The Baltimore Sun newsroom: a real newspaper?

Scott Templeton: a deserving winner?

Bubbles: tour guide to the underworld.

Carcetti: “We will protect you!”

Clay Davis: bringing light to the common people, one electricity bill at a time.

Brother Mouzone is no Brother Malcolm.

Election day: Move on up.

Out with the old.

In with the new?

Silent witness stays the same ...

... with only a change in camera angle.

The audacity of despair.

David Simon at Loyola University talking about ‘"the decline of the American empire."

David Simon (left) and Ed Burns (right) on the set of Generation Kill.



Season five takes as its theme the mass media. Journalists too find themselves inhabiting a dark corner of the American experiment.They too find themselves in a different relation to the city from what they once had. Beset by pressures of bylines, deadlines and prizes alongside problems created by cutbacks, out-of-town ownership, buyouts of the most experienced staff and declining circulation, reporters find themselves disconnected from the city they are charged to report. Some go for the fast track to promotion and prizes, undercutting the process of building long-term knowledge of long-term situations, establishing contacts, creating trust, and understanding more of the context in which they operate.

Simon believes that the indifferent logic of Wall Street has poisoned relations between newspapers and their cities. The management of the Baltimore Sun, as represented in the series, is preoccupied with gaining Pulitzer prizes. The newspaper's formula, according to Simon, is this:

"Surround a simple outrage, overreport it, claim credit for breaking it, make sure you find a villain, then claim you effected change as a result of your coverage."[37][open endnotes in new window]

Much journalism focuses on the symptoms rather than the disease, which Simon compares to coming to a house hit by a hurricane and making voluminous notes on the displaced roof tiles. One type of story is "small, self-contained and has good guys and bad guys," whereas the other is informed by a bigger picture and a longer history and reveals what is happening in society.[38]

In The Wire we see the marginalization of journalists who know the city and write about it with high standards for accuracy and context. They face the work of other journalists who are cutting corners and going for the glittering prizes, sometimes even at the expense of the true story. Thus the character Scott Templeton, who gets into the habit of making up what he can’t find, is lionized by his managing editors and wins a Pulitzer Prize. Those who start to wonder and check the facts, particularly the honourable and meticulous city editor, Gus Haynes, are undermined. Thus, this plotline mirrors what happens in the police force, school system and city hall.

The Wire has a thoughtful scene structure that plays out across its various seasons. Throughout the series, some scenes parallel each other almost exactly. For example, in one episode a cop vents his frustration and remarks that he would like to experience what it would be like to work in "a real police department." Later in the same episode we hear a journalist lament that he would like someday to find out what it would be like to work in a "a real newspaper." In city hall and in the school system, we hear echoes of the same regret and aspiration. While cops and journalists both speak from within the restricted viewpoints of their respective jobs, the viewer is aware of the grander narrative sweep. The problems these workers identify are not isolated and unconnected but part of a deeper systemic logic that pervades all such institutions and encumbers all of their efforts. Each season ends with a stylish and stirring montage that pulls together the various storylines and projects them into the immediate future, leaving the viewer pondering the storylines' outcomes and reflecting on their causes and consequences.

In the newspaper plotline, the conflict is not just about the stories that the reporters get wrong for one reason or another, but about the fact that they fail to get at all the major stories that dominate the drama, things which the viewers but not the reporters understand. That, according to Simon, is the "big ass elephant in our mythical newsroom."[39] The reporters do not uncover the stories about juking the stats on crime or education. They do not reveal that this is being driven by city hall or that the mayor is reverting to the practices he pledged to reform. They do not probe the connections between property transactions and political corruption. They have no idea of how the drugs trade works. The death of Proposition Joe, a major player in East Baltimore drugs, is relegated to the inside pages and the death of Omar, a semi-mythic figure in West Baltimore, is bumped from the paper altogether.

We do see the underworld of drug addiction and homelessness as pursued by two different journalists in diametrically opposed ways. One inflates his investigation and pitches it for career advancement. The other looks and listens carefully and opens that world through a life story sensitively told.

In depicting the world of print journalism, the script provides a strong sense of social decline, driven by the Simon’s own experience of reporting for the Baltimore Sun and then following its transformation over the past few decades. In one scene, two journalists remember why they wanted to be newspapermen. One recalls seeing his father read the paper every morning at breakfast so thoroughly and intently that the child wanted to be part of something so important as to require that sort of concentrated attention. Another told of a man whom he saw on the bus every day and how that man folded his paper in sections and read it with such great care. There is a sense of a loss of coherence in a society where the daily newspaper was once part of a wider workaday ritual.

