Arianna Huffington, founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, has called 2015 the year of the "social star," which means people who aren't famous for being on TV, in magazines, or in political cartoons but, rather, because of their social followings or viral tweets, according to The Washington Post. So, it would make sense that her guest list for the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner is made up of people whose faces you might not recognize, but you probably know their voices, names, YouTube channels, or general internet fame. One of her chosen guests for the dinner, for example, is Sarah Koenig, This American Life producer and Serial co-creator.
If you were part of the English-speaking world this past fall, you heard about Serial, a podcast that explored the 1999 murder of Woodlawn High School student Hae Min Lee. Prosecutors arrested her ex-boyfriend and fellow student Adnan Syed for the murder, even though their case lacked physical evidence and relied heavily on the testimony of Jay Wilds, Syed's sort-of friend and marijuana dealer. Koenig is such an awesome, determined journalist that when she was forced to do journalism the old way, she did it, no questions asked. She drove to Wilds' house when he didn't respond to email and phone requests for an interview and sat in his living room to try to get his side of the story.
According to The Baltimore Sun, the show has since become the first podcast to win a Peabody Award, and it also landed Koenig on TIME's 100 Most Influential People list. The podcast has been downloaded more than 80 million times, according to TIME's list, and listeners heard Koenig's voice once a week for about three months, so it makes perfect sense that she would be invited to the White House Dinner.
And it's a great reason to be there. Unlike most musicians or TV stars (Lindsay Lohan attended in 2012) on the list this year, Koenig affected the way millions of people think about the criminal justice system, biases against Muslims, and the power of storytelling.
“They were enjoying ( Serial ) in the same way that people enjoy escapist entertainment,” Koenig said at Boston University's Power of the Narrative conference, according to The Boston Globe. “But it wasn’t entertainment; it was journalism. Or maybe it was both.”
And that's the great thing about this year's list. Koenig is a great example of the idea that our idea of "famous" means more than reality stars, actors, or sports players. Huffington's guest list — which also includes musician and outspoken Ferguson protester, Killer Mike; blogger and former Mormon, Heather Armstrong; and former president of Facebook, Sean Parker — makes those who speak out on important cultural issues cool. Her invite list and a few lists for news organizations stand in contrast to USA Today's, for example, which only includes actors and musicians, according to The Washington Post.
The shift is an interesting and important one: Speaking up about cultural events such as the Michael Brown shooting or criticizing the Mormon church is just as recognizable and socially worthy as starring in a multi-million dollar action film.
And it's not as if Serial is the only widely-acclaimed piece of work Koenig has produced. Just after she finished her career at The Baltimore Sun, she became a producer for This American Life. During her time there, she co-produced a Peabody Award-winning piece in 2006 called "Habeas Schmabeas," which explored the right to habeas corpus — the idea that the government must explain why it's holding somebody in custody, according to This American Life's website. During the War on Terror, the government allegedly silently did away with that right in a number of cases, especially when it held prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The central, fascinating question behind "Habeas Schmabeas" asked: Is Guantanamo Bay "a camp full of terrorists, or a camp full of mistakes?" She's produced a number of other well-reported, engrossing pieces, according to Refinery29, and they all remark on some important or funny life question.
Cultural nerds and political nerds, who were more interested in the response from feminist bloggers to Kim Kardashian's Paper magazine cover than the actual cover itself, can finally rejoice and feel "in the know." The common response to pop culture that "there are much more important things going on in the world" is represented clearly in Koenig's invite and the social consciousness of the White House Correspondents Dinner list.
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