Saturday, January 26, 2008

Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.

A dirty little corruption scandal has erupted in the Narcotics Division of Brooklyn South, encompassing the 17 precincts between the water and Eastern Parkway. Nearly 20 officers in two graveyard shifts have been reprimanded—some facing criminal charges—for purportedly doling out confiscated narcotics (to wit: crack) to confidential informants. Commissioner Kelly has reassigned (demoted, really) senior officials in the citywide narcotics division.

It’s quite an embrassment to the department, to be sure. Fall out is certain. The NYT discusses structural management problems in Narcotics’ overnight shifts. Daily News gives a grittier portrait, referencing allegations by a CI that an officer gave her crack in exchange for sex (rape is indeed mentioned), and another story, less salacious but fairly ugly, about a micro-cover up.

But there’s gray area. The officers are not accused of using or selling the drugs. Rather, they supposedly used them to secure cooperation from CIs. In other words, they did it to yield better policing outcomes. The Times’ gets an unnamed police source to call it “noble-cause corruption.” (Aside: I’m astonished, but probably shouldn’t be, by the fact the Daily News’ article that breaks the story is constructed almost entirely of quotes from unnamed sources. For shame, sayeth the j-school student!)

This incident is surely a reflection of NYPD’s struggles to get cooperation from CIs, which as us post-Wire urbanoligists know is the lynchpin to winning any Drug War skirmish. As the News points out, NYPD has a paltry budget for CI compensation. But probably more to the point, they face a monolithic anti-snitching culture that gets you in a lot of trouble for cooperating with the police. (Here’s not the place to discuss how Drug War enforcement fosters violent animosity towards aggressive, skull-knocking cops.)

See this appalling sentence in the Daily News article, wholly validating the culture of condemning cooperation with police as the lowliest form of cowardice:
Undercover cops are allowed to pay snitches, known as confidential informants, but have to go through a lengthy vetting and paperwork process to do so.
I mean, shouldn’t the media—even NYC's esteemed tabloids—promote the idea of community ownership and police-citizen cooperation? Even Brian Lehrer uses this problematic word. Brian Lehrer!? I don’t use the big word “monolithic” lightly to describe how thoroughly the term “snitch” dominates the dialogue.

I certainly don’t mean to justify the officers’ corruption. Their actions—even without the possibility of sexual abuse—are inexcusable. As both the Times and News point out, over 150 prosecutions brought by the Division may be compromised.
Defense attorneys could make mincemeat out of a cop on the [witness] stand if the cop was involved in this mess," said a source close to the investigation. "And it could force old cases to be reopened, examined and thrown out as well even if the arrests were good.
And a good quote in the Times from a former chief of Brooklyn detectives:
"For them to become, in essence, crack dealers, shame on them,” Mr. Abruzzi said. “The question is: `Were they lazy? Was it an accepted practice in the unit? And, if so, why would it become accepted?’ Either way it is wrong; it is against the law and it is against our rules and no matter how you slice it, it is corruption.”
An interesting aside: Charles Hynes, the Brooklyn DA, seems to be washing his hands of the investigation, leaving it up to Internal Affairs: "I have full confidence in the ability and the integrity of the Internal Affairs Bureau of the NYPD and we're working very closely with them," Hynes said to the News. I'm not sure if's that S.O.P., respecting turf, or what.

The David Simon Wars

Much virtual ink has been spilled on David Simon’s anger, some call obsession, with his former Baltimore Sun editors John Carroll and Bill Marimow, as depicted in newsroom scenes of Season Five and in Simon’s post-release media blitz.


To catch you up to speed: David Simon sees the blood of the Baltimore Sun on the hands of the two senior editors at the time of his buy out. But they’re both well-respected guys in the field: in the last couple years Carroll fought the good fight at the LA Times (the very fight Simon accuses him of surrendering in Baltimore), refusing to make the cutbacks demanded by the Tribune Company; and Marimow, now Editor in Chief at the Philadelphia Enquirer, has a pretty impressive track record himself.

Though he sees fault in his former editors’ actions, Simon is not simplistic about the systemic factors behind the death of the mid-size paper. He blames a) an out of town, market-driven ownership ethos that shrugged its fourth-estate responsibility; b) buy-outs and staff cutbacks that left the news coverage in fewer, less-experienced (but more affordable, from a management perspective) hands; c) prize-obsessed editors [e.g., Carrol and Marrimow]; and d) editors pushing simplistic stories that looked for villians rather than analyzing systems and institutions. He sees Carroll and Marimow schilling for the man: they panicked, surrendered to the trend of bad journalism, and failed to resist.

