Charged: “Ep 4: The Escape Hatch”

Emily Bazelon’s careful documentation of a case in New York’s gun court leads the listener to realize there must be a better way.

As someone with a deep interest in criminal justice reform, I patiently awaited Emily Bazelon‘s book Charged, which examines the movement to change how prosecutors work in an attempt to end mass incarceration. Slate, in partnership with The Appeal, has handed the second season of its Slate Presents podcast over to Bazelon to tell a story about New York City’s gun court.

To those familiar with the criminal justice system, it should come as no surprise that gun court primarily impacts young black men. The majority of defendants have no prior criminal record and many never fired a gun, they simply possessed one. Charged focuses on one such defendant named Terari and Brooklyn’s new district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, who has his mind set on reforming the way prosecutors operate.

In “The Escape Hatch,” Terari enters a diversionary program that — if followed with completion — will allow him to avoid a felony conviction. Diversionary dockets, the most common of which are drug courts, require a defendant to plead guilty. When and if she completes the program, prosecutors dismiss the charges.

Terari enters the program because prosecutors wanted him to serve at least two years in prison for the initial gun charge. Defendants routinely enter guilty pleas to charges they may have a defense against to avoid the risk of going to trial. Judges and prosecutors depend on guilty pleas to keep their dockets moving along. They resolve 95 percent of cases nationwide.

To show how this can impact defendants, Bazelon documents a case in which a defendant who didn’t want to serve a multi-year sentence for writing a bad $88 check turned down a guilty plea. Prosecutors upped the charge to make it his third strike, and when a jury found him guilty he received a sentence of life in prison. The state Supreme Court upheld the legality of the prosecutor’s tactics.

In Terari’s case, if he fails to comply with the terms of the program (and many diversionary and probationary programs have borderline byzantine requirements of defendants), the hammer falls, and he will be sentenced for the charge to which he pleaded guilty. The infraction could be as minor as staying out past 10 p.m. At the end of episode 4, we don’t know how things will turn out for Terari.

Bazelon has long covered the criminal justice system and highlighted many of its inequities. Because of prisons criminogenic effects — see episode two — giving young adults who merely possess guns, and profess to possess them for protection, multi-year prison sentences almost ensures they will commit future criminal offenses.

Her careful documentation of Terari’s case leads the listener to realize there must be a better way. Diversionary programs are a positive step, but in Brooklyn, it sounds like too few get the opportunity, and those who fail to meet the program’s terms end up back where they started.

Listen here.

New episodes of Charged appear on Wednesdays.

Running From Cops: “Nothing Is Voluntary When You Have Handcuffs On”

Running From Cops pulls back the curtain on a pop-culture institution and questions whether it does more harm than good.

If you’re an older millennial like myself, the long-running Cops likely has served as the television equivalent of background music. Maybe in the early ’90s your family watched it in primetime, but since then it’s something you catch in the listings or glimpse as you’re flipping through channels. Occasionally, you’ll watch until the next commercial break. Thirty years since its debut, it continues to air new episodes.

Running From Cops, the new podcast series from Dan Taberski who garnered attention with Missing Richard Simmons and Surviving Y2K, takes a deeper look into the reality-television phenomenon and questions how real Cops is and its effect on both our view of policing and the lives of those who appear on the show.

The third episode focuses on the consent forms signed by suspects who appear on the show. It’s a question that I hadn’t considered before. Why would anyone consent to appear on national television in what is likely one of the worst moments of their life? Many who were featured on the show suggest that it isn’t entirely voluntary.

While the producers insist the cameramen do not blur the lines between themselves and law enforcement and that they always wait six hours if someone is under the influence (as suspects on Cops often are), others relate tales of police officers who agree when cameramen tell a suspect they need to sign a release form to stay out of jail. A police officer who appeared on the show also remembers a suspect signing a release form while under the influence.

It adds another layer of questionable ethics to revelations from the first two episodes of Running From Cops. A highlight — or perhaps lowlight — involved a woman who police arrested for possession of cocaine. Before the show aired, a lab test revealed that the substance that tested positive for cocaine in the field was not in fact cocaine (field tests are notoriously faulty) and her case was dismissed. But the episode of Cops aired as filmed, with no mention made of the faulty field test. The woman left her town because of the public shame.

Taberski and his team also viewed 846 episodes to track trends in crimes portrayed on the show. It should come as no surprise that Cops vastly over represents prostitution, drug and violent crime arrests, painting a picture of a world more dangerous than the one in which we reside.

Running From Cops does an admirable job in pulling back the curtain on a pop-culture phenomenon that has existed as an omnipresent background hum in many of our lives. What may have seemed a look into the lives of law enforcement may actually serve to encourage aggressive policing and alienate us from marginalized classes.

