David Simon as journalism’s Rip Van Winkle, revisited

So The Wire is over, and there’s no shortage of response around the Web. I’ll post my thoughts shortly about the show overall and how it stacks up to Sopranos/Deadwood, but for now I want to address David Simon’s assessment of the ills of modern journalism.

After the season’s first episode aired, Simon responded to Slate’s TV Club discussion of the show by saying: “The Wire’s depiction of the multitude of problems facing newspapers and high-end journalism will either stand or fall on what happens on screen, not on the back-hallway debate over the past histories, opinions passions or peculiarities of those who create it.” Well, he’s had his on-screen say. And all it did was nearly ruin one of the best shows on TV and prove that David Simon has either no clue or simply nothing interesting to say about the very real, very serious problems facing newspapers in 2008.

Earlier in the season, I wrote of Season 5’s Baltimore Sun storyline: “So far his ‘multitude of problems’ are a) Too many Stephen Glasses, b) Pompous idiot editors too dim to see the clearly telegraphed Stephen Glasses and disinterested in getting at the root of social problems, and at a distant third c) Corporate cost-cutting. That is all.” Six episodes later, that’s still The Wire’s diagnosis. And one moment from the finale crystallizes both the storyline’s unreality and Simon’s apparent cluelessness.

In the closing montage, we see plagiarist Scott Templeton on stage at Columbia University receiving a Pulitzer Prize along with his two evil editors. This plot development is absurd because, as Ann Friedman writes at the American Prospect,

it seemed completely unrealistic that, presented with the evidence, the higher-ups at the paper would turn their heads and ignore Templeton’s plagiarism. Their defense of Templeton made sense up until this last episode — until Gus presumably laid out all the evidence. But even with a Pulitzer on the line, I find it pretty unbelievable that they would just let it all stand.

And because, as David Plotz writes at Slate:

No editor would willfully ignore evidence of a reporter manufacturing stories the way The Wire‘s Sun editors do. It would never be worth it. The New York Times and Washington Post would trade any number of Pulitzers to wipe the stains of Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke from their histories.

And because, as Andrew Johnston writes at The House Next Door, the show’s Pulitzer moment means that

every single person we’ve met who’s on Gus’ side and who has doubts about Templeton—including the Metro, Regional Affairs and State editors, who are all at least Gus’ equal on the masthead and some of whom may be above him on the food chain—every single one of them is a wuss who’s so scared of losing his or her job that they’re willing to let Gus take the fall.

For a show that’s supposedly so realistic, this is plain bad storytelling. But as an indictment of modern newspapers, it’s even worse — because it shows just how little Simon grasps the implications of the Internet.

In the real world of 2008, Templeton simply could not have gotten away with his lies — let alone won a Pulitzer. Plotz writes at Slate, “As we’ve seen this week with the pair of faked memoirs, fabulists get caught.” If the Sun plot were taking place in a real-life newsroom today and evil editors ignored a city editor’s warnings about a possible plagiarist in their ranks, he wouldn’t just take his lumps and demotion to the copy desk in silence. He would e-mail Romenesko, or Jack Shafer (who has just written two columns flagging instances of a reporter’s plagiarism), or Howard Kurtz, or the Pulitzer committee (who would surely take any warnings seriously after the Janet Cooke fiasco). To take a recent real-life example, a week and a half ago blogger Nancy Nall Derringer discovered a White House official had plagiarized a Dartmouth Review essay in a column for an Indiana paper. The official resigned within 12 hours — after the post got picked up on other blogs and other sleuths discovered more plagiarism.

But just as Simon doesn’t seem to grasp that the Internet is the root of newspapers’ non-fictional problems, he doesn’t grasp that the Internet also would have prevented his plagiarist from getting away with it for so long. This is newspapers’ challenge in a nutshell: the Internet has broken their monopoly on distribution, so anyone can be a journalist now and bring down a White House plagiarist, and readers don’t need the physical paper to get the news. This may be bad for newspapers, but it’s great for journalism. More people than ever are reading smart, important journalism because of the Internet, and more shoddy journalism and plagiarism is flagged — even as the Web makes it harder for newspapers to survive in the form they’ve taken for decades.

None of this has anything to do with the newspaper industry depicted in The Wire.

Now, Simon of course argues that the newsroom story does have a deeper point. In a long interview with the Star-Ledger’s Alan Sepinwall, Simon says:

The main theme is not the fabulist and what he is perpetrating. That’s the overt plot. The main theme is that, with the exception of the bookends — at the beginning, the excellent effort at adversarial journalism that begins the piece in episode one and the genuine piece of narrative journalism that concludes it, with Bubbles — it’s a newspaper that is so eviscerated, so worn, so devoid of veterans, so consumed by the wrong things, and so denied the ability to replenish itself that it singularly misses every single story in the season.

