The Wire; David Simon's quest; journalism and the city
Over the last three weeks or so, I watched the first four seasons of HBO's "The Wire", catching up in time to watch the fiifth and final season, which is airing now. The fifth season focuses on a fictionalized version of the Baltimore Sun and the role "the media" plays in the function of local politics in an American city.
I've been trying to think of something I can say to add to the piles of glowing praise from just about every TV critic, but I can't, really. It's good, you should watch it.
Anyway, David Simon, the creator of "The Wire", has been raked over the coals for a surprisingly public speech he gave wherein he villified his former editors at the Sun. This lengthy piece at the Columbia Journalism Review dives into the controversy, the editors and reporters at the crux of it, and the versimilitude between the show's portrayal of "the media" and the reality.
I particularly liked this quote, as it sums up the show nicely — something that's not easy to do:
his reporting on the streets revealed to him the “wire” that eventually informed The Wire: it threads through both “our” lives and “their” lives. Simon believes that we've agreed as a country that our economy can thrive without 8 to 10 percent of the population. Thus, in his view, those without the education and skills to get by are inevitably going to turn to the only viable economy in their neighborhoods — the drug trade. To contain that problem and its attendant violence, he believes, the war on drugs has morphed into a war on the underclass. In both the viable and unviable America, Simon argues, capital is more valued than human lives, whether you're an expendable tout in a drug organization, a cop trying to put good police work over statistics, a stevedore trying to pull in a full week of union wages, a teacher trying to educate rather than teach to the test, or […] a reporter trying to capture the complexity of urban life rather than haul in sound bites.
I also like this quote from Simon, at the end of the article:
Should his premonition of the American empire's future — more gated communities and more of a police state — come to pass and were someone to say he didn't know it was coming, Simon said, it will at least be possible to pull The Wire off the shelf and say, "Don't say you didn't know this was coming. Because they made a fucking TV show out of it."
While the CJR piece is long, it's worth the time invested, if you want a deep, nuanced view of the decline of the American newspaper, and how it parallels that of the American city. (If you want a contrasting piece, this article from Slate strikes me as fairly shallow.)
I can't add much to that discussion, but I can say this: I worked at a small city newspaper, The Columbus Dispatch for two years as a web developer, and loved it. The show's depiction of life at a newspaper seems – the production values, I mean – seem spot-on.