Why I think S-Town wasn't exploitation
After I hurriedly listened to the S-Town podcast, expertly narrated by radio journalist Brian Reed, I started thinking about articles that have been coming out about it. Some conclude that S-Town is exploitative in nature, because it shares the personal information of John B McLemore after he dies.
Of course, McLemore was unable to give permission for publication as a dead person...but he was the one who reached out to Reed in the first place, with an email describing his "shit town" and the need for justice after hearing that a wealthy, well-known kid was bragging about beating another kid to death. And that was just the tip of the iceberg, McLemore told Reed. It's evident through the dialogue between the two that McLemore really believed his town was steeped in shit, bubbling over with shit...just a really terrible place.
McLemore asked Reed to snoop around his "shit town" in Bibb County, Alabama to learn more about the alleged murder. And McLemore offered up information about his personal life with openness and candour throughout the process. He revealed his thoughts through essays and manifestos (on topics like corruption or the condition of man or global warming and climate change) and his personality through his word choice and his voice, which was loud as hell and had the Southern twang of a cowboy. His voice seemed so uniquely "John B" even though I never knew him.
That is the genius of S-Town.
The podcast is woven together more like a novel or a television show. We get to know the characters and we feel with them, hate them, pity them, root for them and against them, and love them. S-Town is a flowing narrative that explores all the angles and gives everyone involved a chance to have their say. I think that by doing this, Reed is successful in not exploiting McLemore, but in explaining him.
Also, McLemore's story is not uniquely his own. The story also belongs to Tyler Goodson, to McLemore's cousin Rita, to Faye Gamble, who was on the phone with McLemore as he committed suicide.
A couple things about McLemore are important to note: He was outspoken. Almost everyone interviewed by Reed mentioned the fact that McLemore was not shy about talking about what he believed in. He argued about climate change with anyone who would listen and was dead set on making it known that where he lived was awful. (Even though it was also clear he saw its beauty and found a certain level of peace in nature.) This means that most of the opinions revealed by Reed were already known to almost anyone McLemore spoke to.
I believe that those who say the podcast is exploitation have it all wrong. S-Town started off as a hunt for truth, and that is what we are left with in the end. (Even though we are forced to continue without the main protagonist. We depend on his own words in the last year of his life to narrate his dreams and his demise.) It's fucking sad. Honest. Twisted. Raw. But it feels closer to the truth than every other true crime podcast or documentary or autobiography I've ever listened to, watched, or read.
McLemore offered up information about his sexuality, his thoughts on religion, race, and women. He told Reed these things willingly. In fact, during the entire time he is speaking to Reed (over the span of a year, I believe) he only asked him to turn off the tape recorder once.
A dead person cannot make a decision. They cannot say if they don't want their words to be published. But as much as we care about honouring the wishes of the dead, journalists also have to care about the truth.
And that's what I think Reed did.
The story took many turns, all of which Reed investigated. He didn't reveal the joys and horrors of McLemore's life carelessly. He was a responsible reporter who followed a story that led him to "shit town" Alabama, looking to solve a murder, but instead, ended up with a unique friend, whose words will echo in all of our minds, and at least, in that way, live on forever. And John B is probably getting a kick out of it.
Or he's worm food, as he said himself.