"Someone Has To Start Wondering What the F Is Going On."

The Wire co-creator Ed Burns talks about failure in the drug war, public education, the war in Iraq, and police strategies.

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 letters@reason.com.

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.

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  • TallDave||

    I started watching this recently, courtesy on-demand from comcast, after hearing how great it was. I watched the first couple episodes of Season 5, and frankly didn't see what all the fuss was about.

    Did I just pick it up at a weak point in the series?

  • kinnath||

    TallDave, I started with seasons 1 through 3 on DVD. There is no way you're going to understand season 5 without starting at the beginning.

    I need to pick up season 4, then I'll have to wait patiently for season 5.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    I gotta admit, it's been pretty great. Basically season 1 is about the cops and the drug dealers (and in a way, so is every season). Season 2 is about the dockworkers' unions, season 3 is about the politicians, elections, and drug legalization, season 4 is about the school system and the kids, and season 5 has been about the newspapers and the homeless.

    It's been great and like the article posted here the other day, Omar Little is one of the greatest characters on TV ever (along with Spock, Barney Fife, Archie Bunker, Al Swearingen, George Costanza, Livia Soprano, and probably the greatest ever: Andy Sipowicz).

    On second look, my list seems a bit sexist. Who are the other great characters I'm missing? Not looking for catchphrasey-kinda things, but characters whose writing and acting somehow combines to make the character more real than other TV characters, and probably more real than most movie characters could be.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    OK: Eric Cartman's absence was an obvious slip-up.

  • kinnath||

    Dexter only has two seasons, but he is clearly a future candidate for your list.

  • kinnath||

    Hawkeye Pierce & Hot Lips

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    Oh yeah, I've heard about that show - on SHOWTIME, right?. It sounds cool, but I haven't seen it yet. Speaking of the actor who plays the main role in Dexter, I'd like to add someone from Six Feet Under, but although I think it was a great show, I'm not sure that any of the characters were quite to that level.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    Though if any were, it was his character, David, probably.

  • kinnath||

    It sounds cool, but I haven't seen it yet.

    Buy or rent the DVDs; you won't be disapointed.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    Calamity Jane might deserve a spot from Deadwood along with Swearingen.

  • ||

    OT regarding "The Wire" but here goes:

    Dr. Johnny Fever, Les Nessman, Bailey Quarters (WKRP)

    Emily Newhart (Newhart 1)

    Larry, Darryl and Darryl (Newhart 2)

    If mini-series count: Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call (Lonesome Dove)

  • kinnath||

    Deadwood, Wired, Dexter . . Best TV in the last 5 years.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    and Mal Reynolds from Firefly...I can't believe I forgot him. They managed a lot with that character in just thirteen episodes.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    Duvall's performance in Lonesome Dove may be the best acting job ever.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    I still want to do Bailey.

  • ||

    I never seen The Wire, but it struck me as being like The Sopranos;
    just interesting and intelligent enough to force you to follow the plot and characters, but so dry that it becomes a pain in the ass to sit through.

  • kinnath||

    . . . but so dry that it becomes a pain in the ass to sit through.

    I was home ill a week or so ago. I watched 7 straight hours of the Wire and was disappointed that I had to stop because I had finished season 3.

  • ||

    Someone Who Doesn't Want to Lose His Job | March 7, 2008, 4:14pm | #
    I still want to do Bailey.

    Run Ron, Run!!

  • ||

    Someone Who Doesn't Want to Lose His Job | March 7, 2008, 4:14pm | #
    Duvall's performance in Lonesome Dove may be the best acting job ever.

    Thumb's up from me - and I think the rest of the cast gave him plenty of support.

    Someone Who Doesn't Want to Lose His Job | March 7, 2008, 4:14pm | #
    I still want to do Bailey.

    Me too... and Emily Newhart... together or separately.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    Emily Newhart was...wait...let me think of it...Suzanne Pleshette, right? Oh, yeah. She was really unbearably hot too.

    I have a girls in glasses "thing", though.

    Thumb's up from me - and I think the rest of the cast gave him plenty of support.

    The scene where he hangs Jake is maybe the best performance ever.

  • ||

    Finally someone at Reason came to their senses and revised the swear word that was front and center on the home page. It's a shame though, that someone actually thought the F-word was acceptable usage for Reason's home page.

  • ||

    It's a shame though, that someone actually thought the F-word was acceptable usage for Reason's home page.

