As an aspiring journalist who grew up in Wyoming, it piques my interest when I see the state getting national attention. Usually, I’m disappointed by news about the latest legislative bill or some commentary about wealthy urbanites moving in.
But, never have I had a reaction like I did to “The Coldest Case in Laramie,” a new podcast series from the New York Times and Serial Productions.
The podcast follows Times reporter Kim Barker as she digs into a cold case murder that took place when she was a teenager living in Laramie in the ‘80s. Being familiar with “true crime” podcasts and having listened to previous Serial seasons, the premise of the podcast itself did not feel new to me. What did draw my attention was Barker’s description of Laramie, a place I know well and where many of my friends currently live and go to school.
In the first episode — before she even introduced the crime — Barker relays her own memories of Laramie. “I’ve always remembered it as a mean town,” she begins. “Uncommonly mean. A place of jagged edges and cold people.” She recounts that one of her classmates killed someone, while others killed themselves.
Barker then compares the town to Kabul, where she covered the war in Afghanistan, or Islamabad, where suicide bombs went off regularly, and concludes Laramie is worse than these places — all within the first three minutes of the podcast. Throughout the entire eight-episode series, I could not get rid of the bad taste Barker’s initial description of Laramie left in my mouth.
I understand disliking Wyoming. I have spent considerable time coming to terms with my own experiences growing up in the state, something I’m still processing as a college student living away from home. I may have misgivings, but I would not compare it to an active warzone. This approach, among other things, risks minimizing the experiences of those living in warzones, even though I acknowledge Barker did write a book about that subject.
With that initial framing, Barker’s investigation comes across as self-indulgent. While the final episode develops into a nuanced conversation about what NPR described as the “unreliability of memory and the slipperiness of truth,” Barker cannot guarantee a listener will stick out to the end, and not already be tainted by the initial negative depiction. Starting off calling a community “mean” and “violent” guarantees that imagery is what the audience takes with them through the story. The depiction risks turning members of the community who disagree with her portrayal away from the story, when they could have benefited from the final introspection. Since one cannot be certain the audience will hold out for the nuance, what does one gain by chancing it?
I’m not discrediting the reporting — it is an interesting narrative about botched police work and small-town bigotry. However, it seems exploitative for the narrative to start by bashing the entire community instead of focusing on the specific institutions and individuals responsible for the crime and subsequent misconduct.
Parachute journalism makes me understand why Wyomingites often don’t trust outsiders. This is something Barker notes when, at the beginning of episode 3, she talks about how her new red Prius, New York license plates and New York Times business cards may “work against” her in Wyoming.
However, Barker does not seem to fully acknowledge the position of power she holds. When she interviews the victim’s sister, Barker ends the interview by assigning “homework.” She comes across as cavalier when she initially decides to “make a pit stop in Laramie, poke around a little and see what [she] can see.”
Why do true-crime journalists feel they are the ones who need to swoop in, make judgements and save these communities from themselves? By the end of the podcast, Barker isn’t closer to determining who killed the victim, and the victim’s family is no nearer to the closure Barker hoped to bring.
Rural communities like Laramie should not be casualties of journalists’ self-actualization journeys. When journalists present a community as a monolith of “meanness” or “coldness,” they turn it into a character in the story shaped for their own needs.
Really, though, places like Laramie are complex communities filled with all sorts of people. They may have hard edges, but they are also home to folks trying to improve the lives of their neighbors.
The subjects of the podcast are real people with lives directly impacted by these kinds of projects. By the time Barker acknowledges the people she interviewed were actually very kind to her, there are fewer than 15 minutes left in the podcast.
Broadcasting a negative picture of the American West to the New York Times’ white elite East coast audience stigmatizes the people who actually live there. This approach potentially causes further retreat into homogenous communities and continues the cycle of corruption and bigotry Barker was attempting to critique.
I did listen. As a person who was in college there in the 80’s I could relate to it. If you listen to the whole podcast, she realizes and states that her memories and judgements of Laramie when she was in high school were influenced by her age. I feel the same way about the town I grew up in, but as an adult I also realized the same thing. The point of the podcast was not to slam Laramie but to potentially get this solved.
Barker grew up in Laramie. Thus she isn’t an outsider. I’ve lived in Wyoming for 23 years but still have a strong connection to where I grew up in Colorado even though I left when I was 18. I feel that growing up somewhere give you a unique perspective on a place that moving there as an adult just doesn’t replace.
“Laramie Police were set up on the same premise….keep the multicultural, drug, sex crazed, dead beat college kids in line by any means necessary. Class, race, privilege and perception all play a role in these stories. Similar motives for policing, different city. Lather, rinse repeat….”