If that’s the case — if the gutting of a paper is truly the focus — why does the Templeton story take up 90 percent of the Sun plot while the big missed stories — the deaths of Prop Joe and Omar — are 10-second mentions that only close watchers or recap-readers would catch? Simon also cites Clay Davis’ prosecution as an overlooked story, which fair enough; that’s explicitly presented as a case where staffing cuts led them to miss the story. But Davis has presumably been in office for years — plenty of time for a previously non-gutted newsroom to have done some investigative reporting on the state senator. If the reporters in the fictional equivalent of Simon’s day had done the kind of reporting he implies was done back in the real-life day, even an eventually short-staffed newsroom would have found a way to keep an eye on the biggest political crook in the state (wait, I forgot — the fictional Sun only has five reporters).

In the Star-Ledger interview, Simon goes on to dig himself a deeper hole:

What I’m loving, it makes me warm all over, is that a lot of the obsession of journalists in the evaluating … (isn’t that theme) but whether Whiting is as big an a–hole as Valchek, “Is Gus more of a hero than Colvin?,” “Do they have to put suspenders on that guy?,” “I can’t believe any editor would say that,” “Why would Alma drive all the way over there?” I’m loving it. It’s this onanistic, self-obsessed world of journalism — which is the problem.

Right, that’s definitely journalism’s biggest problem these days: onanistic, self-obsessed navel-gazers like David Simon. To the extent that people have noted some of these minor things, it’s because they are the details that betray Simon’s failure. The fictional editors do speak in journalistic cliches. Alma would have just checked the Sun’s Web site — or logged into the Sun’s computer system at home — instead of driving to the plant to see how her story got played. Again, for a show obsessed with realism, these are tellingly unrealistic details. Simon is ignoring the many extensive, smart critiques of his journalism plotline, just as he’s ignoring the many relevant critiques of real journalism.

Simon gives one brief nod to the Internet in the interview:

This was a story about a newspaper that now — on some fundamental basis — fails to cover its city substantively, and guess what — between out-of-town ownership, carpetbagging editors, the emphasis on impact journalism or Prize-culture journalism and, of course, the economic preamble that is the arrival of the internet and the resulting loss of revenue and staff, there are a f–k of a lot of newspapers that are failing to cover their cities substantively.

Never mind that the Internet, to my recollection, is mentioned exactly zero times on the show. It’s also worth repeating that his model for the show’s “carpetbagging editors” are the universally (except by David Simon) respected John Carroll and Bill Marimow.

One last point: It’s fashionable these days to bash journalism awards, though Simon certainly goes further than most in blaming prize-grubbing for newspapers’ problems. But have a look at some recent Pulitzer winners. In 2007, the Wall Street Journal won for “its creative and comprehensive probe into backdated stock options for business executives that triggered investigations, the ouster of top officials and widespread change in corporate America.” The Birmingham News of Alabama won for exposing “cronyism and corruption in the state’s two-year college system, resulting in the dismissal of the chancellor and other corrective action.” The Boston Globe won for “revelations that President Bush often used ‘signing statements’ to assert his controversial right to bypass provisions of new laws.” In 2006, the Washington Post won for its investigations “of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff that exposed congressional corruption and produced reform efforts” and for its “persistent, painstaking reports on secret ‘black site’ prisons and other controversial features of the government’s counterterrorism campaign.” The New York Times won for its “carefully sourced stories on secret domestic eavesdropping that stirred a national debate on the boundary line between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberty.” The New Orleans Times-Picayune and Sun Herald of Mississippi won for their coverage of Hurricane Katrina. This year, the Washington Post is sure to win for its exposes of Walter Reed Medical Center’s shameful treatment of wounded veterans.

Do these sound like empty “prize-culture” stories to you? They don’t to me. They damn sure are “impact journalism,” though I’m not sure why that’s a pejorative in David Simon’s eyes. Would he be happier if the Post hadn’t written the Abramoff and black sites stories for fear of prize grubbing? If the Times-Picayune hadn’t risked its journalists’ sanity by serving as a lifeline to readers and simply continuing to function after Katrina? If veterans were still routinely housed in mildew-filled rooms because Anne Hull and Dana Priest didn’t write their stories? Yes, plenty of deserving stories don’t win awards. Yes, some less-than-earth-shattering feature stories have probably won Pulitzers. Yes, some resources are probably wasted on occasional journalistic equivalents of movie Oscar moments. But for Simon to imply that Templeton’s plagiarized homeless fluff could actually fly amid these winning entries today is an insult to the many great journalists who aren’t backing down in the face of the industry’s problems.

I’m the last person to peddle false journalism nostalgia. These great Pulitzer winners aren’t going to save newspapers. But I, like many others, am actually trying to do something about it. So to the long list of the industry’s real problems, I would add: supposed champions of journalism who use once-in-a-lifetime cultural megaphones to bitch about 15-year-old personal grudges.

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One response to “David Simon as journalism’s Rip Van Winkle, revisited

  1. You have clearly never written for a newspaper. Every reporter always gets excited about seeing their first front page, solo byline. There’s a HUGE difference between seeing that article in print versus seeing it on a computer screen.

    And as local papers die off, just watch how uninformed local readers are about what’s going on in local politics, local school activities, local events. The world will be a much more uninformed, uninteresting place without local newspapers.