Until the fifth and final season of The Wire aired this year, critics had been nearly unanimous in their praise for the Baltimore-based HBO show. But the last 10 episodes provoked furious debates between the program’s defenders and its suddenly swelling camp of detractors; a series that had always been praised for its realism was now damned for not being realistic enough. The chief cause of the ferment was the show’s critique of the Baltimore Sun, the newspaper where Wire co-creator David Simon began his career.
Setting aside the quarrel about the season’s artistic merit, the substance of Simon’s media criticism is worth considering. Over the course of those 10 episodes, what begins as a conventional litany of complaints about cutbacks and consolidation soon reveals itself as a more subtle and compelling argument, one that pays careful attention to the contours of Baltimore and its media while making points that apply to newspapers nationwide. I might not have a front-row seat at The Sun, but I’m not squinting from the back row either: I subscribe to the paper, my wife is a reporter there, and our circle of friends includes several current and former Sun staffers, some of whom had cameos on The Wire this year. (Disclaimer: What follows are my own opinions. They are not necessarily shared by anyone who happens to be married to me.)
Simon summarized his critique in an essay for the March Esquire. First, he recounts, the paper’s old owners sold The Sun to an outside chain, Times Mirror, and there were cutbacks; then another megacorp, the Tribune Company, swallowed Times Mirror, and there were more cutbacks. The outcome: “Instead of a news report so essential to the high-end readers that they might—even amid the turmoil of the Internet—still charge for their product online and off, American newspapers will soon be offering a shell of themselves in a market unwilling to pay for such and then, in desperation, giving the product away for free.…In Baltimore, the response will be to drop beats, to abandon the pretense of actually covering the city in detail, to regard institutional memory and the need to look at the city’s problems systemically as, well, quaint. The newsroom culture will instead emphasize impact.
“No longer would the journalism be rooted in the organic work of reporters sent into the streets to learn new things and then pull smart, balanced stories through the keyhole. Impact means prizes. Now you pick a target and, to the exclusion of all complexity, you hammer on that target, story after story. Most especially, you write additional accounts highlighting the ‘impact’ that The Sun’s coverage has achieved—covering your own coverage—the better to show that the newspaper has effected change.”
Note that this is not the familiar liberal narrative of newspaper decline. In the standard story, as in Simon’s version, short-sighted media companies chop the meat out of powerful papers. But in the usual account, those “impact” stories are the missing meat and the editors who assign them—in The Sun’s case, John Carroll and Bill Marimow, who edited the paper successively in the late ’90s and early ’00s—are the heroes standing up for journalistic “excellence.”
For Simon, by contrast, editors like Carroll and Marimow are a central part of the problem. Their stand-ins on The Wire are sanctimonious blowhards, their prize-hungry journalism a substitute for the real thing. Their quest for “impact” evokes Ivan Illich’s opening to his 1971 book Deschooling Society, with its disdain for the confusion of “process” with “substance,” its ire at a world where “Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve those ends.” It’s the same problem The Wire decries in police work and schooling, where decaying bureaucracies defend their performance by jacking up meaningless statistics.
I don’t agree with all of Simon’s take. It’s hard to believe, for example, that many newspapers could have kept themselves relevant while hiding their best online material behind a pay wall. And the focus on cutbacks qua cutbacks seems off. The problem with The Sun isn’t that it’s cutting back; it’s that it’s so thoughtless about where it cuts. The Wire made a big deal about The Sun’s disappearing international bureaus. (Eight years ago, it had outposts in five foreign countries. Now it has none.) But I would be happy to see the paper bring its overseas correspondents home if it would reinvest those resources in covering the city.
Instead, The Sun—which last year managed to find the money for an expensive redesign hated by virtually every reader in the metro area—no longer maintains a beat for each of the city’s major districts. Now it has just one reporter covering urban neighborhoods. It has also been closing its suburban offices, eliminating its bureau in Carroll County last year and losing its Baltimore County base while The Wire’s final season was airing. (The former county is growing rapidly, and half or more of the paper’s readers live in the latter.) When the Baltimore County staff moved to the paper’s downtown headquarters, a company spokesperson told the local alternative weekly that the reporters are “not in their office most of the time anyway. They can go out to Glen Burnie or Reisterstown from here just as quick as they could from Towson.”
For those of you who don’t live in the area: It is extremely unlikely that a Baltimore County reporter will have to cover anything in Glen Burnie, since Glen Burnie is not in Baltimore County. To get from the old bureau office to Glen Burnie, you must first move around or across an obscure little burg called the city of Baltimore. The fact that it is possible to be a spokeswoman for The Sun without knowing this speaks volumes.
The rupture between the paper and the area it covers is at the heart of Simon’s critique, and it’s here that I agree with him the most. It’s striking how much of The Sun’s coverage of Baltimore—especially, but not exclusively, the blacker, poorer parts of Baltimore—are written as though the subject is an alien landscape. But it shouldn’t be surprising.
There are basically two ways to get hired at The Sun. The standard method is to learn your craft at a series of smaller papers around the country. The other approach is to come directly to the paper from an elite university. The Sun has found a lot of fine journalists through these routes (especially the first one). But there used to be a third road to the paper: from the city itself, getting started as a copy boy or some other low-level position and gradually working your way up the ladder.
It’s valuable to have a number of Baltimore-bred correspondents who developed their skills and discovered their city at the same time. They have accumulated a wealth of local knowledge that can’t easily be replaced. Not only is this now essentially closed as a path to the paper, but the reporters who entered the building this way, along with other experienced hands, have been leaving as the newspaper hires cheaper but greener outsiders to replace them. There are solid reasons not to staff a newspaper only with native talent, but there are solid reasons as well to make sure they’re part of the mix—perhaps even for a special local outreach effort to find the next generation of copy boys made good. But that isn’t part of the professional culture of old-media journalism, at The Sun or anywhere else.
This isn’t intended as a nostalgic argument for bygone days. In some ways American journalism is better than it has ever been: There are more outlets to choose from, more ways to start an outlet of your own, more eyes monitoring the outlets’ output for errors, omissions, and lies. The larger mediasphere has grown more open to outside voices, even if specific channels such as The Sun have grown more insular and removed. For many topics, though not nearly enough, this means not just more commentary but more actual reporting.
But these developments make it all the more important that a paper respond to that competition by doing the things an urban newspaper is best suited to do. And that means intimate, collaborative coverage of a city by people who know it well—a style of journalism that has been in short supply both in the real Baltimore and in the Baltimore of The Wire. The major problem with The Sun is that it doesn’t seem to know what to do with the knowledge it has stored within its walls, and that it doesn’t seem to have noticed how much of that knowledge has already slipped out its doors.