Sorry, but this was not the case in Laramie. It’s true that class, race, privilege may have played a role, but it wasn’t the mostly white college kids that the police harassed (when they did); it was the underprivileged, mostly Mexican, local kids who lived in West Laramie (the other side of the tracks). These kids were placed on a list of “bad” kids, the existence of which was known only to the cops, until early in 2000 when a principled county official outed it to the community. The infamous list was eventually discontinued due to community outrage. Yes, citizens made their voices heard in Laramie to expose and counter racism. If you want to know more, there is an excellent booklet that was published in 2003 on this very issue, endorsed and disseminated by (former) Governor Dave Freudenthal entitled, “The Community Speaks Out, A Report on Youth Justice in Albany County, Wyoming.”
Finally, I think Ms. Schnatterbeck’s piece was spot on, especially as it pertained to parachute journalism, and I encourage her to keep writing!
It seems that Ms. Schnatterbeck fell into the same trap of generalizations about area when she referred to the white elite east coast.
Oh, to see ourselves as others see us.
“However, it seems exploitative for the narrative to start by bashing the entire community instead of focusing on the specific institutions and individuals responsible for the crime and subsequent misconduct.”
I would like to remind the Columbia University Junior that those institutions that you speak of were created and given license to act in the manner that they did because, we the Citizens, voted for it. Government of the people, by the people, for the people and all that crap. In addition it was 1985 and America had 5 more years of rising murder rates, violent assaults, violent rapes and unintended pregnancies before those issues started to miraculously recede starting in 1990. The town and the time you grew up in was far different in a great number of ways, unless you happen to be a 60 year old junior at Columbia?
I loved everything about the podcast as it tells a lot of truths that most overlook about that time, the police and perception. I grew up in a small town in Ohio called Kettering, which lay just outside of Dayton. (Euphemism for white flight community) Kettering is roughly twice the size of Laramie, Wyoming but could afford THREE police helicopters to patrol the place. Those helicopters were originally in place to protect white people from the impending race war they thought they deserved for treating the Dayton black community like unworthy citizens.
Instead of fighting a race war, by the late 1970s these helicopters chased us white, lead addled juvenile delinquents around town as we shot bottle rockets at the things and tried to avoid the cops in cars from giving us Field Interrogation Cards (FI cards).
Laramie Police were set up on the same premise….keep the multicultural, drug, sex crazed, dead beat college kids in line by any means necessary. Class, race, privilege and perception all play a role in these stories. Similar motives for policing, different city. Lather, rinse repeat….
The interesting part to me is that the person going through the crucible in Laramie during the 2016 revival of this case was married to my friend who spent every year of k-12 with me in Kettering, Ohio as we graduated in 1981. The experiences with the police in Kettering were very similar to the police interactions with every town across America at that time.
The cop suspect was one smart person and over the years had access to law enforcement activity as well as evidence…… I am glad the NYT did the podcast as it has very special meaning to me….
really interested and well written article, Claire!
Broadcasting a negative picture of the American West, or any part of America, can stigmatize that particular population. The New York Times is read from coast-to-coast by people of many ethnicities and backgrounds. Now that you’ve left Wyoming and gone East to advance your education, Ms. Schnatterbeck, be careful not to fall into the generalizing mode Ms. Barker reveled in, i.e., white elite East coast audience.
As a native New Yorker who moved to Laramie on a whim in my twenties and ended up graduating from UW College of Law and spending the next 40 years or so living and working and raising a child in Laramie, I can say that the initial piece describing Laramie and/or Wyoming people as “mean” made me cringe. It’s true that initially, I met some folks who questioned my right to be there, but those were the exception. What I experienced in Laramie and throughout most of Wyoming were kind, independent, good people, many of whom became my dear friends and loyal clients. I have moved away to the east coast only so that I am able to be with my daughter and grandchildren, but I frequently tell others that I know if I were ever stuck in a snowbank on a Wyoming highway (or unpaved road) that there was not a Wyomingite who would drive by and not stop to lend a hand, a tow, a place to stay. I am forever grateful to Wyoming people who welcomed me all those years, and if I had my life to do over, it would (again) be in Wyoming.
Very well written, thought out and unbiased. It told how the podcast was slanted towards attention for the person reporting ( Ms Barker),what her opinion was about the town people and atmosphere …which is what reporting is but not to the extent Ms. Barker went to. It was too much about her opinion and not enough about the general story and the crime.
Well written Claire Schnatterbeck
Good piece, Claire. One potential pitfall of “parachute journalism” is that it can be just plain lazy. I didn’t listen to the podcast but it sounds like that is the case here. If you’re going to make your Location a character, give it the same respect you give your other characters. Search for nuance. One-dimensional Heroes, Villains and Mean Towns make good melodrama, but rarely foster understanding or illuminate deeper truths. I echo what others have said to you, Claire: I hope you come home eventually. We need you.
I think that series says a lot more about Barker than Laramie. I’m from Cheyenne, went to school in Laramie about that time. Sure, it could be a tough place with an even tougher climate, but there were and still are plenty of damn fine people there and they mostly make up for the bad ones. The article left me with a bad taste, hard to shake.
Thank you, Clair for your thoughtful piece.
