The Trojan Horse Affair, the latest investigative podcast from the New York Times-owned Serial Productions, seeks to answer answer one central question: Who wrote the so-called “Trojan Horse” letter, an anonymous hoax document from 2013 that purported to outline an “Islamist plot” to infiltrate British schools? Throughout the course of a four-year reporting process — distilled into eight episodes — hosts Brian Reed (a veteran radio journalist who co-created the podcast S-Town) and Hamza Syed (a doctor-turned-investigative journalism student from Birmingham, England) search for leads, eventually traveling to Perth, Australia to locate a source who could hold the key to their quest.
But when Reed and Syed arrive at the home of the source — well, first off, it’s the wrong house. They try a second time — nope, wrong house again. Finally, the journalists arrive at the right address, but the source refuses to meet with them. They attempt a stakeout, only for a couple of seemingly racist neighbors to call the police on them. They drive away, reflecting on the noble struggle of seeking the truth. The podcast ends shortly thereafter, its principal question left unanswered.
As a listener, my first reaction was fury. Had I just wasted seven hours of my life? But I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Trojan Horse Affair is just the latest in a long line of investigative journalism podcasts that, instead of delivering resolution, end up trying to convince listeners that the frustration of the journey is the interesting part.
In Wind of Change, Patrick Radden Keefe of the New Yorker poses the question: Did the C.I.A. ghostwrite the song “Wind of Change” for the German rock band the Scorpions as some kind of psyop? But after eight episodes of setbacks and meditations on the nature of Cold War propaganda, Scorpions frontman Klaus Meine insists, pretty definitively, that he — not the CIA — wrote his band’s song. The Missing Richard Simmons podcast, a six-part investigation into why Richard Simmons retreated from public life, is full of weird theories and questionable tactics, but almost wholly free from answers (beyond Simmons’s obvious and explicitly stated desire for privacy). Reply All has been a repeat offender: The internet culture podcast’s four-part investigation On the Inside, about a convicted murderer who maintains his innocence, could have been zero parts, because — as former producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni ultimately concludes — the guy is totally guilty. The inconclusive audio investigation is so prevalent that it has become a media cliché and the subject of parody, as in the 244-episode (and counting) podcast Whatever Happened to Pizza at McDonald’s?
Much of this goes back to Serial, the hit 2014 podcast that launched a thousand more. Like its progeny, Serial presents investigative journalism as entertainment, with its central reporter, Sarah Koenig, playing the roles of narrator and protagonist, as well. (Koenig also co-created and edited The Trojan Horse Affair.) In hearing the story through Koenig’s microphone, listeners are presented with the meandering story as she comes to learn it, complete with all the red herrings — conflicting stories, confusing cell-tower records, the existence or non-existence of a payphone at a Best Buy — that a typical investigation might leave out. Ultimately, Koenig says she can’t make up her mind about her subject’s guilt or innocence. “We worried, did we just spend a year applying excessive scrutiny to a perfectly ordinary case?” Koenig asks. Her answer, in the end, is “no,” but I’m still stuck at “maybe.”
As a journalist, I get it. There are few worse feelings than hitting a wall after countless hours of dogged reporting. Investigative work is challenging, often tedious, and full of dead ends, which is why not every story comes to fruition. Even for the ones that do make it to publication, the nuts and bolts of how they were reported out — the time spent poring over documents, sending emails, chasing down leads — are usually cut from the final story simply because the details are boring and repetitive. But these days, producers have found a way to transform the process into a form of compelling entertainment, with ample music, effects, and narrative tricks to sustain (and perhaps pad out) a 10-part audio saga.
Sure, that’s their prerogative. But if a podcast isn’t going to shave anything off its shaggy dog story, then it should at least deliver a satisfying conclusion. Otherwise, to the audience, it feels like a bait-and-switch, spending hours suffering through ponderous side-quests, expertly timed cliffhangers — and the direct-to-consumer ads that inevitably dangle after them — only to be left hanging. The whole undertaking can feel pointless, a violation of the implicit agreement between hosts and listeners: If a story promises a mystery, then it better solve it. That’s just basic dramatic structure etiquette.
Cynically, I wonder whether the choice to turn inward, or “go meta,” is purely a defensive maneuver on the part of podcast investigations that ultimately can’t deliver the goods. “It was actually about the journey all along,” they seem to say to listeners; “the story is really about storytelling.”
That’s partly the justification that Reed and Syed ended up offering for The Trojan Horse Affair. “I think it’s revealing for the public to hear the process as much as the story itself,” Syed told me at the end of my long, arduous, multi-episode quest to reach him and Reed over Zoom. “I feel like the more people understand about why podcasts or investigative journalists don’t reach the conclusion every time, the more I hope that they can be empowered and feel like, ‘We need to remove some of these obstacles, like these officials who are obstructing this case, or this document that’s not being released.’”
Showing their work, podcasts like this seem to think, is a trust-building exercise. Seen more charitably, then, The Trojan Horse Affair is itself a kind of Trojan horse: a podcast that, despite taking on the shape of a mystery, is actually about journalism — specifically, about how reporting is a hard, slow, and fundamentally human endeavor. The surge in this type of meta-journalistic podcasts is one kind of response to a rising tide of skepticism toward the media. An overt theme of The Trojan Horse Affair is a distrust of journalists: Syed, a British-Pakistani Muslim furious with Islamophobia in the British press, is explicitly entering the field with aims to set it right. That’s why he’s digging into the phony letter that British journalists failed to properly interrogate before sensationalizing it, contributing to a baseless Islamophobic frenzy with terrible and lasting repercussions in British schools. Reed, meanwhile, plays the sober veteran to Syed’s hot-headed rookie; their buddy-cop dynamic sets up a point of tension over the merits of “activist” versus “objective” — a.k.a. dispassionate and largely white, by default — journalism.
And, to be fair, Syed and Reed don’t come up completely empty-handed by the end. They carefully lay out a theory of who might have written the hoax letter (a Muslim woman principal at another school) and why she might have done so (to save herself from another embarrassing forgery scandal). Syed told me that this theory, which has been publicly floated since 2014, is one he’s subscribed to since the very beginning. But the burden of proof he sets for the show — “Without someone saying, ‘I wrote this letter,’ or ‘I have proof of who wrote the letter,’ the Trojan Horse affair will rumble on and on,” Syed says in the final episode — is too high a bar for the duo to clear. If that standard of unquestionable proof weren’t so high, Reed said in our call, the ending “may not feel like such a failure.”
Maybe so, but for listeners like me, that’s what it boils down to. If investigative journalism podcasts are, at their heart, exercises in trust, I’m starting to have trust issues. I don’t mind seeing all the painstaking work that goes into these costly investigations so long as that work actually leads somewhere rewarding. Otherwise, with each passing ad break for mental-health startups and questionable crypto companies that I’m subjected to, I feel more and more like the dupe subsidizing the whole thing for companies that are monetizing my ears.
Perhaps the biggest mystery remains: Why do I keep listening? Stay tuned for my own serialized podcast in which I approach but never get to the bottom of this question, brought to you by Talkspace.
Caleb Pershan is a fellow at the Columbia Journalism Review.