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David Simon Criticizes Critics' Critique of The Wire's Critique

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In the last scene of the last episode of The Wire, Jimmy McNulty stopped his car, looked out at the Baltimore skyline, go back in and said, “Let’s go home.” Yesterday on The Huffington Post, David Simon metaphorically hit the brakes, did a 180 and drove back to say, “Wait a minute! I’ve got one more thing to get off my chest!”

The Wire, as you’ve read if you’re much a fan of the show, took a lot of criticism in its fifth season from the press for its portrayal of the press: TV critics and sundry other journalists picked at Simon for the plausibility of the main Templeton story, for the minutiae of the fictional Sun newsroom, and for his apparent fixation on settling old grudges with his former editors at the Sun. But these critics, Simon argues, missed the story, which was: “Our newspaper missed every story.”

The stories that Simon says The Sun missed—cut to the bone by corporate layoff and buyouts—include the following:

The mayor, who came in promising reform, is instead forcing his police department to once again cook the stats to create the illusion that crime is going down. Uncovered.

The school system has been teaching test questions to improve No Child Left Behind scores, and to protect the mayor politically and to validate a system that is failing to properly educate city children. No expose published.

Key investigations and prosecutions are undercut or abandoned by the political machinations of police officials, prosecutors and political figures. Departmental priorities make high-level drug investigation prohibitive.

Not the news that’s fit to print.

Drug wars, territorial disputes, and the assassination of the city’s largest drug importer manage to produce a brief inside the metro section that refers only to the slaying of a second-hand appliance store owner.

Par for the course.

That was the critique.

Was it? If he says so. The point, according to Simon, is that all these social and political failings were obvious to viewers of The Wire’s four seasons, but not to the reporters of the fictional Sun, and that this myopia was the true, larger critique of journalism on the show—not the depiction of the Pulitzer-obsessed higher-ups, not Templeton’s fabrications.

The problem, however, is that the show Simon actually produced did focus on the Pulitzer-obsessed higher-ups and Templeton. This is what, by and large, he showed us. The viewer—whether a journalist or a civilian—can’t know what’s not in the fictional Sun. For all we know, there were investigations of cooked stats, drug gangs and educational policy over the five or so TV years when the show took place. (Unless Simon believes that, if these stories were reported on, the problems would have gotten better, in which case he displays uncharacteristic faith in the transformative power of journalism.)

Simon, pretty clearly, had a larger critique of the journalism business, and as I wrote in my preview/review feature in January, I thought it was the right one: that corporatized newspapers, under the bogus philosophy of “doing more with less,” were losing institutional memory and the manpower to do labor-intensive work. The first couple episodes hit on this point—but then the Sun story mainly drifted off to focus on Templeton’s faked story.

Now, obviously the journalistic hoax was necessary for the serial-killer plot. And as Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley showed us, this sort of thing does happen. But at best, they’re symptoms or the larger systemic problem of gutting papers (if, for instance, no one has the time or staff to fact-check and catch fabricators). At worst, they’re irrelevant to, or even distractions from, the real, big problems. As I’ve written before, mainstream journalists almost perversely like scandals like Jayson Blair’s, because they provide the useful fiction that journalism has lost trust because of a few bad apples, not because the institution at large is systematically screwing the pooch.

Now maybe Templeton was able to get away with what he did because of the corporate gutting of the Sun’s bench strength. But The Wire season 5 that we actually saw instead suggested that he did so mainly because of the willful blindness of his top editors, who were “tumescent” for Pulitzers. I actually think Simon is right that a lot of journalists were obsessing on The Wire’s newsroom minutiae: “[Arguing] about whether Whiting is more venal or one-dimensional than Valchek? [Debating] whether Gus Haynes is more of a hero than Bunny Colvin?” But part of the problem is that Simon did not give The Sun’s systemic, institutional, money-based problems the same steady focus he did the schools’ or the cops’.

Simon’s defense is that to do so would have required telling, not showing. He says that he shot down a suggestion to have Haynes give a speech to the effect of: “We’re so thin, and we waste what little resources we have left on the wrong things. I wonder what’s happening in this city that we don’t know about. I wonder what we’re missing?” But Simon never needed to do that with the cops, or City Hall, or the unions. The systemic challenges–budgetary, philosophical and political–that hampered good police work were so organically incorporated into the story that you couldn’t miss them, no expository speeches required.

In the Sun story, on the other hand, by the end of the season, I wrote that, “this being The Wire, what’s more important is what the story says about the larger media system, and I didn’t feel Simon ever did enough with his premise of showing how slavery to the corporate bottom line has affected journalism.” Simon started from an important premise: that regional papers like the Sun are being bled dry by corporations like Tribune across the country, impoverishing their cities—but he ended up telling the story in such as way that you could conclude that The Sun could do all the outstanding journalism it needed to if only its editors weren’t such Pulitzer-obsessed putzes.

I was almost tempted not to do this post, because I do think that the critiques of the Sun story were dominated by journalists’ defensive nitpicks about minutiae; because it was one, still pretty good, part of an excellent season of an outstanding show; and because anything lacking from the Sun story I attributed partly to a lot of story crammed into a 10-episode season. But as long as Simon is briinging it up again, it needs to be said: telling another Jayson Blair story—or exposing the obsession with prizes given out by Columbia University—doesn’t get to the big problems with journalism. To do that, you’ve got to follow the money.