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Internet Hoaxes, Insurrectionists, and 7 More Podcasts Worth Trying

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Hey, all! It’s the back end of April, the Easter Bunny has been disposed of, and the NBA postseason has begun. May the basketball gods bless us with seven games of Grizz-Timberwolves. Anthony Edwards, he has risen. Anyway, as always, tell me what you’re listening to. You can reach me at nicholas.quah@nymag.com or find me on Twitter.

Will Be Wild

Trump, Inc. meets the American insurrection. Listen here.

“I was skeptical,” said Ilya Marritz when I spoke to him and Andrea Bernstein earlier this week. He was talking about his initial response to the idea of covering this story. “After years of working on this Trump thing, I just thought, I’m done. But the thing that pulled me back in was the mystery: The insurrection happened in plain sight. It was impossible to believe it could be allowed to happen.”

The last time I spoke with Bernstein and Marritz, it was for the end of Trump, Inc., the podcast series they hosted for WNYC and ProPublica that investigated the shady business dealings of the former president and the abundant conflicts of interest that followed him to the White House. After several years of semi-weekly dispatches, the podcast published its final episode in February 2021 and called it a day — not long after President Biden’s inauguration and, of course, the insurrection at the Capitol.

A lot has happened since then, obviously. And after decades as reporters in the WNYC newsroom, Bernstein and Marritz left the organization to shift their focus to producing longer-form projects, though you can still hear them on public radio occasionally delivering updates on the many lawsuits that continue to surround the Trump organization. All the while, the long tail of the January 6 insurrection, which took place as they were doing table reads for Trump, Inc.’s final episode, stretched even longer.

Which brings us here. Starting Monday, their first project since leaving WNYC, Will Be Wild, will finally hit podcast feeds everywhere. As the corresponding press release portends, the series — produced by Pineapple Street Studios, Wondery, and Amazon Music — intends to “examine how the insurrection at the Capitol was just a practice run,” but my instinct is to chill with the dramatic framing. Having heard the first two episodes of the series, I can say that what you’re going to get is a collection of reporting that assembles a clearheaded framework around how to think about the Capitol insurrection as a phenomenon.

Bernstein, Marritz, and their team do this primarily by unpacking it through the experience of individuals from various corners of the event. The first episode, for instance, is wrapped around extensive interviews with three people whose arcs intertwine with the invasion of the Capitol: a son who turned in his insurrectionist father to the authorities, an intelligence official who spotted the threat but couldn’t get anybody to take preemptive action, and a woman who attended the fateful rally. At first, the narrative feels as though it sprawls indefinitely, until everything clicks together. Much like the work they did on Trump, Inc., these episodes eventually reveal an interlocking system.

It’s a method they believe will serve as a tangible contribution to the oodles of reporting, media, and opinion that continue to be generated about January 6. “There’s a fire hose of information on this coming out all the time,” said Bernstein. “What we wanted to do by focusing on these stories is give people an understanding of the structure so that they’ll be able to understand the fundamentals of what is going on and what’s to come.”

Bernstein and Marritz were speaking to me at the very end of production, so they had that 11th-hour steel in their eyes. They talked about the contrasts between making Will Be Wild and Trump, Inc., rooted in the differences of producing a project with a clear narrative arc versus something more tethered to the evolving news moment. “It’s a little like writing a book,” said Bernstein of Will Be Wild. (Marritz, who hasn’t written a book yet, concurred by default.)

I asked if they were surprised by anything they uncovered in the reporting process. “One of the things we’ve learned in the course of reporting is that almost everyone has only one or two degrees of separation from an insurrectionist,” said Bernstein. “I think it might shock most people to know that someone you grew up with or someone in your larger circle probably knew somebody who was at the Capitol.”

“My view on this is fairly cynical,” said Marritz. “People believe what they want to believe. It shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is. It’s really clear that these people are your neighbors; they’re the parents of other kids in your town … They’re real people. And they deserve to be understood.”

Will Be Wild is available on all platforms, but episodes drop early for subscribers to Wondery’s subscription service. Produced by Christine Driscoll and Alice Wilder with Marialexa Kavanaugh. Features editing by Maddy Sprung-Keyser and Joel Lovell. Sound design by Hannis Brown.

Truthers: Tiffany Dover Is Dead*

The anatomy of a conspiracy theory. Listen here.

