Say this much about the fifth and final season of HBO's celebrated Baltimore crime saga "The Wire": it's ending with a bang, not a whimper. After four seasons spent picking apart one civic pillar after another (the legal system, the political process, the school system), the show has turned its gun barrels on the media in season five and--go figure--the media is firing right back. A controversial storyline about a dishonest reporter and a phony serial killer has divided fans and television critics alike, and that's just fine with David Simon, the brain behind "The Wire." He's spent the last two months serving up impassioned, profanity-laced interviews and writing essays for The Washington Post and Esquire about the death rattle of his beloved newspaper industry. (Simon was a longtime reporter for The Baltimore Sun prior to his second career in television.) In print, Simon can come off as an overblown lefty crusader, which is one more reason you shouldn't believe everything you read. The guy just loves a good argument. He's also got a well-developed sense of humor about himself. When NEWSWEEK visited the Baltimore set of "The Wire" back in August 2007, Simon wrapped up a long, anticapitalist rant in a parking lot near the set with a weary laugh. "Christ," he said. "Listen to me spout my proletariat bullshit and then get into my Lexus SUV." It could be a moral for the show itself: no one's hands are completely clean. With just a few episodes of "The Wire" remaining--the series finale airs on March 9--Simon reflected on the season so far in an e-mail conversation with NEWSWEEK'S Devin Gordon. Fair warning to fans of the show who aren't caught up yet: what follows will spill a lot of beans, so if you don't want to know what happens in season five, stop reading right now. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Season five, more than any other, seems to pivot on a major plot device--the phony serial killer created by Detectives McNulty and Freamon, and by Scott Templeton, the Baltimore Sun reporter who unknowingly joins in on the lie. You pull it off with the show's usual verisimilitude, but I do think the plotline has asked fans to take something of a leap of faith. Knowing how much of the show comes directly from the experiences of your writers, was there a specific incident that inspired this storyline? And was there any debate among the writing team about whether it was believable enough?
David Simon: I disagree in all respects with the premise. We legalized drugs in West Baltimore in season three and did so in full view of half the police department, if not the community itself. Certainly, on that basis it required as much a leap of faith as anything conjured in this season. The manner in which the serial killer is faked--the forensic ambiguities of a post-mortem choking of a fresh corpse--are precisely accurate. I was in the chief medical examiner's office one morning when a county detective had to fight hard to avoid having an OD turned into a homicide by a cutter who was misreading the trauma. And the lack of attention paid to deaths in that particular cohort--the homeless--is rather stunning. We didn't stretch very far at all.
As for a reporter lying about it, I regard this development as not a device at all. We had a guy cooking it at The Sun, repeatedly. The newsroom got wise to it after repeated retractions. And cooking it is a commonality in all newsrooms. [Jayson] Blair … [Janet] Cooke, [Stephen] Glass--you ask any veteran newsman at any major paper and he'll recollect reporters who were caught and quietly dispatched, or who, for various reasons, were allowed to skate. And I love the way that whenever the latest incident occurs, the journalism community reacts as if it's the rarest of aberrations. At what point do we begin to acknowledge that the ambition inherent within the construct provokes some to fraud? The problem, I believe, is far more systemic than journalists will comfortably admit, and in fact, most Americans sense this. More than 60 percent believe that some portion of the news report is manufactured or exaggerated by reporters. Count me--a lover of newspapering--among that 60 percent, having seen it happen routinely in my own newsroom. So I don't feel as if there is anything particularly unbelievable about a guy cooking it.
Am I being too critic-y in thinking that the phony serial killer storyline is a dig at both the cultural consumption habits of Americans and Hollywood in general--that the only way to get anyone's attention these days is to throw a serial killer at them?
There is very much a critique in the fixation that Americans have with the pornography of violence, as opposed to the root causes of violence. We have zero interest in why the vast majority of violence actually happens and what might be done--politically, economically, socially--to address the issue. But give us a killer doing twisted s--t or, better still, doing it to pretty white girls, and the media and its consumers lose all perspective. We are definitely speaking to that.
The serial killer is killing homeless men. In Baltimore or elsewhere, who gives a f---? They are not white ex-cheerleaders lost in Aruba. They are not close. Nobody cares about that cohort. There were a series of homeless men killed the year I was in the Baltimore homicide unit [for Simon's 1991 book "Homicide"]. There was no task force, no outcry, no publicity and no arrests in any of the murders. This is America. Nobody gives a good f--- about the poor. Not really.
Given the rough treatment that the modern-day Baltimore Sun receives in the first half of the season, I was a bit surprised by their cooperation with you to film there. Why do you think they agreed?
I think that having credited "The Wire" on their own pages with undertaking a serious examination of the city and its problems, The Sun would look hypocritical backing away from the show at the moment when the critique turned to the media. And I think they understood that while that we would criticize certain specific trends--out-of-town ownership, cost-cutting to the point of the destroying the news-gathering abilities of a paper, the prize culture and what that ultimately leads to in the way of hype and, on increasing occasion, outright fraud--this critique would be undertaken by ex-reporters (Bill Zorzi, me) who loved our years at the Sun and are aggrieved at what has befallen newspapers. We are not writing unsympathetically. There is a lot of ordinary and good journalism that is exalted even as Templeton betrays the ethics of the craft and is encouraged by newsroom leadership that is more concerned about Pulitzers. And there is some heroic journalism that transpires even amid the cutbacks that brutalize the newsroom. In short, I think The Sun knew they didn't have a good choice either way, but they understood that the critique would not be vicious. And I don't think it is vicious. I have friends at The Sun still; I believe in the idea of newspapers. And I don't think The Sun fares any worse than any critique of any number of second-tier papers would: The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Philly Inquirer, the San Diego Union, the S.F. Chronicle, the L.A. Times. I think The Sun gets that it isn't exactly about them. It's about what is happening to newspapers nationwide.
