Wisely, reporter Madeleine Baran is not setting listeners up to believe that she has solved the essential mysteries of the Jacob Wetterling case: namely, who abducted him and where he is now.
What she is promising, as part of the next APM Reports investigation, is a full(er) understanding of, as she says, “Why this case wasn’t solved.”
Earlier this week, American Public Media — the parent of Minnesota Public Radio — announced “an eight-episode weekly podcast series, ‘In the Dark,’ beginning Sept. 13” that will, it promised, be “the most comprehensive reporting on this case … reveal[ing] how law enforcement has mishandled one of the most notorious child abductions and why it matters.” While not “Jacob is here,” that assertion alone is setting listeners up for plenty. (A preview of the series is already up on iTunes.)
Baran, who led MPR’s award-winning coverage of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ sex abuse scandals, “Betrayed by Silence,” brings ample credibility to what is arguably Minnesota’s biggest crime story of the last century, with apologies to T. Eugene Thompson and Marjorie Caldwell. Credibility matters because the Wetterling story does not need another crass milking-for-ratings impact.
In that context, though, the decision to roll it out as a serialized podcast, a la the phenomenally popular “Serial,” does apply a touch of unabashed theatricality, something for which MPR is not exactly known. Telling a compelling story of a criminal investigation over eight separate productions — a much different approach than “Betrayed by Silence,” which was driven by the flood of information from the fall of one barrier or character after another — would seem to require the use of common showbiz tropes like cliffhangers and incremental reveals. Although, maybe not.
“Well, we’re not reporting this as a sensational crime,” says Baran, who was impressed by the storytelling of both “Serial” and the Netflix blockbuster, “Making a Murderer.” “What we’ve said to each other is, ‘Let’s tell a different story here. Let’s look at what it has been like for the Wetterlings and what is was and has been like inside the investigation. We want to avoid sensationalism.”
The individual episodes, which are of varying lengths, will also be broadcast on MPR flagship KNOW-FM 91.1 on Fridays at 10 a.m., with Baran on hand for comment, says MPR spokeswoman Angie Andresen. (Whether Baran will also be taking listener questions is TBD.)
“Since I’m not originally from here, it took a while for me to grasp how big a story the Wetterling case was in Minnesota and the impact it has had across the country,” says Baran, who’s originally from Milwaukee. The case spurred Congressional adoption of the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sex Offender Registration Act in 1994. “I helped out bit on coverage of the 2010 excavation on the farm [near the abduction site],” she says, “but I never did any real reporting on it. But as a reporter, the more I looked at it and familiarized myself with it the more I kept asking the same question, ‘Why wasn’t this solved?’ And following that, ‘Why does it matter?’ and ‘How does it affect the people involved?’”
As you might expect, Baran is not willing to divulge the meatiest details of the series. But when asked if she and the rest of the APM Reports team working with her have found something substantive enough to warrant an eight-part series, she says: “Yes, we definitely have found something new.”
She would not, for example, comment on the role Daniel Heinrich, aka the “person of interest” in the abduction and current in custody for a different case, plays in her investigation. And she demurred on a discussion of how unusual it is (or isn’t) that a guy like him, with apparently so little to lose, wouldn’t by now have confessed or inadvertently revealed his role, if there was any, while under constant observation this past year. Likewise, she had no comment on whether that curious excavation activity in 2010 was the (expensive and invasive) dead end it appears to be.
The structure of APM Reports, APM’s in-house investigative unit led by managing director Chris Worthington and featuring Baran, Tom Scheck and Curtis Gilbert, takes a bit of explaining. (Here’s Worthington giving it his shot.) But its ambitions are commendable. The news market, here there and everywhere, needs more longform reporting on broadly relevant topics. The Wetterling case is a tragedy of profound emotional interest, certainly to every Minnesotan who remembers it from 1989.
It certainly fits the APM Reports criteria … especially if, as Baran says, the series truly does expand the public’s understanding of some important element, such as investigative incompetence or some other element weighing on the lack of resolution. (Personally, I’ll be curious to see if Baran’s immersion in the sordid depths of the state’s Catholic dioceses has any bearing on the story she tells.)
Based on “Betrayed by Silence,” it’s hard to imagine Baran (and APM) devoting nine months of time and resources and gambling a well-deserved reputation for news-worthiness by simply regurgitating stock history and speculation for audience attention.