"That black pride bullshit"

Another absence, also evoking a sense of social decline, is political protest. We see little organized opposition to the deindustrialisation and demoralization of the city and to the macroeconomic forces driving the city's decline. The protests we do see are effectively stunts, stage-managed from the top. On one occasion new mayor Tommy Carcetti is seeking to divert attention from the failings of the law enforcement and education systems. He exploits a growing sense of outrage surrounding an apparent spate of homeless murders by organizing a candlelight vigil outside city hall. By this masterful piece of politicking, he can place the blame for homelessness on federal and state administrations, both Republican, as opposed to the Democratic city administration. Carcetti knows better than what he does. On one occasion, he anticipates what his advisor is thinking by invoking the injunction about speaking truth to power.[40]

On another occasion, when Clay Davis, corrupt state senator, goes on trial, he manages to transform the accusation of gross corruption to self-defense against a racist witch-hunt. He presents himself as a beneficent patron of the city’s black poor, his pockets never full for long, as he hears his constituents' troubles and pays their bills. He arrives at the courthouse carrying a copy of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, the tale of

"a simple man, who was horrifically punished by the powers that be for the terrible crime of trying to bring light to the common people."

In the courtroom, drawing on the rhetoric of the civil rights movement, Davis skillfully manipulates the discourses of race and class against his opponents, who, he claims, have no idea how things are for the black poor. He refers to those pulling the strings above the black state attorney. He enlists a corrupt former mayor to his cause, who makes reference to those "persecuting ... our leaders." This courthouse rally culminates in a chorus of We shall not be moved. While it is apparent that significant sections of the black political establishment are engaged in graft, the enduring and systemic character of inequality enables them to draw on a radical tradition and to distort it to nefarious ends.

The spirit of the 60s finds such echoes elsewhere in The Wire. Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell regularly use the black power handshake. In one conversation Avon refers teasingly to their youthful enthusiasm for "that black pride bullshit." Brother Mouzone, an enforcer brought from New York to Baltimore by the Barksdales, is a ruthless gun for hire, whose appearance evokes Malcolm X, but he is without substance. He prides himself on reading The Nation, New Republic, Atlantic Monthly and Harpers, but how he relates the political debates in them to his role as enforcer in the drugs trade is unclear. A philosophy of collective liberation has morphed into a Hobbesian war of all against all. For all their talk of being brothers, Avon and Stringer have already betrayed each other and Avon has set in motion the murder of Stringer.

This tradition of black radicalism is sometimes evoked in a more positive way. When Cutty Wise is released from prison and finally escapes the drug trade to open a community boxing club, his new optimism is underlined during an election day jog, accompanied on his walkman by Curtis Mayfield’s Move on up, a significant moment of scoring in a series that largely eschews the use of a musical soundtrack. Such optimism is undercut, however, when Cutty is canvassed and admits that as a former felon he is barred from voting, a mechanism that further disempowers the underclass.

In this depiction of black Baltimore, echoes of the sixties are weak — considering the scale and dynamism of the upheavals that shook the U.S. and the world in the 1960s and 1970s, when masses marched against war, racism, sexism, imperialism, when there was a longing for liberation, when there was such striving to live in a new way. The Wire cannot make present, however, what is absent or attenuated in the wider culture that it represents. The script gives a strong sense that this movement has been both co-opted and defeated. The residue of the civil rights movement seems to have left in Baltimore a lack of confidence in collective action, a lack of faith in alternative possibilities.[41]

"All the pieces matter."

Contemporary political references abound in the series. The aftermath of 9/11 surfaces in showing how the FBI reordered its priorities from drug investigations to the war on terror. In one instance, an INS agent points out a sign for the Department of Homeland Security and asks McNulty if he feels any different. McNulty admits that he didn’t vote in the 2004 election, because neither Bush nor Kerry had any idea of what was going on where he works.

Other plotlines bring in contemporary events. One journalist refers to a call that a colleague supposedly received from a serial killer and remarks that it must be strange to talk to a psychopath. In response, another reminds them that he interviewed Dick Cheney once. Another time, a woman in the city informs an old friend that her sister is working at a school in the county "teaching every nigger to speak like Condoleeza." And as a police seminar on anti-terrorism descends into farce, one officer calls out, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," a reference to George Bush's infamous post-Katrina comment to the head of FEMA.[42]

Iraq is a recurring point of reference, not only directly, but analogically. The story of a homeless Iraqi war veteran features in the final season. Police patrolling the streets of Baltimore compare the city to Fallujah, with one recommending the use of air strikes and white phosphorous. Furthermore, the whole war on drugs is meant to mirror the war on terror. One sequence, for example, alludes to the twin towers of 9/11. After the demolition of two housing project towers indirectly triggers a protracted and pointless power struggle, one gangster says, "If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie."[43]

As the series moves to its conclusion, various scenes evoke the beginning. In the final episode, Detective Sydnor meets with Judge Phelan just as McNulty did in the first episode. Detectives go to a crime scene in the low-rises where they find a body in the shadow of the same statue where the body of a witness murdered in season one was found. We see Michael become the new Omar and Dukie become the new Bubbles. The concluding scenes, particularly the final montage, are marshalled to show that the police department, drug trade, school system, newspaper, and city hall all carry on in the same way. No matter what characters have risen or fallen or died, the cycle continues and the system survives.

