The prestige documentary podcast series S-Town is being sued for disclosing private information about the show’s subject, John B. McLemore.
S-Town was a spin-off series of This American Life and Serial. Its story focuses on an extremely small community in Alabama and specifically McLemore’s life there. A big element of the show was the relationship between the host, Brian Reed and the subject, McLemore.
McLemore confided in Reed. He talked about his anxieties for the future and talked about his past in a way that most other people didn’t know about. One of the things he revealed was about his sexuality. Although he didn’t give specifics about his identity, McLemore had relationships with men — including one man who was later interviewed for the show.
Now, after McLemore’s death, the owners of his estate are suing S-Town, claiming that the show had no right to disclose details about John’s personal life — including his sexuality. They’re asking to be compensated with a percentage of the profits the show made.
This suit is coming at an appropriate time as the internet was recently discussing issues of privacy surrounding the Plane Bae story.
Personally, I find this specific issue around privacy to be tricky. As Reed says in the show, he has other people on the record corroborating everything that McLemore told him. The suit claims that S-Town wasn’t contacted by McLemore to investigate or produce a story about his life, which while true, I find slightly misleading. Reed didn’t go behind his back to record anything; McLemore openly showed him and talked to him about various parts of his life. They had a relationship.
It’s also important to note that Reed, and S-Town, did at times paint the new owners of his estate in a negative light. As with many deaths, McLemore’s created conflict around his friends and family and the story of S-Town is largely about that conflict.
Through this case, we’ll learn a lot about the future of privacy and how it relates to documentary journalism.