I really enjoyed listening to S-Town. Brian Reed digs deep into the life of John B. and Woodstock, Alabama and reveals a lot about the nature of people. Specifically, I was surprised by how much insight the podcast gives into the difference between truth and personal knowledge and how we try to reconcile this discrepancy. This can be seen most apparently when the narrative follows the conflict between Tyler and Reta.
Brian confirms that Tyler and Reta consistently report the same facts in their retellings of the story. However, the two parties walk away from each incident with different conclusions. This paradox occurs because a person’s knowledge of the external world is always filtered through past knowledge, experiences, and personal biases. Tyler established a very close relationship with John and his mother before John’s death, but Reta sees a stranger seemingly taking advantage of her relatives. Neither side has all the information, so they fill in the blanks with assumptions. People base their beliefs on the world as they know it, and not the world as it is.
This information asymmetry also reveals the failings of S-Town’s journalism (and journalism in general). Brian’s goal in the beginning is to uncover the truth behind a potential murder and its coverup in Woodstock. In the end, he realizes that no murder ever occured, despite almost everyone in the town telling him that the suspected killer confessed to the crime. After hearing snippets and rumors, the townspeople transform a story about a fight into something much more sinister through a big game of telephone. Journalism is based in large part on interviews with people, but S-Town reveals that these testimonials can be wildly inaccurate.
Sometimes, despite Brian’s best efforts, a conclusion can’t be reached. Did John leave behind gold and where is it? Who is right, Tyler or Reta? Did John have mercury poisoning? All of these questions are left unanswered because conclusive evidence couldn’t be gathered. In the case of mercury poisoning, we have testimonials from John’s horologist friends and professional opinions, but it’s been too long since John’s death to verify his mercury levels for sure. I think Brian realizes the danger of giving the reader incomplete information. He tries to remind the reader of alternative possibilities whenever an outcome is uncertain and admits when he doesn’t know something. In this way, he allows readers to fill in the blanks, but also makes them aware that they’re doing so.
Brian’s apparent awareness of how his journalism might be misinterpreted also leads me to the problems I have with the podcast. At one point Brian reveals John’s off-the-record story about his relationship with a specific man. Brian decides to tell this story and states several reasons for doing so. He says:
First, since John died, two other people who knew him well have told me the same information on the record. Also, John was very clear that he did not believe in God or an afterlife. So John, in his own view, is worm dirt now, unaffected by this. And lastly, what John disclosed, and where it led me after he died, helped me understand him so much more. And I think trying to understand another person is a worthwhile thing to do.
The first point seems obviously flawed. Just because John shared the information privately with two close friends does not mean John is ok with sharing the information publicly. The second reason has some validity, but while John may be dead and unaffected, other people’s memory of John is very much alive and can be affected. I think the third point is valid, but also subjective. Additionally, Brian seems to tell this story with little care for the other man’s well being. He publicly reveals that a married man living in the southern US had, at one point, a romantic relationship with John. This is obviously dangerous and could ruin his life. I don’t believe Brian adequately protected the man’s identity, and I don’t think Brian could have except by omitting this section from S-Town. It’s not difficult to imagine the man’s wife, upon listening to S-Town, could deduce that her husband was the “anonymous” individual that Brian interviewed. At this point, Brian should be well aware of how giving away even a little bit of information about someone can lead way to dangerously inaccurate rumors.
I also think Brian imposes too much of his own opinion into some parts of John’s life. Brian paints John’s tattoo (church) sessions as a form of cutting – indicative of some sort of mental illness. In a Vox review of the podcast, Aja Romano talks about needle play as a sexual fetish. In this context, John’s ritual could be seen as an act of pleasure rather than a form of self-harm. However, Brian uncharacteristically fails to mention alternatives to his assumption.
S-Town demonstrates that truth is easily distorted and beliefs don’t run parallel to facts. It also shows how this makes S-Town’s very own journalism a challenge. Though Brian Reed does his best to overcome these issues, S-Town still fails in some aspects.
Vox review: https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/3/30/15084224/s-town-review-controversial-podcast-privacy