Co-Hosts Of New NPR/Michigan Radio Podcast Share How Hard It Can Be To Be "Believed" : NPR Extra Believed, hosted by award-winning Michigan Radio reporters Kate Wells and Lindsey Smith, will begin its limited run on October 22.

Co-Hosts Of New NPR/Michigan Radio Podcast Share How Hard It Can Be To Be "Believed"

Lindsey Smith (left) and Kate Wells (right) are co-hosts of the new NPR podcast, Believed. Jodi Westrick/Courtesy of Michigan Radio hide caption

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Jodi Westrick/Courtesy of Michigan Radio

Lindsey Smith (left) and Kate Wells (right) are co-hosts of the new NPR podcast, Believed.

Jodi Westrick/Courtesy of Michigan Radio

People around the world were stunned in early 2018 when more than 150 women testified at the sentencing of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor who sexually abused patients for more than 20 years. How did he escape justice for decades? How was he able to maintain his appearance as the good guy, the ally, the protector? Why did authorities keep trusting him? Believed, a new podcast from Michigan Radio and NPR, goes beyond the headlines to address those questions through survivors' untold stories, interviews with parents and detectives, and recordings from police investigations with Nassar.

The podcast, hosted by award-winning Michigan Radio reporters Kate Wells and Lindsey Smith, is not only an intimate look at how a team of women won justice, but also an unnerving exploration of how even well-meaning adults can fail to believe.

Ahead of the podcast's launch on October 22, we talked to hosts Lindsey and Kate about what happens when someone isn't believed, how they see Believed situated within the #MeToo movement, and what they've learned about the long-term impact of this case.

The USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal and Larry Nassar trial have been highly publicized—and both of you covered them as they transpired. When and how did you come up with the idea to create Believed, a podcast related in topic, but different in perspective?

Lindsey: I remember first suggesting to Kate that she ought to think about doing a one-hour radio documentary about the case in December 2017. Back then, I thought it would focus more on accountability because there really hadn't been much change at Michigan State University. Then the victim impact statements in January and February of this year changed everything. I found people I talked to knew about the case but couldn't really understand how this guy got away for so long. There were a lot of questions along the lines of "Where were the parents?" and "Why didn't anyone report him?" Just a lot of misinformation and assumptions that I think people (understandably and naturally) do to distance themselves from the possibility that a "Larry Nassar" could've manipulated them, too. So that's when and where the focus changed.

Kate: Plus, we also just felt like this is a story that, unfortunately, keeps happening over and over again. So much of what women like Rachael Denhollander are working for is more than just putting one bad man in prison. When she came forward on her own back in 2016, she went through hell. People said she was out for fame or money, and that she was confused or manipulative. She went through one brutal court appearance and interview after another. And while other women and girls started coming forward to police, too, it wasn't until police found Nassar's child porn collection that the wider community started to think, oh, maybe these women are right. Even then, it wasn't until 150+ women and girls were willing to publicly share their most intimate and traumatic experiences in front of the whole world that the national audience started to tune in. Rachael always asks, "How much is a little girl worth?" And to me this story is about how hard you have to work, how "perfect" you have to be, and how much outside corroboration you have to bring if you're going to be believed.

Jodi Westrick/Courtesy of Michigan Radio
Jodi Westrick/Courtesy of Michigan Radio

Believed centers on the team of women — a detective, a prosecutor and an army of survivors — who won justice and found their power. What have you learned through your interactions with these women? And what will listeners learn about them that they might not anticipate?

Lindsey: The biggest thing I've learned through talking to these women is just how incredibly badass they are. Brave. Resilient. But the thing I was surprised to learn is how long that doubt lingers, after not being believed. After all these women have come forward against Larry Nassar, he's plead guilty, and he's in prison... there are survivors who still have this anxiety that people will doubt them. Even now.

