Ed Burns is co-creator of HBO's critically acclaimed series The Wire, now concluding its fifth and final season. Burns is also the co-producer of Generation Kill, a forthcoming HBO miniseries based on journalist Evan Wright's book about the first stages of the war in Iraq. Burns is also a Vietnam veteran, a 20-year veteran of the Baltimore police force, and a teacher in the city’s public schools. He’s an outspoken critic of the drug war, the growth of prisons, and the structure, incentives, and organization of police departments.
reason Senior Editor Radley Balko recently interviewed Burns via telephone. Responses should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
reason: This season of The Wire focuses pretty heavily on the media. What do you think the media does well when it comes to covering criminal justice issues, and what do you think it does poorly?
Ed Burns: I think a lot depends on who’s doing it. In specific cases, you can do extremely well as a reporter. My problem is more with the basic philosophy of how it’s done. It’s like a laser beam. They cover a specific aspect, or a specific trial, or a specific murder in a way that simplifies things, that makes them very stereotypical. It only takes one sentence to name the victim of a crime and the street where the crime took place. So they’re really only reporting something that we know is going to happen—because the conditions are there to make it happen—but they doesn’t go beyond that. There’s no context in crime reporting. That’s the problem.
reason: Slate’s media critic Jack Shafer has said that the media is at its absolute worst when covering the drug war. Do you agree with him, and if so, why do you think that it is?
Burns: Take just the term “war on drugs.” I mean, they’re not warring on drugs. They’re warring on drug addicts and the users and the small-time dealers. They’re warring on neighborhoods. They’re warring on people who can’t stand up to them. They’re not warring on major dealers.
You can follow it in any city, I don’t care how small it is or how big it is. If the paper is pretty avid about covering who’s getting locked up, you’ll notice that they’re not getting the big guys. They’re not getting the big stakeholders.
I think their whole approach is almost as if they were trying to separate us, trying to separate the classes by saying, “Look what’s happened down there. Look at these people down there, these people and what they’re doing.”
When I was teaching, you’d have a kid in, say, his junior year of high school. And you’d give him a list of things he could possibly do when he gets out. He could be a doctor, lawyer, all this kind of stuff. We’d make one of the options “drug addict,” and there are kids who always check it off.
The media reports as if these kids have all of these options, and they consciously make this decision to become a drug addict, and to risk the consequences of going up to the corner and getting themselves killed. That decision was made for him long before that kid got to be in the 11th grade. A lot of guys don’t even get that far.
This idea that there are lots of options for these kids and they choose a life on the corner, that’s too simplistic. But it’s the way these things get covered.
reason: We interviewed your co-producer David Simon just before The Wire’s fourth season. He said that though The Wire may be cynical about institutions, it treats its characters with a lot of affection. But the last two seasons seem to have gotten even more cynical. Many of the characters who show promise seem to either succumb to character flaws, or actually get punished for doing the right thing. Are viewers to take anything away from The Wire other than that our major institutions are failing, and there’s little reason for hope?
Burns: Well, I don’t think there’s much reason for hope if you keep doing the same thing over and over again, even though you know it’ll never work. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that if you get on the wrong train, running down the aisle in the opposite direction really doesn’t help. Basically that’s what we’ve done, we’ve gotten on entirely the wrong train, and we keep sprinting down the aisle in the other direction, trying to pretend that if we run fast enough, we can get it together and turn things around. We’re losing more than we’re winning, and there’s no reason for it.
I mean, if you go into West Baltimore, or East Baltimore, or any of these cities in the ghettos and you pick up a stone and you throw it, you’re probably going to hit a nonprofit. They’re all over the place. They aren’t working, because again we’re all on the same, wrong train. The nonprofits are fragmented. The whole thing is fragmented. It just doesn’t work.
So no. I don’t think we’re being cynical. I think we’re being factual. We’ve been fighting the drug war for 30 years. Thirty years of failure. But there’s some reason that we persist in this. What is it? We never explore why that is. But you just can’t spend this much money and get these few results and continue on like this. Someone has to start wondering what the fuck is going on.