[An audio version of the “Making The Wire” panel is now online at the Moving Image website. Click here to access.]
“When I was at The Baltimore Sun, there were 500 staff members there,” David Simon remarked. “Now, there’s 220. I took the third round of buyouts; they’re on round eight. The paper’s gotten smaller, but the city of Baltimore hasn’t. The Internet’s a great source of opinions, but it’s not producing journalism.”
It was an important observation on a topic familiar to many, and especially relevant to those who read websites like this one. The House Next Door saturates a film-nerd niche in a way that print publications have never before been able to do. For an entity with a low profile in relation to, say, Film Quarterly or Film Comment, THND enjoys a surprisingly large readership. Meanwhile, Premiere magazine no longer exists in print. The little guys are putting the big guys out of business.
On July 30th, Simon, along with other members of The Wire’s creative team (actors Seth Gilliam, Clark Johnson, Clarke Peters, and Wendell Pierce, and writer Richard Price) participated in a panel discussion at (ironically) The New York Times’ new building on West 41st street. The official focus of the discussion, presented by the Museum of the Moving Image, was not the death of print media, but it might as well have been. Throughout the evening’s proceedings, it haunted the event like a specter.
The discussion was entitled “The Making of The Wire,” and much of the evening was spent relaying behind-the-scenes trivia. We heard about how ex-cop Ed Burns tirelessly obsessed over the scripts, how the actors knew nothing of their characters’ futures, how David Simon and Richard Price met the night of the Rodney King riots, etc. It was the sort of conversation that makes for amusing anecdotes and juicy entertainment for the fanboys, but it was hardly the stuff of earth-shattering insight. What was enjoyable, however, was the tone of the evening. The atmosphere of the discussion was unmistakably that of a late-night, darkly-lit newsroom bullpen reeking of smoke and booze. There were seven men onstage and zero women; one could have mistaken the evening’s proceedings for an (only slightly) updated version of The Front Page.
Things became a bit more interesting when David Simon brought the audience through the seasons of The Wire, explaining how he chose the changing areas of Baltimore city life to focus on. Simon was frustrated that, after four seasons of The Wire, none of the problems the show explored were receiving enough attention in Baltimore. He asked himself, “what are we paying attention to?” The answer, of course, is the media, which became the subject of the fifth season’s inquiry.
“All of the things that happened in the first four seasons of The Wire, those things happened in real life,” Simon said. “I mean, maybe not the dramatics, but a mayor cooking the books to become governor, schools lying about test scores in order to pass no child left behind, police captains lying about the crime statistics—these things all happened—but you wouldn’t read about them in The Baltimore Sun.” The Wire’s skill for municipal observation was, by contrast, quite skilled. Simon pointed out that, six months after season two aired, the very docks The Wire shot at were demolished and turned into condominiums; this is exactly what was prophesied on the show, which had been scripted before the actual plans were ever set in motion.
After (presumably) becoming frustrated with The Baltimore Sun, Simon moved into the world of television, utilizing it as a means for both social critique and artistic creation. The Wire has gotten an enormous amount of attention, but as Simon mentioned, it has mainly remained in the pages of the “entertainment” sections of newspapers. But not entirely. The Atlantic Monthly did an enormous story on the series a few months ago. Every major media outlet or publication has published on it to one degree or another, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Has Simon gotten heaping critical praise in a vacuum, or has he been able to make the kind of pointed observation with The Wire that he felt unable to make in his years as a newspaperman? Is television or cinema a medium superior to journalism in terms of suitability for social critique?
It would be absurd to say that television or films are ontologically better suited to support social critique than journalism; journalism has played an integral role in the development of modern America. Simon reminisced about being young in the mid-70s, seeing what Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward had done, and realizing that the profession of newspaperman could be a truly significant one. If Simon’s story—of failing to find satisfaction in the newspaper industry, and finding it in film and television—is indicative of anything, it’s that journalism’s time as the cultural instrument of choice for social analysis is ending. When one looks at the current and future work Simon is producing—a miniseries about the Iraq war, another project on New Orleans post-Katrina—it becomes clear that he’s using film as a means for cultural journalism and observation in the way that great journalists, from Upton Sinclair to Nicholas Kristof, used newspapers.
Richard Price, the sometimes-Wire scripter and novelist (Lush Life, Clockers), touched upon an aspect of The Wire that makes it almost a meta-news article. “The wonder of The Wire,” he explained, “is going from a down on his luck crackhead to a State Senator in five minutes, without breaking the tone or world view at all.” The effect of that transition is not dissimilar from going from one front-page article to another right next to it, and sensing the common thread of journalistic inquiry in each piece.
However, there is a major difference between journalistic critique and what Simon has done with The Wire. Whereas journalism’s ethical code necessitates that it go no further than observe, The Wire, especially in its final season, took something of a political stance. Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon on the series) explained that he was excited by how McNulty’s manipulation of “the system” in the final season amounted to saying, “if the system doesn’t work, you must save the homeless by any means necessary.”
The political stance referred to here is not anything specific to the homeless, but a broader stance regarding “the system,” or “the game,” as it is so often referred to on The Wire. The role of journalism has always been to stand outside the game, to observe from an objective viewpoint and report “unbiased” news with the best possible ability. What this approach fails to take into account is that everything is always, already a part of the game—if it wasn’t, it couldn’t exist. Throughout the first four seasons of The Wire, Detective Jimmy McNulty fights and fights against the oppressive bureaucratic system that runs the Baltimore Police Department, trying to do the best job that he can, despite the fact that the game is rigged against good police work. In the final season of the show, McNulty wises up. When he becomes frustrated with the lack of funding for the homicide unit, he decides to create a fake serial killer, which will draw press attention, and therefore, funding from the government. Rather than fighting against the game, he’s playing it beautifully.
David Simon’s career trajectory illustrates a path similar to McNulty’s in terms of coming to an understanding of the game. He may not have been able to find a suitable home for his brand of social critique in the newspaper industry, for numerous reasons (if the newspaper subplot in season five is any indication, “fighting against the system” would certainly be one of them), but in the field of entertainment, Simon managed to play the game, fooling a bunch of HBO executives into thinking they’d be funding a cop show from the guy who wrote the book that inspired the NBC series Homicide: Life of the Street. In fact, they ended up funding a truly unique experiment in sociology.
David Simon’s works are the fake serial killer. What do we pay attention to, he asked. The answer was “newspapers” in season five, but television is a form of media with a far bigger audience than the dwindling print industry. As Simon continues to pick topics and genres that are bound to provoke interest—the war in Iraq, the rebuilding of New Orleans—he is forging an original career, feeding us our medicine in the form of entertainment like no other before him. Whereas some “Trojan horse entertainments,” as I like to call them, get the audience in the theater (or living room) with a premise that is basically a trap—political or social commentary disguised as something else (in the case of Michael Haneke’s Caché, a thriller), with Simon’s work there is no trick—you get a miniseries on the war in Iraq, you get a TV show about drugs and politics in Baltimore. It’s simply seriously intellectual and seriously entertaining at the same time—like the greatest muckraking.
“The Internet is like a parasite, in a way,” Simon said, in the headquarters of the most important newspaper in the world. “It provides opinion on the news. But it’s a parasite that is killing its host.” He may be right about this, but what he may not have fully grasped is that the host is no longer the host.
Zachary Wigon studies Film Production and Comparative Literature at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he is the editor of the film studies publication, the Tisch Film Review. In addition to writing and directing short films, he also writes film criticism for FilmCatcher and maintains a cultural theory blog, Between Fear & Commitment.