Tag Archives: The Wire

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.

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Weekly Wire grumblings

“We don’t have to keep watching this …”

I believe my fiancee said this three times (though it might have only been twice) during this week’s episode of The Wire. It’s getting hard for me to stop pausing/snorting in frustration, I guess.

The most annoying thing about the episode was the Clay Davis courtroom scene. First of all, it sure seemed like they were in and out of a major political corruption trial in a single day. This wasn’t even narrative compression, as far as I could tell. Davis arrived on the courthouse steps in the morning, and stood on the same steps that afternoon as an exonerated man.

Secondly, what kind of prosecutor — a state’s attorney, no less! — puts a major political figure on trial for corruption without concrete evidence that he used his position to take bribes that enriched him personally? That is, when Davis gives his big speech about how sure he takes kickbacks, but he gives it all back to the poor folks in his district so they can buy winter coats and food, why doesn’t Bond come back at him with receipts for Davis’ BMW purchase, the deed for his Eastern Shore estate, or whatever other extravagances to which Davis surely has helped himself?

Bond seemed to build his case around donations going into Davis’ charities, followed by the exact same amounts showing up in Davis’ bank account. So when Davis says “But I gave it all away to my needy constituents by the time I walked down the street,” you’d think a good prosecutor would have solid evidence to be able to say, “No, you didn’t — you bought a $5,000 umbrella stand and a private jet” or what have you. Or at least to say, “Nice act turning out your pockets, Senator, but how does that explain the $2 million you still have in your bank account?” Maybe Davis would have won the jury over anyway. But as it is, it just seems like the state’s attorney is a moron.

Now, if this were a normal (i.e. good) Wire season, I would chalk that up to David Simon showing that Bond is paying the price for arguing the case himself as a potential launching pad to the mayor’s office, rather than taking it to the feds like Freamon wanted. But Bond is too smart to present a bad case like this. And since this is the season where everything is a joke, it’s probably just another bad piece of writing.

Why does the Baltimore Sun only have 5 reporters?

Once again, Slate’s TV Club does a nice job of cataloging the absurdities in this week’s Wire episode: McNutty’s ridiculous kidnap-the-homeless-man scheme; Omar surviving a five-story fall with only broken legs, which he can soon walk on; the editors’ successfully checking out a homeless Marine vet’s story in a couple of hours; etc.

But one thing they didn’t mention that annoyed me is how the show’s fictional Baltimore Sun apparently has the smallest reporting staff of any major metro paper in the country.

Remind me if I’ve missed any, but in six episodes we’ve been introduced to: the oily Stephen Glass wannabe; the hungry idealist (who we’re supposed to feel sorry for, for example, when she’s rebuffed yelling a question to police officers while they’re working a murder scene); the young black reporter who seems generally normal; the state courts reporter upset that there’s no federal courts reporter; and the bearded, well-meaning but average City Council/education reporter. (Also the smarter-than-Batman cops reporter-turned-editor who was fired or took a buyout.) At first I attributed this narrow focus to the limits of narrative television; they can focus on only so many characters before the story gets unwieldy.

But in this week’s episode, when the evil editor — who you can tell is horrible because, like Stalin, he wears hoity-toity suspenders — declares that all their resources will henceforth be devoted to The Homeless Problem, the saintly city editor is upset because he has to reassign … the oily dude, the idealist, the courts guy, and the ed reporter (the black reporter seemingly can continue covering other things, because he brings in a tip from another story that’ll probably end up trapping the fabulist). That is all.

First of all, no editor — even one who has as much sanctimony as he lacks a clue — would reassign his entire staff to one subject short of a 9/11 type catastrophe. But beyond that, a few episodes ago we learned that the Sun is closing down its foreign bureaus. Are we supposed to believe that a big metro paper that recently had its own foreign staff now has fewer reporters than the 20,000-circulation paper in New Hampshire where I had my first job? Is there really no one left to cover education or anything else after these four or five reporters have been reassigned?

