S-Town Ethics
Editorial Credit: This American Life, Serial Productions

S-Town Controversy Over Privacy, Consent & Ethical Journalism Comes To An End

In March of this year, the case between podcast S-Town and John B. McLemore’s estate was dismissed when the two sides reached a settlement. The agreement has been finalized by lawyers.

Brian Reed, the host of record-breaking S-Town, talks to Jimmy Fallon about how a chance email sent by a fascinating Alabama antique clock restorer led to a blockbuster podcast.

The suit was filed back in July 2018 by the executor of McLemore’s estate. It was claimed that the show revealed personal details about his life without permission. It was also contended that his likeness was used to promote the show and to make money from this, violating the state of Alabama’s Right of Publicity Act.

S-Town is a 7-part podcast detailing the life of McLemore. He was a horologist from Woodstock, Alabama, and he committed suicide in 2015.

S-Town John McLemore

The show was first conceived when McLemore got in touch with reporter Brian Reed of This American Life about a story. After a series of interviews, Reed created a show based around McLemore. The story explored his life and his home town.

Released in March 2017, S-Town was downloaded 19 million times in the first week. The show has since achieved more than 90 million global downloads.

Julie Snyder, the executive producer of S-Town, stated she was delighted the lawsuit was concluded. She provided no details on the terms of the settlement. Snyder added that she felt like the show has been “misunderstood”.

Craig Cargile, the executor of McLemore’s estate, composed a statement given to describing how he had learned over the course of the lawsuit that McLemore had actively and willingly participated in the show up to the point of his death. During this time, he had voluntarily offered up a great deal of personal information.

In his capacity as administrator of the estate. Cargile stated that the estate “has no objection or claim to the podcast” and he also waived any objection to “any future uses of the podcast” or McLemore’s creative work.

Cargile’s initial complaint made the argument that S-Town violated Alabama’s Right of Publicity Act by profiting from McLemore. S-Town lawyers countered that the work was not covered by this act as it was a work of journalism.

Snyder went on to say that they were never clear what the plaintiff was arguing. She also suggested that McLemore would have found the lawsuit entertaining.

S-Town, The Movie?

After S-Town premiered to such fanfare, the media started making noises about a movie adaptation. Tom McCarthy, director of Spotlight, was slated as director, although Snyder asserts that they never reached that stage of discussions.

Now, though, they are “back into early stages of development.”

Snyder concluded by saying that she and the other producers are not only relieved that the lawsuit is over, but feel vindicated of all wrongdoing.

Doing everything by the book was something the executives took seriously, “and we wanted to set the record straight,” Snyder said.


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