I sometimes wonder about the point of fact-checking in this day and age. Sure, one can mount an aggressive effort to painstakingly debunk every harmful, vicious, and boneheaded conspiracy theory floating out in the ether, but one can only do so much. There’s always another hoax around the corner, another budding conspiracy influencer in waiting, another mass cluster of people looking for something to hang on to. Combined with the internet’s capacity to flatten all things, the growing distrust in institutions writ large, and the general alignment of tech platforms, this whole state of affairs feels like an overwhelming swamp with no meaningful way through. What’s the point of fact-checking when you’re almost certainly never going to outpace new untruths?

Then again, what’s the alternative? This keeps coming to mind as I dipped into the first few episodes of Truthers: Tiffany Dover Is Dead*, a new podcast doc from NBC News written, reported, and hosted by Brandy Zadrozny. A senior reporter who specializes in the internet — and therefore, as she attests, in misinformation and modern conspiracy theories — Zadrozny dives deep with her team into the guts and mechanics of one prominent theory that took flight during the earliest days of the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. It’s a doozy.

The mess at hand kicked off when Tiffany Dover, a nurse in Tennessee, briefly lost consciousness on-camera shortly after receiving a shot as part of a public-service campaign promoting the vaccine rollout. The reason was medically banal: Dover has a condition that makes her prone to passing out in the face of unpleasant stimuli. It’s a relatively common affliction (I know a few people who have it).

Of course, it doesn’t take a lot to spin the conspiratorial mind, and as the weeks unfolded, a crackpot belief began to form on the internet that Dover was killed by the vaccine and has since become the subject of some extravagant, nefarious cover-up. Never mind that Dover is very much alive, a fact that’s been repeatedly verified by the hospital that employs her. And so these conspiracists — “truthers” — have engaged in what amounts to a persistent harassment campaign targeting Dover, her family, and the hospital, demanding more “evidence” and “proof” she wasn’t killed by the vaccine. The effort triggers a reinforcing loop: The more they harass, the more they drive this poor person into hiding, which gives them more fuel to torment even further. A perpetual-motion machine.

Devil’s advocates in the crowd might say: Why not just keep providing the proof of lie these people apparently crave? This might seem a reasonable response, but as Zadrozny notes in the series: “What it does is take all the responsibility and blame off the truthers and puts it on Tiffany and her employers. ‘We’ll stop harassing you if you just do what we’re asking. And if you don’t, we’re entitled to keep going.’” And in any case, there’s a bigger question underlying all this: Can the truth can ever win against a so-called truther?

Truthers: Tiffany Dover Is Dead* is available on all platforms. Produced by Frannie Kelley with Eva Ruth Moravec. Features sound design by Rick Kwan. 

Meanwhile …

➽ Fans of Dr. Death should note: Laura Beil has a new series out called Sympathy Pains, which sits in the nexus of scams, emotional manipulation, and medical chicanery. I’m finding it, uh, extremely stressful.

➽ This is cool: Marc Maron’s 2010 interview with Robin Williams has been inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry as part of this year’s selection of 25 recordings chosen for their “cultural, historical or aesthetic importance in the nation’s recorded sound heritage.” It’s the second podcast to get the honor after This American Life’s “Giant Pool of Money” was inducted last year.

➽ Looks like the SiriusXM-Marvel podcast-production boom is continuing apace. It just launched a new audio series, Marvel’s Squirrel Girl: The Unbeatable Radio Show, starring Milana Vayntrub as the Sciuridae-themed hero. A detail from the Variety report that struck me as interesting: “The podcast is produced by Radio Point, the podcast arm of I Think You Should Leave and Life & Beth production company Irony Point.”

➽ Meanwhile, spotted this from our cousins at Polygon: “Old Gods of Appalachia, a horror anthology podcast, launched in 2019 as a passion project for two Wise, Virginia natives … Now, they want to bring the horror from the holler straight to the tabletop.”

Decoder Ring is back!

➽ Also returning: Dissect, which is dedicating its latest season to Bo Burnham’s Inside.

➽ Not long after his departure from Radiolab, Jad Abumrad is joining the faculty at Vanderbilt University. Among other things, he’ll be launching a podcast institute described as drawing “inspiration from novelist Mario Bellatin’s Dynamic School for Writers, an institute established in Mexico City for aspiring writers that is considered to be an intellectual hub.” Hmmm!

➽ Congrats to Random Number Generator Horror Podcast No. 9, a boon for horror-movie scaredy cats like myself, for passing 1 million downloads. Props as well to the folks at Triple Click for hitting 100 episodes.

And that’s a wrap for 1.5x Speed! Hope you enjoyed it. We’re back next week, but in the meantime: Send podcast recommendations, feedback, or just say hello at nicholas.quah@vulture.com.

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