This vindictive streak, this desire to show people how wrong they are, is tempered somewhat by Simon’s sense of humor and his appreciation for complexity, and by the vision of his many skillful collaborators. But in the show’s final season, which debuts in January, Simon will revisit the part of Baltimore that’s closest to his heart, The Sun. The season, more than any other before it, will reflect his personal experience. Given his long memory and his inclination to settle old scores, the difference between fiction and fact will be of particular interest to his former colleagues.
The newspaper’s management rightly viewed Simon’s intentions with trepidation, but given that City Hall and the governor’s mansion embraced his jaundiced vision, how could the Fourth Estate refuse to open its doors? So The Sun has allowed the show to use its name and even build an exact replica of its newsroom so that Simon and his company can flesh out their story line with greater authenticity. It isn’t going to be a comfortable ride, because Simon is apparently set to exorcise some personal demons. His vision of Baltimore was shaped largely by his work as a crime reporter, and it seems likely that his anger about capitalism and the devaluation of human life is rooted in his unhappy experience at The Sun.
A famous quote from the great Sun Papers columnist H. L. Mencken is reprinted in large type on the wall of the spacious lobby in the newspaper’s building on Calvert Street. It reads:
… as I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings.
It was that promise, that “life of kings,” that animated Simon and many other reporters who started in the business 20 years ago.
“I love this place,” Simon told the Stoop audience last April, speaking of his frame of mind at age 22, when he was starting his career as a Sun reporter:
This is the place of H. L. Mencken, of Frank Kent, of William Manchester. It’s like you can touch things that you can be proud of. I just have to do good work for its own sake … I’m basically happy, and it’s like the least ambitious I am in my life. Until … it gets sold out of town. And these guys come in from Philly. The white guys from Philly. And I say that with all the contempt you can muster for the phrase white guys. Soulless motherfuckers. Everything that Malcolm X said in that book before he got converted back to humanity—no, no, he was right in the first place. These guys were so without humanity. And it was the kind of journalism—how do I describe bad journalism? It’s not that it’s lazy, it’s that whenever they hear the word Pulitzer, they become tumescent. They become engorged … All they wanted to do was win prizes … I watched them single-handedly destroy The Sun.
The “white guys” Simon so viciously abused in this talk (and not for the first time) were William Marimow and John Carroll, notable newspapermen who are my friends; Marimow was a longtime colleague of mine at The Philadelphia Inquirer. He eventually left The Sun in conflict over newsroom cutbacks with its corporate owners (originally the Times-Mirror Corporation, which was absorbed by the Tribune Company in 2000) and went on to head the news division of National Public Radio. Last year, Marimow returned to helm The Inquirer, a newspaper where he had earlier won two Pulitzer Prizes for reporting. Carroll became editor in chief of the Los Angeles Times, resigned defending the newsroom there, and is now at Harvard University. Both have impeccable reputations in their field, and I hold them both in high esteem. Simon hates them.
He hates them in part because they were agents of change at The Sun, the institution he loved, initiating a process familiar in newsrooms all over the country. Just as the efforts of great detectives like McNulty and Freamon are neither valued nor supported by their bosses, many superb reporters and editors at The Sun, and with them the paper’s higher mission, were betrayed by the corporate pursuit of profit margins. Marimow and Carroll were for a time agents of that process, an unpleasant role that many fine newspaper editors have found themselves in during the past decade. Yet to Simon they are all the more culpable because they didn’t publicly object to a talent drain that he felt devastated the newsroom. There’s nothing unique about the situation. The sad story is familiar to newspaper people all over the country. (I watched it happen at The Inquirer, where Knight Ridder threw just about everyone and everything of value overboard before bailing out of journalism altogether.)
Some of us chalk up this trend to market forces, to the evolution of information technology, to television, radio, and the Internet. At the long-since-departed Baltimore News-American, where I worked before being hired at The Inquirer, we used to joke that people didn’t read our newspaper, they played it. The paper was full of number and word games, along with sports scores, racetrack results, TV listings, comics, want ads, and advertisements with clippable coupons. One by one, these multifarious reasons why people used to buy newspapers have been cherry-picked by newer media; that includes the paper’s most basic offering—breaking news, whose headlines are now available on most cell phones. Declining circulation means declining advertising, which means declining revenues, so corporate managers face a tougher and tougher challenge maintaining the high profit margins that attracted investors 30 years ago. These are just facts, and different people and organizations have handled them with different measures of grace and understanding.
But to Simon, this complex process became personal, boiling down to corporate greed and the “soullessness” of Marimow and Carroll. It’s an honest opinion, but arguably unfair, flavored by personal bitterness and animosity. (Simon told a writer from American Journalism Review that he was angered by the paper’s unwillingness to grant him a raise after he returned from a leave of absence in 1995—he was writing The Corner—and he took a buyout six months later.) Given his vindictive strain, his talent for character and drama, and the national TV show at his disposal, such an opinion is also a combustible one.
I should note here that it isn’t hard to join Simon’s enemies list; I did it myself while writing this essay. I first contacted Simon several years ago, as a fan of his show and as a screenwriter and aspiring producer interested in learning more about him and how he’d created it. He was friendly and helpful, and I remain grateful. Then in 2006 after the fourth season of The Wire had aired, I decided to write a tribute to Simon and his show. I contacted him by e-mail to see about renewing our conversation on different terms, and he consented. He asked me to avoid writing about his personal life, and I agreed. I was determined, as well, to avoid discussing his dispute with Marimow and Carroll, since I liked and admired both parties, and was disinclined to choose sides.
When I discovered, after my last conversation with Simon, that the final season of the show would be based on his experiences at The Sun, I felt compelled to describe the dispute, but I resolved to characterize it without entering it. To avoid exploiting anything that had passed informally between us on the subject, I relied on Simon’s ample public commentary to explain his feelings, and then, realizing that the essay had strayed in an unanticipated direction, showed him an early draft to solicit correction and criticism. I got it. The draft provoked a series of angry, long-winded accusations, which would have remained private had he not taken his complaints to TheAtlantic’s editor, in an angry letter impugning my motives in contacting him originally, and characterizing all our interactions as my attempt to win his confidence in order to skewer him on behalf of my friends. I could see myself morphing into a character in his show.