In the days following the 2016 election I had an epiphany of sorts.
The immediate cause of this epiphany was not the unexpected election results, but a November 9 event hosted by Georgetown University Law Center, on whose Board of Visitors I serve. The Dean of Georgetown Law, Dean Treanor, brought together screenwriters Steve Zaillian and Richard Price and a group of legal scholars from the Law School. The panelists focused their discussion on the thematic insights that an HBO miniseries (that I oversaw) called The Night Of offered into our criminal justice system.
The capacity audience and the dialogue that night reminded me of my own personal connection to our collective fascination with crime narratives.
When I was in my teens, I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and then saw the film by Richard Brooks. Both works stimulated my sense of the humanistic possibilities of storytelling in the often-dehumanizing world of crime and punishment. Ever since then, I have found myself drawn to works of art, literature, film, music and television that push the boundaries of those possibilities. And I have come to believe that such stories can both enthrall a broad audience and stimulate serious-minded conversations about their underlying issues.
I came out of that Georgetown evening with the spark of an idea — I would find a way to create a forum where I and other like minded folks could explore these kinds of tales; a forum where artists, advocates, thinkers and policy makers could tell stories, deconstruct narratives and share ideas that might contribute to meaningful reform of a criminal justice system riddled with dysfunction, injustice, and obstacles to fairness.
I then sought guidance from colleagues and friends who could inform my planning for this new vision quest.
I consulted with my friend Josh Marshall, who over the past two decades has built a trail-blazing political news company in Talking Points Memo. TPM, as the company is known, has made an enormous impact both editorially and in building a sustainable business model.
The opportunity arose for me to speak with many of the masters of crime and justice storytelling. Jack Epps, the Chair of the Writing department at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts allowed me to teach classes there. In those classes I spoke with the artists behind some of the most famous works of crime drama, documentary and podcast: the makers of dramas like Breaking Bad, The Wire, Law and Order, Criminal Minds, Without a Trace, The People vs. O.J. Simpson and The Good Wife; documentaries like Making a Murderer, The Jinx, The Ted Bundy Tapes, Amanda Knox, and the Central Park Five; podcasts like a Serial and Dirty John. These classes were saved on audio and are the basis of The Crime Story Podcast.
Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a panelist on The Night Of event mentioned above, is one of the nation’s most charismatic and frequently consulted scholars on issues of race and criminal justice. With his guidance, I began to familiarize myself with the leading voices in the criminal justice reform conversation, with the aim of showcasing these voices in the forum.
With the help of Ted Braun, a filmmaker and professor of screenwriting at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, I assembled a team of creative writers, eager to find the humanity in every-day stories from the world of crimes, trials and incarceration.
Collectively, we aim to appeal to people who are engaged by a well-told crime story AND to those who care about the fairness of our justice system.
With that as our mission, my colleague Sean Smith and I started visiting the courthouses with some of the young writers whom we have commissioned. The energy, enthusiasm, and excitement they feel is infectious. They each share the thrill of having the opportunity to use their talents to tell stories of real people in a way that might engage and compel readers and help create empathy for those whose lives have been sucked into a messy and inhumane system. Their energy and a belief in the progressive power of empathetic storytelling is Crime Story’s propeller. We hope you will explore the site. And by all means, let us know what you think.