Also, David Simon has complained about how newspapers don’t do a good job of covering society’s systemic problems, or simply can’t cover issues with such scope. Intent and method of coverage aside, is it so bad that the evil editor wants to cover the homeless more? Isn’t a major American city’s chronic homelessness a systemic social problem worth examining? Obviously throwing resources at a made-up story about a made-up serial killer isn’t the right way to do that, but the topic itself is presented as frivolous (e.g. Mayor Carcetti latching on because it’ll help him become governor). Seems like something worth covering along with, if not as much as, the problems in the school system.

About those "failing" newspapers…

A couple of things jumped out at me in this New York Times story about the sorry state of newspapers. Richard Perez-Pena makes the case that while things have been bad for a while,

what is happening now is something new, something more serious than anyone has experienced in generations. Last year started badly and ended worse, with shrinking profits and tumbling stock prices, and 2008 is shaping up as more of the same, prompting louder talk about a dark turning point.

Most of the evidence is nothing new: circulation keeps dropping; print advertising is falling (especially real estate ads) and online advertising both doesn’t make up for that loss and isn’t growing as quickly as it was; “Job cuts have become all but universal.”

But then there’s this, about three-quarters of the way through:

Newspaper profits remain healthy, but they are dropping fast. For example, the newspapers of Media General, a large Southern chain, had a 17 percent operating profit margin last year, but the dollar amount fell 23 percent from the year before. The Gannett Company’s newspaper division, the nation’s largest chain, had a 21 percent margin, but a 10 percent decline.

Excuise me? I baking powder? Profits are healthy, Gannett has a 21 percent margin — and the fuss is about what now? You want real economic doldrums? Check out the auto industry. Ford lost $2.7 billion in 2007 and $12.6 billion the year before — and those aren’t just losses in market capitalization (that was probably a heck of a lot more), but $15 billion in actual money down the drain. Think they wouldn’t kill for that 21 percent margin? (Their 2007 margin: minus-6.8 percent.) Continue reading

David Simon as journalism’s Rip Van Winkle

I’ll have more to say about this season of The Wire, its misdiagnoses of journalism’s problems, and David Simon’s recent nostalgic column in the Washington Post. But for now I wanted to give my general response to Season 5’s Baltimore Sun storyline.

At Slate’s TV Club conversation about Season 5, David Plotz annoyed David Simon by referencing brief conversations they’d had at parties in which Simon bitched about the Baltimore Sun. Simon criticized Plotz’s post, concluding: “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.” This is what I wrote to Plotz in a solidarity e-mail after Episode 2 or 3:

Fair enough. But 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.

Forget that a plague of fabulists isn’t (to my knowledge) currently destroying journalism from within, and that the problem with real fabulists is they aren’t usually transparent fakers right from the start. This is his grand diagnosis of the ills of modern journalism?

How about, I don’t know, the Internet? Or hemorrhaging ad sales and circulation (partly or largely because of the Internet). Or figuring out how newspapers can appeal to readers and stay relevant in this new competitive-media world. Newspapers are going through their most dire period of upheaval in decades and he thinks the issue is too many fabulists?

The problem with his portrayal isn’t just that Simon’s fictional newsroom seems like a caricature of a mid-90s newsroom. It’s that, despite his response to Plotz’s TV Club post, he so clearly framed his fictional view based on his “past histories, opinions passions or peculiarities.” What a coincidence that his grand statement, via The Wire, on modern journalism’s failures happens to exactly coincide with his oftstated feelings about his former editors and how they dealt with (or didn’t deal with) a fabulist and stories about social issues at the Baltimore Sun 15 years ago.

Jeffrey Goldberg voices similar frustrations in his TV Club post today:

We were meant to be getting a sophisticated look at the demise of daily journalism, besieged by the Internet and by venal media companies. Well, what we’ve got is a newspaper edited by a pair of impossibly shmucky editors who seem, in 2008, unaware of the existence of the World Wide Web and who have in their employ a reporter who is doing something no fabricator, to the best of my knowledge, has ever done: manufacturing information about an ongoing homicide investigation. Put aside, please, the fact that said investigation is a sham as well; the reporter, Templeton, doesn’t know that. Is this what David Simon really wants his viewers to believe happens at major newspapers? Is he that blinded by hate for the Baltimore Sun?

For such a supposedly brilliant guy and show, it’s depressing that the answers to the last two questions seem to be yes, and yes.