The series is more diagnostic than prescriptive. Nevertheless, Simon has said that he intends the show to be a political provocation. As interviewers ask what sort of political response he means to provoke, he has replied that he is a not social crusader, claiming to be a storyteller coming to the campfire with truest possible story he can tell. What people do with that story, he says, is up to them.[44] Simon admits he's pessimistic about the possibility of political change since he finds the political infrastructure bought, journalism eviscerated, the working class decimated, and the underclass narcotized. The Wire exhibits the "audacity of despair."[45]

While occasionally Simon indicates politicians lack courage to take on real problems, ultimately he sees the problems as rooted in systemic failure. Underlying The Wire’s story-arc is the conviction that social exclusion and corruption do not exist in spite of the system but because of it. Its scepticism about reform comes from recognizing that substantive social change is not possible "within the current political structure."[46] Simon has declared the series to be about "the decline of the American empire."[47]

No such critique of the U.S. empire is detectable in the most recent production of Simon and Burns on HBO, the Iraq war drama Generation Kill. Based on the writings of an embedded journalist, Evan Wright, it stands in strong contrast to The Wire. The new miniseries abandons a multi-perspectival structure and systemic critique. It does have some features in common with The Wire: the sense of institutional imperatives, a perception-driven bureaucracy, and the conflicting aims of the troops and their commanding officers. The recon marines just want to do their job, while the officers want headline-busting tactical and strategic coups. Yet the script does not question what that job is. The drama is myopic. Despite the fact that Simon and Burns oppose the war, any critique of the war is absent and the system driving the war remains unquestioned in the drama. Furthermore, the voices of Iraqis are all but silent.

While The Wire offers a critique of the war on drugs, Generation Kill does not offer a critique of the war on Iraq. While it does demonstrate that the war is badly organized and executed, the miniseries gives no sense that the war itself is illegitimate or immoral. It identifies all too fully with the point of view of the soldiers on the ground and indicates that if they were not frustrated by their commanders, they could do a worthwhile job of soldiering well. Hopefully, Simon and Burns' new project Treme, set in post-Karina New Orleans, will be a return to their best work.

"A Marxist’s dream of a series"

The Wire's narrative and metanarrative have prompted some commentators to see it as "a Marxist’s dream of a series."[48] In a session at the Museum of Television and Radio, Ken Tucker introduced Simon as "the most brilliant Marxist to run a TV show."[49] While Simon did not contradict Tucker, he has elsewhere asserted that he is not a Marxist. When asked if he is a socialist, he has declared that he is a social democrat. He believes that capitalism is the only game in town, that it is not only inevitable but unrivalled in its power to produce wealth.

However he opposes

"raw, unencumbered capitalism, absent any social framework, absent any sense of community, without regard to the weakest and most vulnerable classes in society — it’s a recipe for needless pain, needless human waste, needless tragedy."[50]

Simon is for radical redistribution — "no trickle down bullshit"[51] — but not "to each according to his needs" either.[52] Nevertheless, everything in The Wire calls for a system requiring from each according to their abilities and giving to each according to their needs.

As to class struggle, characters struggle individually, but there is no sign of concerted class struggle likely to emerge as a counter-force of significant consequence. Simon identifies with the social existentialism of Camus: To commit to a just cause against overwhelming odds is absurd, but not to commit is equally absurd. Only one choice, however, offers the slightest chance for dignity.[53] Simon also refers on a number of occasions to Sisyphus rolling a large rock up a hill. The Wire has told a

"darker, more honest story on American television ... indifferent to the calculations of real estate speculators, civic boosters and politicians looking toward higher office."[54]

Simon is "proud of making something that wasn’t supposed to exist."[55]

What Simon thinks of Marxism is one thing (and it is not always clear), but what Marxists think of him is another. The Wire is a Marxist’s idea of what TV drama should be. Its specific plots open into an analysis of the social-political-economic system shaping the whole. The series has demonstrated the potential of television narrative to dramatize the nature of the social order, a potential that TV drama has long neglected or inadequately pursued.

In probing the parameters of the intricate interactions between multiple individuals and institutions, the complex script, seen over all the seasons, excavates the underlying structures of power and stimulates engagement with overarching ideas. It bristles, even boils over, with systemic critique. While it offers no expectation of an alternative, it provokes reflection on the need for one and an aspiration towards one. It may not have been written by Marxists to dramatize a Marxist worldview, but it is hard to see how a series written on this terrain by Marxists would be much different from The Wire.

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