Wed, Apr 01, 2009 - Page 14 News List


He might be amused by the success of ‘The Wire’ in the UK, but he isn’t surprised by it. After all, David Simon isn’t one for modesty

By Oliver Burkeman  /  THE GUARDAIN , BALTIMORE

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 modeled 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 unscrutinized. “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.”

The way Simon sees it, The Wire and Generation Kill are, above all else, an exercise in reporting: the pulling back of the curtain on the real America that should have been undertaken by newspapers, transposed instead into the multimillion-US dollar world of TV drama. “It’s fiction, I’m clear about that. But at its heart it’s journalistic.” Newspapers, he says, launching into a new tirade, “have been obsessed with what they called ‘impact journalism’ — take a bite-sized morsel of a problem, make a big noise, win a Pulitzer. It was bullshit! But it was the only thing they knew. But what America needed in the last two decades was not ‘impact journalism.’ What they needed was somebody explaining what the fuck was happening to the country.” The phrase he uses to describe the role newspapers should have been playing is also, you can’t help feeling, one Simon would like to see as his own epitaph: “A counterweight to bullshit.”

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