In case you hadn't heard, This American Life spinoff "Serial" is a big hit. Focusing on the murder of a high school student in Maryland, it's a true-crime "whodunit?" with lots of excellent school-related characters and tidbits. One California teacher has replaced Shakespeare with the series.
But it's increasingly facing a major backlash, focused in part on the fact that the reporting team behind the piece is all white and the main characters are minorities: "What happens when a white journalist stomps around in a cold case involving people from two distinctly separate immigrant communities? Does she get it right?" (Success And 'Serial' Backlash - Digg; Serial' & White Reporter Privilege - The Awl; The Complicated Ethics Of 'Serial,' - ThinkProgress).
I'll leave the merits and details of the pushback to others -- Conor F. at The Atlantic has a long piece defending the show -- to point out that a very similarly popular show by This American Life last year focusing on Harper High school in Chicago generated little such concern despite many similarities.
White reporters? Check. Set in and around a high school? Check. Minority community? Check. Widespread acclaim? Check.
According to some critics, Serial and TAL have a lot in common: "Ethnic naïveté and cultural clumsiness are hardly unique to Serial. They’re woven into the fabric of its parent show, This American Life, which over its 20-year history has essentially made a cottage industry out of white-privileged cultural tourism," writes Quartz's Jeff Yang.
But Harper High didn't generate nearly as much criticism as Serial has. The two-part Harper High show (Episodes 487 and 488) won widespread accolades and to my knowledge just a smidgen of criticism. "In the end, I believe that [TAL's] coverage served to excuse many of the most harmful practices in our schools today and perpetuate some of the most harmful myths about urban education."
I can think of lots of possible reasons for the disparity -- though none is entirely satisfying. Perhaps "Harper High" is simply better than Serial, more careful to protect against stereotypes and white privilege. Perhaps we're more sensitive to cultural stereotyping when immigrants (Korean- and Pakistani-American) are involved than African-Americans. Or, it could be that the criticism results from the multi-week format. Perhaps we're more sensitive to cultural stereotyping in 2014 than we were in 2013?