Behold the Hack, the veteran newsman, wise beyond his years, a man who’s seen it all, twice. He’s honest, knowing, cynical, his occasional bitterness leavened with humor. He’s a friend to the little scam, and a scourge of the big one. Experience has acquainted him with suffering and stupidity, venality and vice. His anger is softened by the sure knowledge of his own futility. And now behold David Simon, the mind behind the brilliant HBO series The Wire.A gruff fireplug of a man, balding and big-featured, he speaks with an earthy, almost theatrical bluntness, and his blue-collar crust belies his comfortable suburban upbringing. He’s for all the world the quintessential Hack, down to his ink-stained fingertips—the kind of old newshound who will remind you that a “journalist” is a dead reporter. But Simon takes the cliché one step further; he’s an old newsman who feels betrayed by newspapers themselves.
For all his success and accomplishment, he’s an angry man, driven in part by lovingly nurtured grudges against those he feels have slighted him, underestimated him, or betrayed some public trust. High on this list is his old employer The Baltimore Sun—or more precisely, the editors and corporate owners who have (in his view) spent the past two decades eviscerating a great American newspaper. In a better world—one where papers still had owners and editors who were smart, socially committed, honest, and brave—Simon probably would never have left The Sun to pursue a Hollywood career. His father, a frustrated newsman, took him to see Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s classic newspaper farce, The Front Page, when he was a boy in Washington, D.C., and Simon was smitten. He landed a job as a Sun reporter just out of the University of Maryland in the early 1980s, and as he tells it, if the newspaper, the industry, and America had lived up to his expectations, he would probably still be documenting the underside of his adopted city one byline at a time. But The Sun let David Simon down.
So he has done something that many reporters only dream about. He has created his own Baltimore. With the help of his chief collaborator, Ed Burns, a former Baltimore cop and schoolteacher; a stable of novelists and playwrights with a feel for urban drama (including George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane); a huge cast of master actors; and a small army of film professionals shooting on location—in the city’s blighted row-house neighborhoods and housing projects, in City Hall, nightclubs, police headquarters, in the suburbs, the snazzy Inner Harbor, the working docks—he has, over four seasons, conjured the city onscreen with a verisimilitude that’s astonishing. Marylanders scrutinize the plot for its allusions to real people and real events. Parallels with recent local political history abound, and the details of life in housing projects and on street corners seem spookily authentic. (A New York City narcotics detective who loves the show told me a few years ago that street gangs in Brooklyn were watching it to learn tactics for avoiding cell-phone intercepts.)
Despite the show’s dark portrait of “Body-more, Murdaland,” local officialdom has embraced The Wire, giving Simon and his cast and crew free rein, opening up municipal buildings and cordoning off outdoor spaces. Many prominent citizens, including former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and former Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, have made cameo appearances. The dress, manners, and colorful language of the show’s cast, which is largely African American, are painstakingly authentic, down to the uniquely slurred consonants and nasal vowel sounds of the local dialect, Balmerese. The Wire seems so real that I find myself, a Baltimore native, looking for the show’s characters when I pass through their familiar haunts.
The show hasn’t been a big commercial success. It’s never attracted a viewership to rival that of an HBO tent-pole series, like The Sopranos or even the short-lived Deadwood. It isn’t seen as a template for future TV dramas, primarily because its form more or less demands that each season be watched from the beginning. Whereas each episode of The Sopranos advanced certain overarching plot points but was essentially self-contained, anyone who tries to plumb the complexities of The Wire by tuning in at mid-season is likely to be lost. If the standard Hollywood feature is the film equivalent of a short story, each season of Simon’s show is a 12- or 13-chapter novel.
Some years ago, Tom Wolfe called on novelists to abandon the cul-de-sac of modern “literary” fiction, which he saw as self-absorbed, thumb-sucking gamesmanship, and instead to revive social realism, to take up as a subject the colossal, astonishing, and terrible pageant of contemporary America. I doubt he imagined that one of the best responses to this call would be a TV program, but the boxed sets blend nicely on a bookshelf with the great novels of American history.
As The Wire unveiled its fourth season in 2006, Jacob Weisberg of Slate, in a much-cited column, called it “the best TV show ever broadcast in America.” The New York Times, in an editorial (not a review, mind you) called the show Dickensian. I agree with both assessments. “Wire-world,” as Simon calls it, does for turn-of-the- millennium Baltimore what Dickens’s Bleak House does for mid-19th-century London. Dickens takes the byzantine bureaucracy of the law and the petty corruptions of the legal profession, borrows from the neighborhoods, manners, dress, and language of the Chancery courts and the Holborn district, and builds from them a world that breathes. Similarly, The Wire creates a vision of official Baltimore as a heavy, self-justified bureaucracy, gripped by its own byzantine logic and criminally unconcerned about the lives of ordinary people, who enter it at their own risk. One of the clever early conceits of the show was to juxtapose the organizational problems of the city police department with those of the powerful drug gang controlling trafficking in the city’s west-side slums. The heads of both organizations, official and criminal, wrestle with similar management and personnel issues, and resolve them with similarly cold self-interest. In both the department and the gang, the powerful exploit the weak, and within the ranks those who exhibit dedication, talent, and loyalty are usually punished for their efforts.