Barker’s New York Time podcast was the worst journalism I’ve seen in a long time. She essentially accuses someone of first degree murder and then steps away to say, never mind.? That’s pretty outrageous. Then, she concludes it was another guy who died in a Wyoming prison and leaves the trail colder than she started. If she was a real crime reporter, she would have realized that the DNA of her final suspect is on file with the Wyoming Department of Corrections. Did she do that? No. Ten years ago I was court appointed to represent someone accused of first degree murder charges. Even though he gave a full confession to the DEA as to his involvement in the murder, it was coerced and given under pressure and I had a difficult time getting anyone to believe me, included the prosecutor and the investigator. It wasn’t until I presented evidence of my client being in a county jail in a different state a thousand miles away that the jury was called off and the charges dismissed. Barker’s journalism is just a soap opera that hurts innocent people.
I listened to the entire podcast. I am a longtime (but not native) resident of Wyoming. I was not as put off by Barker’s initial impression of Laramie as was Schnatterbeck, but I get her point that Barker’s words may color the entire podcast for some listeners. All that said, while I appreciated the podcast more that Ms Schnatterbeck seems to, I do believe this essay is an insightful look into this podcast and “helicopter” journalism in general by a young student of the craft. Well done.
I grew up in Cheyenne and left for the big city when I was a youngster. Lived in multiple big cities for two decades and then came back. There’s a difference, especially if you’ve been gone. Wyoming is full of mean people. Just the fact that they keep voting Republican with all of their mean-spirited policies that hurt people and hold Wyoming back economically.
Uneducated, insecure people aren’t nice when they feel threatened. If you come back educated and confident, there are people who will make it their mission to take you down. This isn’t in a competitive way, but in a mean way.
Yes, Wyoming is full of mean people, but you wouldn’t know the difference if you’re one of them.
Spot on – thank you Claire for pointing out the perils of “Parachute Journalism”.
Well written. Wyoming is a “complex communities filled with all sorts of people. They may have hard edges, but they are also home to folks trying to improve the lives of their neighbors. “ no doubt New York is too!
Good letter Claire. I’m glad someone addressed this hack from New York, who has
a bad memory of Laramie.
I worked with Shelly’s father, who passed away a few years age.
He said the police knew who did it, but arrested the wrong man.
Ms. Schnatterbeck delivers a well written and argued opinion piece. Thank you!
Thoughtful analysis, Ms. Schnatterbeck. Soak up all you can while at Columbia and then return to your roots and help make Wyoming (and the region) a better place.
Well said. The danger from Barker’s opening gambit about Laramie’s meanness stuck with me throughout the series. At one point in an early episode she describes the University of Wyoming as being “nearby” Laramie. I cannot find a less fitting description of the relationship between the town and the University. The population of Laramie is around 21,000 people, fully 15,000 of those people are there because they are staff or students at the University. It is the breathing life force of the town. For many young Wyomingites, it is the first place they have found that feels like home, a place where knowledge and curiosity are valued in and of themselves. Laramie definitely has its hard edges, but those challenges, more than anywhere else in the state, act to knit the community together around the common purpose of our developing in resilience and humanity. What bothered me most about such a high level-platform panning our lone university town is the collateral fallout. This podcast is potentially turning away bright young people from around the country who otherwise might have been brave enough to make that journey to Laramie and join young Wyomingites on their Undergraduate adventures in one of the most unique settings in the world. In those first few minutes of “the Coldest Case in Laramie” I’m afraid the damage was done.
I’d like to add that I didn’t intend to insinuate that the author is one of those mean people. I think if she goes off to work in a more sophisticated environment and comes back, she, too, will see the difference and experience the vitriol against her for being educated and confident. May we chip away at the insecurities of the locals and Make Wyoming Great Again.
The insinuation was nearly assumed. Thanks for clarifying.
Excellent article by an up and coming journalist with a very bright future! And thank you to WyoFile for offering this view of an issue that we as residents of Wyoming have had to deal with for many years.
This reminds me of a sign I saw in Washington State while traveling on business.
“Your smile could make the difference in someone giving up or going on”
Kim Barker, a Times reporter, states Laramie is one of the meanest places she has ever lived appears VERY HARSH. You sometime get what you give just a thought.
While visiting Laramie a couple of weeks ago residents I encountered were very friendly, considerate, and helpful was my experience.
The gentleman at the adjacent pump volunteered to put my full gas cans I was filling up in the back of my vehicle. People said good morning and I experienced common courtesy’s and friendly people everywhere I went.
People in Wyoming will be nice to you, unless you are a threat. They consider outsiders, educated big city people and happy, confident people a big threat to their way of life. If you’re just passing through all they care about is the money you spend. You’re not a threat.
Wyomingites don’t like outsiders poking around because they might find something amiss.
I went to school in Laramie, I’m going to have to read that. I kinda like her synopsis of living in a war zone. A war zone is where people don’t trust each other. I went to high school and got beat up and had no one step up for me. So yeah. War zone. I get it. People in the United States are just on tilt!!!