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Rebuttals all the way Down

Like an awful lot of people, I spent a couple of weeks in 2016 completely obsessed with the Netflix true crime documentary Making a Murderer. The story of Steven Avery’s murder conviction, release due to new DNA evidence, and then fresh conviction in a different case was told skillfully by the show, and the overarching themes of ingrained injustice and unreliable law enforcement really suited the serialised streaming format....

Like an awful lot of people, I spent a couple of weeks in 2016 completely obsessed with the Netflix true crime documentary Making a Murderer. The story of Steven Avery’s murder conviction, release due to new DNA evidence, and then fresh conviction in a different case was told skillfully by the show, and the overarching themes of ingrained injustice and unreliable law enforcement really suited the serialised streaming format.

But since the first series aired, I’ve become a lot more interested in the ethics of true crime reporting and how we increasingly make and consume social justice stories like this as pure entertainment. Of course, that’s not a new phenomenon or concern. But Making a Murderer was so wildly successful and attracted such passionate fans that it really threw the whole debate into fresh relief. With the advent of a highly anticipated second series that covers the progress of Avery’s various appeals since the show started, I was keen to see how it was received. Watching true crime in 2018 is very different to watching true crime in 2016, I feel.

Also returning for a second series is the Rebutting a Murderer podcast (on iHeartRadio), featuring WISN’s Dan O’Donnell, a Milwaukee-based reporter who covered the major Avery trial back in 2007. The first instalment, which obviously focused on the initial run of the documentary, was downloaded “millions of times,” according to the iHeartRadio website. It’s not surprising that it was popular: O’Donnell starts from exactly the opposite point of view to filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, because unlike them he feels that “there is literally no question” that Avery is guilty.

The interplay between these two artefacts, one film, one podcast, is very interesting to me. Both are using media that barely existed ten years ago, and both are seeking to present the ‘truth’ about the same set of events. But while Making a Murderer tries as far as possible to allow the facts to stand alone (there is a lot of dispute about what is actually verifiable evidence in the case, but Ricciardi and Demos don’t put their own personalities on the film to any great degree), Rebutting a Murderer relies heavily on O’Donnell’s credentials as a local reporter who was on the spot throughout the trial. He’s even briefly in the TV series in footage of the proceedings and subsequent press conferences, which really underlines the authority over the subject he brings to bear on the podcast.

Clearly, the relatively low production costs and time required to make a podcast like this have been a key factor in all of this — there’s no way O’Donnell could have got a separate TV series about Avery out in time for it to meaningfully work as a “rebuttal”. The nimbleness of audio is what puts these two in opposition to each other, and that’s the frisson that is driving true crime fans wild.

For you see, Rebutting a Murderer is just as much pushing a particular narrative and interpretation on this case as its Netflix counterpart. O’Donnell is as invested in Avery’s guilt as Ricciardi and Demos are in his innocence. “I have no doubt, reasonable or otherwise, that those two committed this heinous crime,” he told AdWeek in 2016. He alleges that the documentary omits or glosses over evidence that points to a different interpretation, and that his podcast gives the full picture, yet there’s plenty of discussion and speculation on his show as well as the repetition of facts. It’s there to entertain those already deeply invested in the case who are hungry for new information, nothing more. The intimacy of audio gives it a different sensibility altogether to the TV show, but it’s just as much a particular perspective. Is there even such a thing as objectivity anymore when it comes to the true crime industrial complex? I suspect not.

Of course, now I’m just waiting for the Rebutting Rebutting a Murderer podcast. Don’t let me down, internet.