Sunday, March 23, 2008

Simon's final shots

From David Simon's Huffington Post article last week, a good description of the fate of the modern mid-size daily and its consequences in most American cities:
Amid buyout after buyout, the [real] Baltimore Sun conceded much of its institutional memory, its beat structure, its ability to penetrate municipal institutions and report qualitatively on substantive issues in a way that explains not just the symptomatic problems of the city, but the root causes of those problems... But absent that kind of reporting, we will all soon enough live in cities and towns where politicians and bureaucrats gambol freely without worry, where it is never a risk to shine shit and call it gold. A good newspaper covers its city and acquires not just the quantitative account of a day's events, but the qualitative truth and meaning behind those events. A great newspaper does this routinely on a multitude of issues, across its entire region.
It's too bad, though, that Simon can't help but be all McNulty about the whole thing and pick fights with anyone who doesn't see things his way. ("I confess I thought that journalism was still self-aware enough to get it, that enough collective consciousness of the craft's highest calling remained, that reporters still worried about what their newspapers were missing.") Though I agree with him in spirit -- way too much of the press on this season was about production elements rather than sociopolitical themes -- his obsessive pugilism has started to get on me. He himself says "show don't tell is the rule," but then submits an article telling his critics how dense they are for not getting it. He should let his work speak for itself.

A Brief History of Race in Post-Civil Rights Politics

An interesting article in today's Sunday Times provides an overview of major trends in how presidential candidates have dealt with race, occasioned, of course, by Obama's remarkable Philadelphia speech. Like many, the author identifies LBJ's Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the final wedge between national Democrats and white Southerners, though this was certainly a long drift by the party that started in the working-class struggle rhetoric of FDR, Truman's desegregating the army, and the anti-segregationist 1948 campaign of Henry Wallace. On the Republican side, the infamous "Southern Strategy" -- culminating in Reagan's launching his campaign in Philadelphia, MS, where three civil rights workers were killed in 1964 -- widened the racial divide to galvanize white voters. But the article is most interesting in its consideration of how candidates have used code to describe race:
Race did not disappear entirely from presidential campaigns; it went under cover. It lay buried in code phrases like “crime in the streets,” “states’ rights,” and “welfare mothers.” Michael Klarman, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School who specializes in the constitutional history of race, said, “Nixon talks about ‘law and order,’ which is a code term for the urban race riots and rising crime rates. He talks about appointing strict conservatives to the Supreme Court, which is a code term for justices who won’t insist on mandatory busing. And he talks explicitly about how we ought to have ‘local control of schools.’ Without explicitly using the language of race, he is saying whites shouldn’t have to go to school with blacks.”

Sunday, March 9, 2008

You can survive, but you can’t win

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this unless you've seen the last episode of The Wire.

David Simon has told us, as long as we've been listening, that the good fight can't be won anymore. There's no justice, there's no stopping the tide. There's only principled stances against the flood of venality and cynicism. Tonight he took a principled stance for his own.

Most of our heroes beat a way out of their traps. Bubbles earns his way upstairs. McNulty destroys his self-destruction once and for all. Daniels escapes his ghosts with his back stiff and his head high. Carver earns his stripes, Pearlman her robes, Carcetti his office, Freamon his happiness. If it’s not a new day in Baltimore, then at least it’s a full moon.

But that doesn't mean they win. Survival may be possible, but victory never is. Our renegades walk away, perhaps even better for it, but they all lose their wars. To a man, they lose. (As Bunk says, it’s a hell of a lot easier to get in a war than it is to get out.) The stats stay juked, the corners still hopping. Levy keeps afloat, thrives. Innocents are destroyed. Michael might become Omar, Dukie might become Bubbles, Sydnor might become McNulty, but there’s no happiness in these outcomes. The trap closes tighter.