Kate: I'm in awe of so many of these women and their families. And they are so much more than just this tragedy and abuse. They are funny, smart, and incredibly generous, and I hope a listener comes out feeling they know these women as full, complete people with rich lives. But even though their abuser is in prison, when you go through this experience of not being believed (even if it happens when you're not a little kid anymore), it does something to you. It leaves with you a lasting perspective or self-perception that can be hard to shake. Still, so many of the survivors we talk to wrestle with those complex feelings. Especially when they look around them and wonder, if they hadn't been part of such a unique and large case, would anyone have ever believed them?

It's been a little over two years since the first allegation against Larry Nassar was reported. How has this story changed and morphed over the past two years? What's the impact of it today?

Lindsey: I didn't follow this story very closely in the beginning. I was still on maternity leave when the first allegations came out. So, weirdly enough, my ignorance is partially what fueled my desire to give this story more space. The more I heard about it, the more I caught up on the story, and the more crazy it seemed. And I couldn't let it go. When the first allegations came out, #metoo wasn't a thing yet. Now, the Nassar case is wrapped up into that movement. That's changed people's perceptions. When 150+ women gave impact statements, the world simply couldn't look away. We hope people will listen to Believed to hear the backstory to that finale.

Kate: It can feel like a "the more things change, the more they stay the same" kind of a story. I think it's tempting to put a bow on everything or to package this as part of a sweeping, successful #MeToo movement. And there is no doubt that by taking these incredible risks and working so hard, these women have made a tremendous impact. They've given each other and countless others the strength to talk about their experiences. But it's also really easy for people and institutions to slip back into easy patterns, or to think that because the "bad guy" was caught, everything's okay now.

Jodi Westrick/Courtesy of Michigan Radio
Jodi Westrick/Courtesy of Michigan Radio

You both work for Michigan Radio and are partnering with NPR to produce Believed. How has living and working in Michigan—the place where this story centers—informed the way you're reporting this story? How has the local community been affected in ways that a national audience might not be aware of?

Kate: We saw a lot of national reporters sweep in for the sentencing, get some powerful sound bites, and then take off to the next story. But that doesn't let you take the time and space to understand who these women are, observe the long-term impact of this case, and stick around to see whether any of the desired changes actually happen.

Lindsey: Because of the ties to Michigan State University, it's been impossible for folks in Michigan to ignore this case. And it wasn't just MSU. Larry Nassar volunteered at a well-known competitive club gym for decades. He volunteered at a high school, too. We decided pretty early on in plotting out this project that this story was not going to be about MSU or USAG, or even gymnastics at all. We wanted to show people outside of this community that Larry Nassar could have lived anywhere and the impact may have been the same. He was very good at manipulating the people around him in Michigan and beyond.

Lindsey, what's one of Kate's strengths that she brings to the podcast? And, Kate, what's one of Lindsey's strengths?

Lindsey: Kate reported on this story from when IndyStar first wrote about the allegations in September 2016. She knows the story and the people in it super well. They trust her. For good reason. Kate is incredibly compassionate. I could not have done this (frankly, wouldn't have attempted to do this) without her and the work she's done over the last two years.

Kate: We wouldn't be here without Lindsey. I don't know any other reporter who is as smart, tireless, and big-hearted as she is. I wouldn't want to do this with any other partner. I have seen how she carries this story with her all the time, on that obsessive, can't-shake-it level. She truly wants to do right by these women and girls and, hopefully, help bring even just a little bit more understanding to this story.

What will Believed listeners learn from the podcast that they haven't heard in all of the previous coverage?

Kate: I hope they understand that just as it takes a village to raise a kid, it also takes a village to fail this many kids for all these years. Guys like Larry Nassar or Jerry Sandusky don't operate in a vacuum.

I'd also like them to ask the question that I find myself asking a lot these days: Even after everything that happened in the Nassar case, is it any less terrifying or traumatizing for a single person to come forward with an accusation against a powerful, beloved authority figure?

Lindsey: I hope people already understand that Larry Nassar was great at manipulating well-intentioned people around him. That he fooled so many people into thinking he was the good guy. I hope that people listening to Believed will understand that they could've been fooled, too.