“If I want to find out what’s going on in this city, I’ve got to go to a fucking bar and talk to a police lieutenant and take notes on a cocktail napkin,” moans “The Wire” creator David Simon (above, third from left) to the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman. “That’s what passes for high-end journalism in Baltimore these days.” Lest you think Season 5 settled all of the old scores for Simon, “The Wire”‘s recent UK success has afforded him another opportunity to take a shot at the American news media.
Simon doesn’t respond well to the criticism that perhaps things aren’t entirely bad – that his shows’ unremitting pessimism distorts a world where some people do defeat the crushing force of social institutions. Last year, the journalist Mark Bowden made that charge in the Atlantic magazine, and Simon hasn’t forgiven him. “This premise that The Wire wasn’t real because it didn’t show people having good outcomes in west Baltimore … I don’t know what to tell him. We didn’t spend a series in a cul-de-sac with people barbecuing; it was the story of what’s happening at the bottom rungs of an economy where capitalism has been allowed free rein. And if he’s telling me it’s not happening, I want to take his fucking entitled ass and drive him to west Baltimore and shove him out of the car, at Monroe and Fayette, and say, find your way back, fucker, because you’ve got your head up your ass at the Atlantic.”
Behind Simon’s general disillusion is a disillusionment with journalism, the only work he ever wanted to do. Raised in a secular Jewish household in the Washington suburbs, he wrote for his school magazine, then was so busy editing the University of Maryland newspaper that it took him five years to graduate (“with terrible grades”). In his final year he began stringing for the local paper, the Sun; his wife, the novelist Laura Lippman, is another former Sun reporter. The way he tells it, the central betrayal of Simon’s life is the gutting of the Sun by profit-obsessed owners and Pulitzer-obsessed editors. One of those reviled executives, Bill Marimow, gets an obnoxious police lieutenant named after him in The Wire; Scott Templeton, the weaselly fabricator of season five, is modelled on a Sun colleague. (Other former staffers describe Simon as a perpetual picker of fights.)
The collapse of the US newspaper industry has left politicians free to pursue their unethical schemes unscrutinised. “The internet does froth and commentary very well, but you don’t meet many internet reporters down at the courthouse,” he says. “Oh to be a state or local official in America over the next 10 to 15 years, before somebody figures out the business model. To gambol freely across the wastelands of an American city as a local politician! It’s got to be one of the great dreams in the history of American corruption.”