And for some, survival is another step towards annhilation. Our anti-heroes remain ensnared. Each time he embraces Carver, Herc gets dirtier. Valcheck—the man who destroyed a culture over a window—bears the shame of a hopeless institution. Templeton climbs higher but destroys H.L. Mencken’s paper and makes some dangerously just enemies along the way. Marlo returns to the street and the street spits him out. Chris and Wee-Bey play gangster together for the rest of their lives. Cheese walks away to make his move, but the street comes to collect, it always does. A man without a code gets got.

To me, Bunny Colvin and Bunk are the moral of the story. You either fight to win, fight the good fight, break all the rules because they’re dirty and cruel and wrong; and when the inevitable happens, when the trap closes, you dig yourself a foxhole, do a good deed or two, and save you and yours. Or you bunker down (pun intended), chomp on your cigar, do your job, and drink off the bitter taste of it all.

With characteristic hubris (you catch Simon and Burns placing themselves in their natural settings tonight?), Simon points to lofty inspiration, the Greek tragedies. Those who taunt the Gods will be smote. In the post-modern city gasping for air, our civic institutions are the Gods. There is no victory, only survival, and only once the Gods chew you up and spit you out.

Here’s to David Simon, laid on the green felt, a true free born man of the U.S.A. And here's to us, who picked up the paper one day and read something that felt true and right.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

David Simon on Terry Gross

A great 45 min. interview, by one master of her craft to another.

He talks about the real-life origins of Bubbles and Bunk, his introductions to Ed Burns (a man who doesn't get nearly enough credit, overshadowed as he is by Simon's massive personality and talent), ethical questions in embedded crime reporting, the disparity in quality roles for talented African American actors, and the now-familiar story of Simon's falling out with the Sun. (Though he comes close--by his standards--to questioning himself, he says the paper was "as institutional as anything you've ever seen on the Wire.").

Terry Gross gets in some great ones too: "Have you, like McNulty, ever done or thought about doing something illegal in the interest of some greater good?" (paraphrase) and getting Simon to talk about the origins of the vacants-as-tombs plotline.

Hearing his voice, you really hear some of the dialogue coming out--the hard-boiled, street-tough language spoken by cops and metro editors and MOPs alike.

And as always, he gives a heavy dose of his damning worldview. We're all under the yoke of cold and cruel postmodern institutions. Resistance is futile.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Times lets a bad guy off the hook

A healthcare counselor at Rikers was arrested last week for attempting to sell cocaine to an undercover cop less than a block away from the bridge to the detention facility. Apparently this was his second bust in the past year. He was responsible for counseling 40 inmates with co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorders—the hardest cases to treat, even if you yourself are clean. He was an employee of Prison Health Services, a national prison healthcare provider that is the city’s sole contractor for healthcare in city detention facilities—a contract worth $366 million.

Observers have known this is a shady company for a long time. Since the city first contracted with Prison Health in 2001, the New York Times has done some great investigative reporting on the company, including a weeklong series, “Harsh Medicine,” published in the last week of February and first week of March 2005. The series looked at how a spate of suicides in 2004 and 2005 and the company's liability, how the inmate patients weren't necessarily the bad guys, whether the quality of service violated legally required standards of treatment, the city's inconsistent and inadequate efforts at oversight, and the myriad heads a- rollin' that resulted from the increased scrutiny on the company’s performance.

Between late February 2005 and January 2006, the Times wrote over a dozen pieces on Prison Health Services, starting with the “Harsh Medicine” series and tracking the follow-up. Most of the series was written by Paul von Zielbauer, the Times prison health beat reporter.

But from January 2006 until last week, the Times didn’t run a single story on Prison Health Services. (Zielbauer has been covering the wars from Iraq and Afghanistan since July 2006.) It published only two stories on Rikers healthcare in the past two years.

The Times dropped the ball on this important issue. It did great investative work over the course of a year, but turned off the spotlight as soon as some good things started to happen. It appears editors decided that their coverage adequately stirred the pot, though the underlying situation (e.g., the contract between the city and the shady provider) remained the same.

Sad, and an indication of how newsroom cuts hit metro beats and investigative teams the hardest... even with the country's paper of record.