    I did...

  • Mrs Manners||

    Reason sucks

  • ||

    Hit & Run needs to follow Fark's lead, and create a filter that changes "reason sucks" to "I'm a sheep-molesting douche".

  • NP||

    The Wire is a third-rate crime drama that occasionally rises to the second-rate tier when it ceases, if only for a while, taking itself too seriously. How any sane person would give it a tenth of the respect it's been accorded so far is simply beyond me.

  • LarryA||

    So how do you change all of this? You change the numbers game. You require police to reconnect with the people, and you start focusing everybody on the major crimes, the ones that make living very, very difficult-murder, rape, and robbery.

    Once again:

    The [London] Metropolitan Police's founding principles and, de facto the founding principles of all other modern (post 1829) UK police forces, was summarised by Sir Richard Mayne (the first commissioner) in 1829 in the following terms:
    The nine principles by Sir Richard Mayne

    1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.

    2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.

    3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.

    4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.

    5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.

    6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

    7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

    8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.

    9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.


  • ||

    The Wire is a quality show with good, believable characters much like the too short Deadwood.

    One thing that really stands out with The Wire is, it clearly dramatizes the epic fail on every level that is the war on some drugs. From the cops, to the politicians, from the dealers to the users, The Wire pulls no punches and lays the hard realities of the war against drugs with all its unintended consequences.

    /Need a dramatic show about medical cannabis.

    //Weeds is more comedy than drama.

  • economist||

    I noticed that they censored the title. What the fuck is up with that?

  • ||

    I'd like to add someone from Six Feet Under, but although I think it was a great show, I'm not sure that any of the characters were quite to that level.


  • ||

    It's been great and like the article posted here the other day, Omar Little is one of the greatest characters on TV ever (along with Spock, Barney Fife, Archie Bunker, Al Swearingen, George Costanza, Livia Soprano, and probably the greatest ever: Andy Sipowicz).

    No love for TGIF? Steve Erkel, Michelle Tanner, and Balki Balkokovitch(sp?) all deserve a spot on that list. And what about Fox "MF'in" Mulder? And if Cathy Young were posting on this thread, I'm sure she'd say Xena Warrior Princess, and I'd agree. Jack Bauer too.

  • some guy||

    It's just pop culture. Transitory, disposable.
    Pay your cable bill. More tomorrow.
    Move along now.

  • ||

    What the fuck is with the title?

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    OK I was wrong. Michael isn't the new Marlo.

    I won't say much else, at the risk of spoiling it for someone.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    Except I'll say that the end of the Michael storyline was really cool.

    If that makes me a spoiler, then so be it.

  • ||

    Y'all forgot to mention Doogie Howser, if it weren't for him typing away on his computer at the end of each episode this blog wouldn't exist. True story.

  • Culprititus||

    I've been downloading episodes of this great Canadian show that is sort of a cross between Weeds and BBC show IT Crowd. It is extremely geek/nerdy at times with lots of social commentary. Never watched The Wire myself, but I have been interested in looking at it from all that I've heard and read.

  • Culprititus||

    oh yeah, the Canadian show is called JPod

  • ||

    The majority of the comments seem focused on the gritty entertainment 'the Wire' has provided, rather than Mr. Burns' useful, though baleful insights based on his experience in the real world. Maybe entertainment and real life are indistinguishable in our culture any more. He describes a program in Harlem designed to redeem the lost and disadvantaged children of the welfare state called the 'Children's Zone', whose basic philosophy 'is so logical and so obvious':

    "... what works in the middle class is that you have input, the healthy positive input into an infant every day of that child's life, as an infant and as a young child. Somebody's always there. That's how we raise our kids, and the success rate is very, very high. There are some failures in the middle class and the upper middle class, but the success rate is high."

    What quaint middle-class phenomenon is so logical and so obvious that social services professionals and educators and government aid workers have been missing all these years? By any other name they're called parents. Nothing is going to fix the intractable problems on the streets and in the schools except parents (caregivers or whatever euphemism you want to use) who are accountable to the community and take responsibility for raising the children that they, after all, have produced.

    Related References:

    Theodore Dalrymple in the City Journal

    Christopher Lasch, 'The Culture of Narcissism' (Among other things, the book describes how, beginning with the Progressive era around 1900, professional social services workers educators, therapists, and gov. bureaucrats have undermined the authority and accountability of parents.)


  • Nike Dunk Low||

    is good


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