There are heroes in The Wire, but they’re flawed and battered. The show’s most exceptional police officers, detectives Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon, find their initiative and talent punished at almost every turn. Their determination to do good, original work disturbs the department’s upper echelons, where people are heavily invested in maintaining the status quo and in advancing their own careers. The clash repeatedly lands both of them in hot water—or cold water; at the end of the first season, the seasick-prone McNulty is banished to the city’s marine unit. What success the two attain against Baltimore’s most powerful criminals is partial, compromised, and achieved despite stubborn and often creative official resistance.
One measure of the complexity of Simon’s vision is that the powerful obstructionists in The Wire aren’t simply evil people, the way they might have been in a standard Hollywood movie. While some are just inept or corrupt, most are smart and ambitious, sometimes even interested in doing good, but concerned first and foremost with their next promotion or a bigger paycheck. They are fiercely territorial, to a degree that interferes with real police work. In the premiere episode, the very idea of a separate squad to target the leadership of the city’s powerful drug gangs—which one would assume to be a high law-enforcement priority—is opposed by the police department. It’s imposed on the commissioner by order of a local judge, who’s outraged when a witness at a murder trial in his courtroom fearfully recants her testimony on the stand. To spite the judge, the commissioner staffs the unit with castoffs from various police divisions. Some of the castoffs are so alcoholic or corrupt they’re useless, but some, like the lesbian detective Shakima Greggs, or the patient, wise Freamon, or the ballsy, streetwise McNulty, are castoffs precisely because of their ability. In Simon’s world, excellence is a ticket out the door.
In one of the show’s most interesting set pieces, a remarkable police major, “Bunny” Colvin, frustrated by the absurdity of the city’s useless drug war, conducts a novel experiment. Without the knowledge of his superiors, he effectively legalizes drugs in West Baltimore, creating a mini-Amsterdam, dubbed “Hamsterdam,” where all of the corner dealers are allowed to set up shop. By consolidating drug dealing, which he knows he cannot stop anyway, Colvin eliminates the daily turf battles that drive up the murder rates and dramatically improves life in most of his district. Calm returns to terrorized neighborhoods, and his patrolmen, freed from their cars and the endless pursuit of drug-dealing corner boys, return to real police work, walking beats, getting to know the people they serve. The sharp drop in his district crime stats shocks the department’s leadership and makes Colvin’s peers jealous—and suspicious. They assume he’s cooking the books.
WATCH A SCENE FROM THE WIRE: A character walks through “Hamsterdam,” an experiment in drug legalization
Again, it’s a tribute to the depth of Simon’s imagination that this experiment isn’t presented as a cure-all. He doesn’t minimize the moral compromise inherent in Hamsterdam. Many addicts see their severe health problems worsen, and the drug-dealing zone becomes a haven for vice of all kinds. Decent people in the community are horrified by the officially sanctioned criminality and the tolerance of destructive addiction. The experiment ends ignobly when news of the unauthorized experiment reaches the ears of a Sun reporter. City Hall reacts to the story with predictable horror, scurrying and spinning to escape blame. Colvin loses his job, and the city goes back to the old war, which is useless but politically acceptable.
Story lines like these reflect the truth about Baltimore; Mayor Schmoke’s own promising political career crashed and burned some years ago when he had the temerity to suggest a less punitive approach to the city’s drug problem. But they don’t reflect the complete truth: like Dickens’s London, Simon’s Baltimore is a richly imagined caricature of its real-life counterpart, not a carbon copy. And precisely because the Baltimore in The Wire seems so real, down to the finest details, the show constitutes an interesting study in the difference between journalism and fiction. Simon’s first book, Homicide, was a critically acclaimed work of nonfiction, from which some of the themes, characters, and even stories of The Wire are drawn. (It was also the basis for the 1990s NBC show Homicide: Life on the Street.) Which raises the question—if your subject is the real world, why deal in fiction?
The answer has something to do with Simon’s own passions and his deeply held political beliefs. “I am someone who’s very angry with the political structure,” he said in a long 2006 interview with Slate. “The show is written in a 21st-century city-state that is incredibly bureaucratic, and in which a legal pursuit of an unenforceable prohibition [the war on drugs] has created great absurdity.” To Simon, The Wire is about “the very simple idea that, in this postmodern world of ours, human beings—all of us—are worth less. We’re worth less every day, despite the fact that some of us are achieving more and more. It’s the triumph of capitalism. Whether you’re a corner boy in West Baltimore, or a cop who knows his beat, or an Eastern European brought here for sex, your life is worth less. It’s the triumph of capitalism over human value. This country has embraced the idea that this is a viable domestic policy. It is. It’s viable for the few. But I don’t live in Westwood, L.A., or on the Upper West Side of New York. I live in Baltimore.”