(To hear it in the man’s own words, which you should, see this long Chicago-Trib interview, pugnacious Washington Post op-ed, or this narrative piece in Esquire).

We’re talking about this now for two main reasons: 1) Season 5 is riddled with attacks on Carroll and Marimow, and the news industry at large; and the industry is striking back. [Marimow trickles in to Season 4, as the namesake of the loathsome Lt. assigned to sap Freamon’s Major Crimes Unit.] 2) A lot of people are murmuring that his anger has affected his writing, and has reduced his newsroom characters to unidimensional types—the very quality (or absence of) that makes the Wire so categorically different, and smarter, than most shows.

Some good journalists have tried to navigate the terrain between Simon, HBO megaphone in hand, and his esteemed prey. Margaret Talbot of the New Yorker framed the argument we were to expect last spring. Mark Bowden, a Wire-obsessive like the rest of us but also a friend and admirer of the editors, explores how Simon’s anger has been turned into a “searing attack at the excesses of Big Capitalism,” which he sees the editors representing in some form. Then David Plotz, in Slate’s blog on the current season (a disappointing follow-up to last season’s blog with Alex Kotlowitz and Steve James), makes the argument of shallow newsroom characters by referencing a conversation he had with Simon in which the latter harped incessantly on the editors (the post elicited an angry response from Simon). Most recently, the Columbia Journalism Review put together a pretty amazing piece on the history of Simon’s relationship with his editors.

What is this all about?

Here’s the real point of this controversy, very meticulously described in the CJR piece and hinted at in the Bowden piece: this is about the genesis of David Simon as we know him and The Wire’s unique place in the contemporary study of urban poverty.

Aside from being the literal beginning of his career in television (disgusted with the editors and refused a pay raise, he left for Homicide), this incident also highlights Simon’s philosophy of journalism: Simon believes understanding poverty requires looking at it wholecloth, trying to wrap our heads around its myriad causes and effects all at the same time. This is what good journalism does: it provides a narrative sociology. He believes that media absolutely should not cut out little snippets from the broader cloth (which of course it often does)—that just diminishes the complexity of the problem, leading us astray, sometimes even distorting the conversation (he talks about a piece the Sun did prior to Clinton’s welfare reform bill looking at SSI fraud—a marginal issue that obscured the more important issues).

The CJR piece then explores his editors’ opposition to this position, a sound and logical stance that is far more subtle and conscientious than season five’s newsroom dopes.

“I don’t think a paper can necessarily take on all the complex issues that go into blighted neighborhoods and blighted lives,” Carroll says. “To try to do every factor, you’ll dissipate your energy and not really give attention to any one factor.” Carroll offered the school system as an example. There could be fifty topics worth writing about, he says, such as unions protecting bad teachers, wasteful bureaucracy at the board of education, and unsafe schools. “If you do all fifty,” he says, “you won’t do anything well enough to have an impact… Did it solve the problem of inadequate schools, poverty, racism, or other issues that are so intractable in the city? No. But it did some good for some people.”

Simon’s rebuttal: (if it sounds familiar, it’s because Gus said the same in episode two)

“Instead of doing honest reporting about what was happening on the streets and in the city, they took a bite-sized piece. It’s kind of like, a hurricane came through town, and instead of reporting on the hurricane and its net effect and its causes, you do a carefully constructed five-part series about three tiles that were not hammered in right so they ended up three miles away in a field. Guys, the house is wrecked.”
This all raises some interesting questions (at least for me: a Wire fanatic / journalist-to-be (trying to get those training wheels off!) / student of urban poverty.
  • Can you provide a meaningful analysis of systemic causes of poverty that is at once engaging, accessible, and people-centered?
  • Can "sentimental journalism" (my shorthand for what Carrol is describing) probe the sociological depths Simon's work explores?
  • Does corporate media have any place for probing sociological journalism?
  • How else can this journalism get out there?
One last thought: Simon shows a bit of Sobotka in his unceasing obsession with the 1990s journalism environment. He sees no potential for balancing technological innovation and advancing the human condition (Sobotka was right, he's wrong). He doesn't acknowledge that he himself is the beneficiary of a less-newspaper-centered culture. Would HBO's sociological dramas have the cultural prominence they have without information decentralization that came with the internet and media corporatism?