Recently, I was searching for reviews for CBC’s recent podcast Missing and Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams? (with Connie Walker). I’d listened and found it informative, engaging, and thoughtful, but I knew my perspective was limited; I wanted to see what others, particularly Indigenous listeners and critics, had to say.
What I found instead were Yelp-style review comments on various sites. Although many reviewers felt like I did, those critical of the podcast all seemed to offer the same reason: they felt it was too “subjective.” I’d noticed this trend in comments on CBC’s other true-crime podcast, Someone Knows Something (with David Ridgen). Reviewers sometimes offer recommendations for true-crime podcasts they feel are more objective, like Sword and Scale (with these folks) and Casefile (from this team).
Around the same time I started listening to Missing and Murdered…, I also started listening to Casefile. And I understand what differences these critical reviewers hear: in the two CBC podcasts, the hosts share not only the information they uncover, but how each new discovery makes them feel, what they hope will happen next, and why they decide to pursue particular investigative avenues.
They discuss large-scale statistical causes (e.g. sexism, racism, residential schools), ambiguous contradictions, and the limits of available information alongside specific assertions about who said what, who went where when, etc. There’s definitely more of the former than the latter: witness testimonies contradict each other over almost everything, and, unlike in TV procedurals and Encyclopedia Brown stories, they aren’t easily resolved by identifying one party who must be lying or mistaken. The only things we can be sure about are how much we don’t know, the limitations of any individual person’s perspective, and how much pain the crime has caused those who loved the victim.
In contrast, Casefile‘s stories are declarative and descriptive. The script presents each “fact”as epistemologically equivalent, even when (if you think about how we could know this) it must rely on a single person’s testimony. The narration attributes most facts to primary sources, though surely the podcast is the product of intense secondary research. Casefile seldom embraces ambiguity: every statement must be true or false, and if there are any we can’t classify, we must be able to know which and why.
When Casefile‘s host describes people, they present each subject as a puzzle piece rather than a person. Like newspapers, the podcast contextualizes rather than humanizes victims, survivors, law enforcement, witnesses, and perpetrators. Choice tidbits tied to observable behaviour (e.g. “She liked to dance” or “He told reporters he felt weary.”) give us enough to see this person as an archetype, but rarely are we asked to empathize from the inside rather than understand from the outside.
Neither of these are issues that prevent the podcast from being engaging, accurate, or thorough, but the listeners who criticize Missing and Murdered… for not adhering to the same style have confused objectivity and impassivity. It’s the Mr. Spock fallacy: pretending subjectivity doesn’t exist is somehow more reasonable, more logical, more in concordance with external reality than having feelings or acknowledging that other people do.
As much as I love Mr. Spock, his version of logic is often* illogical. He and other Vulcans clearly have emotions — we can read them on the actors’ faces, and the plot and dialogue usually back up this impression. They don’t express those emotions as exuberantly as the humans around them, but they still feel them. Where is the logic in pretending a factor that can affect judgement, the utility of particular outcomes, and, indeed, the likelihood of those outcomes doesn’t exist?
Well, it sure does feel good to imagine that perfect logic means hiding rather than facing uncomfortable feelings. Denial is so much easier than negotiation.
Similarly, the storytelling style of podcasts like Casefile is appealing for many reasons. Like books and TV shows about fictional detectives, it confirms its audience’s ideas that the world is logical and, from the correct viewpoint, we can sort objective knowledge from subjective opinion.
In fiction, that “correct” viewpoint belongs to Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, bestowed with this gift by their authors. Readers like me get frustrated when detective stories refuse not just to tell us whodunnit (***cough***TheWhitechapelHorrors***uncough***) but suggest that believing in the first place that we can ever find out whodunnit is naïve (see: In the Woods). Part of the joy of a fictional mystery is the ability to submerge ourselves in this alternate reality in which the world always makes sense and is always knowable, even if the characters we’re following don’t know everything.
Detective stories and this storytelling style of true crime don’t address the idea that sometimes, even with all the evidence, we are left with ambiguity. They enclose us in the comforting fiction that any human being who possesses the same facts would arrive at the same conclusion — an opiate that allows us, particularly those who live within dominant/colonizing cultural paradigms, to duck out of confronting different ways of knowing, and to escape dealing with our own fallibility. Within those artificial walls, we certainly don’t have to face the ways we might be wrong not just about facts but also about how we gather, establish, and prove facts: who wants to struggle with the idea that we might not be able to trust our intuitive perspective on the world?
But emotions, storytellers’ biases, and ambiguity do exist. Both styles of telling true-crime stories are subjective, it’s just that one collaborates with listeners (of the same intellectual traditions as the storyteller) to pretend it isn’t.
I know the siren call of certainty too. It feels so nice to decide once and for all what the facts are (obviously, the things that people like me have told me, implicitly or explicitly based on evidence that fits my culture’s standards) and to ignore pesky divergent opinions. That’s why I consider podcasts in the narrative style of Casefile to be “true-crime easy listening” (in perspective, of course, not in its often violent and tragic subject matter): despite the horrific events they often describe, they allow listeners like me the temporary comfort of a Sherlock Holmes or Mr. Spock. I know everything! I am all-seeing and objective! My world is rational and well ordered, and every reasonable person in it thinks just like me.
But — speaking as a trained historian, anyway — I admire the CBC podcasts’ approach as more accurate, more nuanced, and, well, less biased — at least they are able to name and accept the inevitable contributions of perspective and intellectual tradition. There is more to draw out of Missing and Murdered… and Someone Knows Something even when the hosts are unable to identify a perpetrator or make significant progress on a case. They explore messy real life, in which everyone — victim, suspect, witness, family member, friend — is the protagonist of their own story.
* I edited in this qualifier after watching TOS 1×16 “The Galileo Seven,” in which McCoy and the other humans are temper-tantrum-throwing, cultural-supremacist pissypants. “We want you to fix all our problems! But only in ways that adhere to a set of standards we refuse to articulate! And in line with equally implicit priorities that change every second! And with the correct attitude, which is whatever attitude we decide we want to have right in this moment!” Guys, you know his entire culture is based around not showing emotion. Maybe you could refrain from bullying him into being “more human” and try accepting that different cultures have different ways of expressing themselves?