This is a message—a searing attack on the excesses of Big Capitalism—that rarely finds its way into prime-time entertainment on national TV. It’s audacious. But it’s also relentlessly … well, bleak.
From the archives:
"The Code of the Streets" (May 1994)
In this essay in urban anthropology a social scientist takes us inside a world most of us only glimpse in grisly headlines. By Elijah Anderson
Interviews: "Street Life" (August 28, 1999)
Elijah Anderson talks about his book, Code of the Street, and the importance of looking honestly at life in the inner city
“I am struck by how dark the show is,” says Elijah Anderson, the Yale sociologist whose classic works Code of the Streets, Streetwise, and A Place on the Corner document black inner-city life with noted clarity and sympathy. Anderson would be the last person to gloss over the severe problems of the urban poor, but in The Wire he sees “a bottom-line cynicism” that is at odds with his own perception of real life. “The show is very good,” he says. “It resonates. It is powerful in its depiction of the codes of the streets, but it is an exaggeration. I get frustrated watching it, because it gives such a powerful appearance of reality, but it always seems to leave something important out. What they have left out are the decent people. Even in the worst drug-infested projects, there are many, many God-fearing, churchgoing, brave people who set themselves against the gangs and the addicts, often with remarkable heroism.”
This bleakness is Simon’s stamp on the show, and it suggests that his political passions ultimately trump his commitment to accuracy or evenhandedness. The imagination, values, and convictions of a writer play a big part in even the most accurate nonfiction, of course. Telling a true story well demands that the reporter achieve his own understanding of the events and people described, and arriving at that point can mean shading reality, even if only unconsciously. We view the world from where we sit. Truman Capote, in his nonfiction classic, In Cold Blood,finds a clue to the motives of the murderers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, in unrequited or unconscious homosexual desire. Norman Mailer’s preoccupation with mystical themes gives the senseless killer Gary Gilmore a romantic aura in The Executioner’s Song. In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s fascination with masculinity and social status allows him to cast the early space program as a prolonged reprise of ancient single-combat rituals. In each case, the author’s unique perspective gives a “true” story a starkly original shape.
But the more passionate your convictions, the harder it is to resist tampering with the contradictions and stubborn messiness of real life. Every reporter knows the sensation of having a story “ruined” by some new and surprising piece of information. Just when you think you have the thing figured out, you learn something that shatters your carefully wrought vision. Being surprised is the essence of good reporting. But it’s also the moment when a dishonest writer is tempted to fudge, for the sake of commercial success—and a more honest writer like Simon, whose passion is political and personal, is tempted to shift his energies to fiction.
Which is precisely what he’s done. Simon is the reporter who knows enough about Baltimore to have his story all figured out, but instead of risking the coherence of his vision by doing what reporters do, heading back out day after day to observe, to ask more questions, to take more notes, he has stopped reporting and started inventing. He says, I have figured this thing out. He offers up his undisturbed vision, leaving out the things that don’t fit, adding things that emphasize its fundamentals, and then using the trappings of realism to dress it up and bring it to life onscreen.
The essential difference between writing nonfiction and writing fiction is that the artist owns his vision, while the journalist can never really claim one, or at least not a complete one—because the real world is infinitely complex and ever changing. Art frees you from the infuriating unfinishedness of the real world. For this reason, the very clarity of well-wrought fiction can sometimes make it feel more real than reality. As a film producer once told me, “It’s important not to let the facts get in the way of the truth.”
Fiction can explain things that journalism cannot. It allows you to enter the lives and motivations of characters with far more intimacy than is typically possible in nonfiction. In the case of The Wire, fiction allows you to wander around inside a violent, criminal subculture, and inside an entrenched official bureaucracy, in a way that most reporters can only dream about. And it frees you from concerns about libel and cruelty. It frees you to be unfair.
In a session before a live audience in Baltimore last April, for a local storytelling series called The Stoop, Simon was asked to speak on a topic labeled “My Nemesis.” He began by reciting, by name, some of the people he holds grudges against, going all the way back to grade school. He was being humorous, and the audience was laughing, but anyone who knows him knows that his monologue was, like his fiction, slightly overstated for effect, but basically the truth.
“I keep these names, I treasure them,” he said:
I will confess to you now that anything I have ever accomplished as a writer, as somebody doing TV, as anything I have ever done in life down to, like, cleaning up my room, has been accomplished because I was going to show people that they were fucked up and wrong and that I was the fucking center of the universe, and the sooner they got hip to that, the happier they would all be … That’s what’s going on in my head.
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.
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.