May Edwards · Athan Theoharis · The Staircase, of course
Plus: Still more podcasts of note
“Your Honor, I'm an Indigenous matriarch warrior whose spirit cannot be broken.” That’s the arguable pull quote from this Washington Post piece on Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, who was sentenced to six months in federal prison after leaking over 2,000 Treasury Department docs to BuzzFeed reporter Jason Leopold.
Edwards told Judge Gregory Woods that she passed the docs to Leopold after witnessing corruption within the agency. “I could not stand by aimlessly as this would have been a violation of my oath of office, which is also a federal crime.” Without her, BuzzFeed’s hard-hitting The Money Trail series of investigations wouldn’t have been possible — but you might not even remember those yarns, given the unrelenting news cycle that various Trump administration transgressions wrought.
It took nearly a year for federal agents to show up at Edwards’s home outside Richmond, led by their high-tech analysis of activity on government computers.
By then, Leopold had published a stream of Russia-related stories based on the confidential “suspicious activity reports” that banks are required to file with the Treasury Department whenever they spot a seemingly irregular transaction — one story on payments the Russian government sent its embassies with a label of “to finance election campaign of 2016” (Russia said it was just helping its overseas citizens cast absentee ballots for its own parliamentary elections); another outlining payments Russian operative Maria Butina used to ease her entry into GOP political circles.
But these, too, had largely been forgotten by the time Edwards was arrested, stories that only sizzled briefly in a season consumed by nonstop Trump scandals, uproars and investigations. Even some of Leopold’s other work — notably an investigative scoop about the Trump team’s secret negotiations during the 2016 campaign to erect a Trump Tower in Moscow — upstaged the stories generated that past year by Edwards’s leaks.
You might be tempted to skip past reporter Sarah Ellison’s piece on Edwards — after all, Trump is out and just reading that little excerpt above probably triggered your PTSD. But understanding how leaks work — and the tremendous risks leakers take (Edwards “lost her job, her car, her home” long before she was sentenced) is important to any of us who read the news, not just the true crime-interested. As Ellison writes, Edwards “is one of the most important whistleblowers of our era, and yet hardly anyone remembers her name.” Read this story, and pass it on, to make Ellison’s claim a false one. — EB
FBI historian Athan Theoharis has died. The New York Times has the obit, which (no shade on the obit writer, there’s a lot to cover) barely scratches the surface of his impact on how we understand the feds.
Since the 1970s, Theoharis (a prof at Marquette University in Milwaukee, among other accomplishments) leveraged Freedom of Information Act requests (colloquially, FOIAs) to uncover federal law enforcement abuses, including wiretaps and surveillance efforts against civil rights activists, presidents, and anyone else who might be vulnerable to a little pressure. But he wasn’t some random weirdo with an ax to grind: wildly, he was doing this at the request of the Senate’s Church Committee, a subgroup devoted to studying government intelligence activities. His research, writes the ACLU, led him to pen “21 books and more than 100 articles on Cold War history, anti-communism in America, civil rights and the politics of government secrecy and surveillance.”
And boy oh boy, did he have a beef with J. Edgar Hoover, a particularly juicy target. Per the NYT:
“Hoover was an insubordinate bureaucrat in charge of a lawless organization,” Mr. Theoharis told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1993. “He was also a genius who could set up a system of illegal activities and a way to keep all documentation secret for many years.”
The bottom line is that without Theoharis, many of the sketchier activities of the FBI might not have come to light (sensing a theme today in BE? I am!), revelations that spurred countless books, journalistic investigations, and documentaries like 1971 (see the trailer for that film below). Take a look at his obit, and you’ll be blown away by everything he dug up. — EB
Just in case my podcast roundup last week wasn’t sufficient…Here are three more new podcasts that sound interesting. Maybe it’s time to plan that road trip so we can get all these handled?
Color Lines: From Phillip to Floyd
Launched in May, here’s the logline: “In 1990, the town of Teaneck, New Jersey – a community renowned as a national model of racial unity and peace – became embroiled in a confrontation over race and dignity and fairness after a white police officer shot and killed a Black teenager. In this podcast based on journalist Mike Kelly’s book Color Lines investigates Teaneck’s history and what the shooting exposed about the racial dilemma that America faced then and continues to face today.”
This podcast only drops episodes intermittently, likely because hosts Emily Green and Joshua Wright are reliant on access to incarcerated people to pull together their shows on life inside prison. The most recent episode deals with “touch starvation,” a depression-and-aggression-spurring condition experienced by people who are deprived of positive physical contact.
Murder in Illinois
This is a super-new one on the case of Christopher Vaughn, who prosecutors say killed his wife and three kids so he could go live in the Canadian wilderness. Vaughn says that in actuality, his wife killed the kids, and then herself. He’s serving four consecutive life sentences, but groups like Investigating Innocence say he might be telling the truth. This podcast “follows the complicated circumstances that led to Vaughn’s conviction, as well as the forensic evidence his supporters believe proves his innocence-in attempt to answer one question: Who killed the Vaughn family?”
The Ringer is hopping on the “we’re worried about true crime” bandwagon, with a slew of celebrity voices weighing in. Of interest is that the piece ranks the success of recent Netflix shows like Tiger King (#1, no duh) and Night Stalker (two-way tie for #4), and graphs out the popularity of true-crime streaming content in a pleasant set of visuals.
And then it goes on for a while about what it all means to use stories of death and misery to bulk up one’s subscriber base and revenue, despite the fact that “ratings,” as in “ratings battle,” has been a matter of importance in the news industry for years.
But, of course, the news doesn’t take dramatic liberties, and a lot of these shows do. A snip:
The question is, however, whether the creative liberties are a bug or a feature of the genre. As true crime has become a bigger business, its production values have improved and its status as a form of entertainment has become entrenched, says Dawn Cecil, a criminologist at the University of South Florida and author of the 2020 book Fear, Justice, and Modern True Crime. That has led to constructed narrative beats and heightened drama, and even the adding of music to get the blood racing—something once considered as taboo as reenactments in the documentary world because of its ability to influence an audience. “Even though it’s about reality, it does have the goal to entertain, even if they don’t say that right out,” Cecil says. “[A filmmaker] could do those shows or those movies and give us the facts. And it could be quite dull, and we’re not going to be interested. But once you increase that production level, people are going to be more interested.”
Smerling understands the desire for an explosive ending. After all, The Jinx had one of the most memorable conclusions ever committed to tape (even if that scene owed some of its impact to the magic of editing). Additionally, though, Smerling says the current level of competition for stories is creating an environment of one-upmanship, with some filmmakers even going so far as to pay sources, which creates another complicated dynamic in regard to the truth.
This is not a short piece, and it’s not a light read either — it’s packed with stats and data on the very real business of iffy shows made by folks like crankypants Joe Berlinger. (Will Ringer writer Justin Sayles, who is a man, get a nasty note? Guess we’ll find out!) But when you have energy and patience, it’s a read that’s likely worth your time. — EB
Today in The Staircase casting: Deadline, which is basically just a The Staircase fan site these days reports that Luther actor Vincent Vermignon has joined the fun. He’s playing Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the guy who made the The Staircase doc for Netflix, which I believe means we are now fully through the looking glass. — EB
Wednesday on Best Evidence: I saved the Gloria Allred v Bill Cosby link for Sarah, so there’s that! [“‘Thanks’?” - SDB]