing an encore of our story about oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller's company, Standard Oil, was a monopoly unlike any in American history and made Rockefeller the richest man in the world. But Standard Oil had a dark secret, one that a tenacious journalist would soon expose as she worked to take down the corporate giant. Hey, prime members, you can listen to American's candle add free on Amazon Music, download the Amazon Music app today. Or you can listen add free with Wondering Plus and Apple Podcasts. Before you go, tell us about yourself by completing a short survey at slash survey. American's candle is hosted, edited and executed produced by me, Lindsey Graham for Airshow, audio editing by Molly Bach, music by Lindsey Graham. This episode was produced by Aloneman Covsky, our senior producer is Gabe Riven. Execute producers are Stephanie Jen's Jenny Lauer Beckman and Marsha Louis for Wondering. Thank you, your job stinks. Just wait until you hear what it was like to be a funeral clown. 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