The Angriest Man In Television

How David Simon’s disappointment with the industry that let him down made The Wire the greatest show on television—and why his searing vision shouldn’t be confused with reality
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Simon has already given Marimow’s name to a character in The Wire, a repellent police-department toady who, in the hilarious words of the show’s Sergeant Jay Landsman, “doesn’t cast off talent lightly, he heaves it away with great force.” But this was just a minor swipe: the final season of The Wire will offer Simon the chance to take on his old enemies from The Sun directly. An article that appeared in the October 2000 issue of Brill’s Content hinted at the tack he may take and went to the core of what he says are his objections to the pair. It featured Simon, then five years removed from the paper and well into his enormously successful second career, making the case that a widely respected Sun reporter, protected by Carroll and Marimow, was making up stories and distorting the truth in a hell-bent effort to turn a series on lead-paint poisoning into a competitive Pulitzer submission. Simon felt the editors purposefully ignored the misgivings of some of the newspaper’s veteran reporters in an effort to bolster their new star. To the editors, it was a case of an aggressive reporter who had made a few mistakes in pursuit of an important story. To Simon, it was an example of all that was wrong with the remade newspaper, and a reminder of the clash over journalistic values that had led him to quit in the first place. In his mind, The Sun had also abandoned its mission to really cover Baltimore, and was now fiddling while the city burned. Instead of exploring the root causes of the city’s intractable problems—drug abuse and the government’s unenforceable “war” against it, racism, poverty, rampant Big Capitalism, etc.—the newspaper was engaged in a largely self-congratulatory crusade to right a minor wrong.

Sure enough, one of the upcoming season’s story lines deals with a newspaper’s muckraking campaign on homelessness. It’s likely been crafted to represent Simon’s take on a typical Carroll-Marimow project: motivated less by a sincere desire for social reform than by a zeal for Pulitzer Prizes. (The paper did, incidentally, win three Pulitzers under the editors’ guidance. Normally, in the newspaper world, this is considered a triumph, but for Simon it just adds bitter spice to an already bad dish.) And whereas the Brill’s reporter who wrote the story was painstakingly evenhanded, Simon’s fictional version of events will carry no such journalistic burden.

Apart from the distress this causes the real people behind his sometimes thinly veiled depictions, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. It’s how an artist shapes a fictional drama out of his own experience. Simon is entitled to his take on things, entitled to exploit his memory and experience, his anger and sense of betrayal, just as he exploited his cynicism and political outrage about official Baltimore in the show’s first four seasons. Indeed, given the richness and power of his vision in The Wire, we ought to be grateful for his unforgiving nature. The kind of reporting he felt could no longer be done at The Sun he has brought to the screen. But his fiction shouldn’t be mistaken for fact. It reflects, as much as anything, Simon’s own prejudices.

In my decades in newsrooms, I encountered my share of hard-core skeptics like Simon, but those resembling the stereotypical Hack were the exceptions. It is true that the more true stories you tell, the more acquainted you are with suffering, stupidity, venality, and vice. But you’re also more acquainted with selflessness, courage, and decency. Old reporters and editors are softened by knowledge and experience. If anything, they become less inclined to suspect or condemn. They encounter incompetence more often than evil, and they see that very few people who screw up do so in ways that are indefensible. After years of drumming up the other side of the story, old reporters are likely to grow less angry and opinionated, not more.

In that sense only, David Simon may be truer to the stereotype than the stereotype is true.

Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent.
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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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