Listen here.

New episodes of Running From Cops appear on Tuesdays.

The Ezra Klein Show: “Work as identity, burnout as lifestyle”

This week’s episode of The Ezra Klein Show asks deep questions about how millennials think about work.

The millennial burnout narrative gained momentum with Anne Helen Petersen‘s viral Buzzfeed News article “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” The idea that, particularly college-educated millennials, are working longer hours for lower (and sometimes no) pay, than previous generations.

Ezra Klein had Petersen and The Atlantic reporter Derek Thompson, who wrote an article on “workism” or the idea that millennials look for meaning in work, on this week to discuss the phenomenon.

I drop into The Ezra Klein Show when I can because the Vox co-founder engages in in-depth conversations with a diverse array of thought leaders across the ideological spectrum. You’re as likely to hear from the leading proponent of Modern Monetary Theory as you are Ross Douthat or Arthur Brooks, and Ezra affords guests he disagrees with a level of respect that is rare in modern political discourse.

This week’s episode asks deep questions about how millennials think about work. Thompson’s thesis is that with a decline in social institutions like Rotary clubs and religion, millennials look for meaning in work, which leads them to “never stop hustling” which itself leads to spiritual and physical exhaustion.

This goes against predictions from early 20th century economists, most famously John Maynard Keynes, that increased productivity would lead people to work less. Contra to economic theory, richer Americans actually work longer hours than poorer Americans, which was not the case as recently as 1980.

Thompson also talks about how work has become “leaky,” innovations like cell phones and emails ensure that workers are never out of their manager’s reach. And Petersen talks about how social media has itself become a form of work, she suggests that millennials LARP — or live-action role play — their jobs and lives on social media for the approval of others.

It’s a particularly poignant episode of The Ezra Klein Show, especially for those of my generation. If you’re looking for an episode to dip your toe in, you could do a lot worse.

Listen here.

New episodes of The Ezra Klein Show appear on Mondays and Thursdays.

Invisibilia: “The End of Empathy”

I’m circling back to catch up on a podcast from last week because Invisibilia‘s final episode of season 3 was so interesting I listened to it twice.

“The End of Empathy” approaches one story from two perspectives and makes an attempt to reconcile them. The story revolves around Jack Peterson, a man who got involved with the misogynist incel movement and then left it. The first take, by co-host Hanna Rosin, makes an effort to see things from Peterson’s perspective. The second, done by This American Life producer Lina Misitzis, doesn’t extend Peterson much empathy.

This causes Rosin to do some soul-searching and she exposes a gap in how generations approach empathy. Millennials, like Misitzis, possess 40 percent less empathy than those in Generation X, like Rosin, according to survey data. Like many things these days, millennials take a tribal approach to empathy. Those on “our team” deserve it, but why should women empathize with someone, like Peterson, who (at least at one point) belonged to a group that has perpetuated violence against women? Others, like terrorists, possess an extreme empathy for their own team, according to a researcher quoted in the episode.

It’s clear that Rosin does not view incels like Peterson as those on her team. The author of The End of Men has her feminist bona fides in order. But in her view, bridging the gaps that divide groups requires seeing things from the other group’s perspective (at some point the episode reminded me of Part 2 of Radiolab’s “In the No” series which had feminists of two generations discuss their divergent views on the #MeToo movement).

While I belong to the millennial generation, I tend to side with Rosin, though Misitzis makes some legitimate points. The acts Peterson committed should not be excused, but unless we understand what led him to commit those acts, what hope do we have of stopping others from traveling down that path? It’s clear that telling people they’re garbage with reprehensible views only leads them to dig in deeper.

Paired with increased tribalism, extreme empathy for your own team paired with an absence of empathy for others seems like a recipe for disaster. “Basically, you give up on civil society at that point,” the researcher said. In the end, both Rosin and Misitzis seem to move a little closer to the other’s viewpoint. Maybe podcasts will save us.

Listen here.

Invisibilia will return with new episodes in the fall.

Unspooled: “49. All The President’s Men”

Paul Scheer’s humor and Amy Nicholson’s careful analysis add value for both neophytes and long-time fans of the 1976 classic.

As a cinephile, I’ve enjoyed listening to Unspooled, which features film critic Amy Nicholson comic actor Paul Scheer, who go through the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American films. Paul and Amy have a great rapport that makes it feel like you’re listening to close friends discuss films, and along the way I’ve caught up with some classics that had slipped past me, like Rocky and West Side Story.

