Saturday, January 26, 2008

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?

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