Perhaps because I have a journalism degree, Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men has always sat high on my list of favorite films. I’d place it among the top two or three American films of the 1970s. It’s unapologetically procedural, something of a real-life detective story that possesses both higher-stakes and a significantly more quotidian nature than traditional noir fare. Gordon Wills’ moody cinematography and David Shire’s conspiratorial score amplify a pervasive sense of paranoia that Watergate cast on the following decade.

Paul and Amy press hard on the procedural nature of the film; Paul in particular questions whether the film’s intense attention to detail always makes for good cinema. But later Amy zeroes in on the point that it’s the tiniest details, the smallest screw-ups, that bring Nixon and his accomplices down. She also praises Redford’s subtle acting, the way he reacts to groundbreaking revelations without underlining them. In a lot of ways, All The President’s Men is a film about a dogged but unpretentious attention to detail.

This week’s guest Liz Hannah wrote Steven Spielberg’s The Post (a film perhaps too eager to underline important details), which she wrote in part because she wanted to see another film like All The President’s Men and other ’70s political thrillers. Hannah provides a lot of real-life context about the Washington Post, editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katie Graham from the time of the Pentagon Papers through Watergate.

It’s a good time for new listeners to jump into Unspooled as the podcast nears its midway point, which will include a retrospective episode looking back at the first fifty films. “All the President’s Men” represents the podcast well, with Paul’s humor and Amy’s careful analysis adding value for both neophytes and long-time fans of the film like myself.

Listen here.

New episodes of Unspooled appear on Thursdays.

Against the Rules: “The Seven Minute Rule”

A sense of unfairness pervades society, Michael Lewis wants to explore its origins.

Michael Lewis.

If you listened to this week’s This American Life you know Michael Lewis has a podcast. If you’re a non-fiction nerd like myself, a podcast from the author behind Liar’s Poker, Moneyball and The Big Short recommends itself.

In Against the Rules, the first from Malcolm Gladwell and former Slate editor Jacob Weisberg’s Pushkin Industries that doesn’t feature Gladwell as a host, Lewis attempts to determine what’s happened to the country’s idea of fairness. He explores the sense that the system is rigged, that nobody trusts the referees.

The first episode takes that metaphor literally. Lewis looks at the increasing number of outbursts against NBA referees. Counterintuitively, he finds it’s a response to better officiating in the age of instant replay. The outbursts come from star players who no longer get breaks.

This week’s episode turns to Lewis’ signature subject, consumer finance. He talks to a woman with $77,000 in student loans and looks at the ways student-loan servicing companies fail to act in the best interest of their clients. He also speaks to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, who attempted to create a referee for consumer financial products.

But the episode’s opening poses a unique question. A man posed as Michael Lewis and accrued more than $16,000 in debt with Citigroup and tanked his credit rating. Why, Lewis asks, is this his problem? Why isn’t the onus on Citigroup, who issued the credit card to an imposter?

A sense of unfairness pervades society. The presidential campaigns of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump both found success with vows to dismantle a rigged system. The recent revelation that rich parents have paid bribes and forged test results to get their children into elite schools just revealed something everyone assumed had always gone on. Michael Lewis wants to explore the origins of that belief. Two episodes in, he’s off to a good start.

Listen here.

New episodes of Against the Rules with Michael Lewis appear on Tuesdays.

Pods and Ends 4/7/19

Welcome to the inaugural edition of “Pods and Ends,” a column that will appear every other week or so rounding up some recent highlights in the podcast world that didn’t occasion entire posts.

  • Reply All: “#139: The Reply All Hotline” — A seemingly unstructured episode of Reply All that packs a mean punch. Hosts Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt field calls from listeners, there are many highlights but the episode ends with a heartfelt call from a Syrian man who cannot enter the U.S. because of President Donald Trump’s travel ban and seeks help applying to college in Canada. To answer a recurring question from the episode, I wish I was a P.J., but deep down I know I’m an Alex. Listen here.
  • Planet Money/Throughline: “The Phoebus Cartel” — A recent episode of Planet Money gave listeners a taste of Throughline, the latest podcast from NPR. Throughline provides historical context to stories currently in the headlines. This episode focuses on planned obsolescence and reveals that the eternally-burning lightbulb and the cartel that sought to thwart it in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow both have a basis in reality. Listen here.
  • Embedded: “How It Ends Part 1: The Brother” — NPR’s Embedded returns this week with a new season that looks at the end of the Islamic State. The first episode tracks the journey of a Canadian woman who learns her wayward brother has been imprisoned in Syria and goes to find him, only to learn he has been radicalized by ISIS. It’s a strong episode that bodes well for the season to come. Listen here.