Clark Johnson, who plays Sun editor Gus Haynes, described him to me as "the kind of editor every good reporter dreams of." Is he just a dream or is he based on anyone in particular?
I had a great editor, Rebecca Corbett, from the time I was a city reporter right through to the years I worked on the Sun's enterprise reporting team. She is now at The New York Times and [is] one of the stars of the place. She made my s--t 30 percent better, day in and day out. So no, Gus is not simply a dream. There are great editors and mentors on many a metro desk, and I wrote Gus Haynes with a bit of Rebecca Corbett in mind. A bit of Steve Luxenberg, too, who was the metro editor when I got to The Sun and who is now at The Washington Post. I put admirable qualities of real people in there and then I added a few--blunt speaking, profane wit, courage of conviction--that I've always liked in certain characterizations. Credit Clark's performance with making Haynes as likeable as he is, but credible? Why yes, I've known some editors who led by example and by integrity and in my own career, I was blessed to be guided by a couple of them.
This may turn into more of a comment than a question, but either way I'd like to hear your thoughts. The three "bad" characters at the Sun--Templeton, the lying, overambitious reporter, and Whiting and Klebanow, the two top editors who coddle him--often feel more like caricatures to me than characters. Their sleaziness (in the case of the reporter) and their gullibility (in the case of the editors) seems to define them. "The Wire" has always impressed me with its willingness to find the complexity in all its characters, and so far, at least, I don't feel like these three have received the same courtesy. You and your writers seem particularly hateful toward these characters, maybe with good reason, but watching them, I can't help but wonder if your own experiences at the paper has colored your portrayal of them.
What would you have me say? Is the reporter who makes s--t up to serve his own ambition not going to be hateful to some viewers? Is Marlo not hateful for being a sociopath? Is Major Rawls not hateful for serving only his own interests? Are these characters somehow more nuanced? What do you, as a journalist, feel about Jayson Blair, about Jack Kelley, about Stephen Glass? Do you find it incredible that an ambitious soul would make s--t up and print it? Why? Are you that credulous? It keeps happening with a routine frequency. Do you think that the ones who get caught are the only guys doing it?
As for the editors with their eyes on the prize, are they different from Howell Raines and the guys at The New Republic who belittled the concerns of other editors and reporters, who derided the critique of such favored reporters as Bragg or Blair as jealousies and newsroom politics? They are who they are, and they are judging themselves by standards and accomplishments that lead them to be blind. I don't believe that Whiting and Klebanow are actively covering up what they know to be a fraud. We didn't write that at all. But they are resistant to hearing criticism of their newsroom culture and what they have wrought by emphasizing the wrong things. And this is exactly what came to be known about the editors who impaled themselves on Blair, Kelley, Cooke. We've depicted the higher editors exactly as they were said to have behaved in the inevitable post mortems that followed those scandals. It's accurate and it's precise.
One of the things I've loved about "The Wire" over the years is the way it shows how something so quotidian as incompetence can contribute to the decay of a city, and surely there are newsrooms in cities across the country filling up with young, naive, ambitious, simply not-very-good--but perfectly honest--reporters. Why was it necessary to take Templeton's character into such obviously unsympathetic territory?
We wanted to explore the fundamental dishonesty of a reporter cooking it because, again, we believe the problem is more common than the profession would wish readers to believe. And let me reverse the question on you: Is it possible to write a reporter who is making s--t up for any other reason than personal ambition? What other reason is there? Guys who cook it do so because they want to come to the campfire with an even better story than they actually have. Why? Because it makes them the best storyteller in the room and establishes them as a star in the firmament. The ambition is the raison d'etre of the sin itself.
Also, "The Wire" has shown many things that have shaped tragedy in our mythical Baltimore. In your question, you are choosing the quotidian incompetence and exalting it, as if it's all just bureaucratic failure and missed opportunities. But personal ambition has been on display in every institution and has led to failure: the desire for personal promotion, to be elected, to get paid. What "The Wire" has shown as much or more than quotidian incompetence is a citywide web of conflicting ambitions and desires. Valchek is so petty he wants to destroy another man and his union over a church window, an act of sheer vanity. Carcetti has betrayed principles and people in need on any occasion that gets him closer to holding higher office. Yet you give them a buy as somehow more authentic than Templeton? Is it because you don't expect much of police majors and politicians to begin with? Take a look at what would impel you to ask the question now, when a journalist is the one on the block.
When a friend who loves the show asked me to describe the fifth season so far, I told him "Everyone pretty much goes nuts." It's a flip summary, for sure, but is it accurate?
I think it's flip, sorry. The season is about how far individuals and institutions and society in general can go on a lie. And if you think that theme is hyperbolic and that lies as big as manufactured serial killers and hyped newspaper copies are too big and too outrageous to sustain themselves, I'd simply point to this ugly mess of a war we are in, why we are in it, what was printed and broadcast and declared by the nation's elite and its top media outlets. You look at Iraq and how we got there and McNulty and Templeton are pikers by comparison. The season is about the chasm between perception and reality in American life and how we are increasingly without the tools that allow us to recognize our true problems, much less begin to solve them. Everybody goes crazy? Who? McNulty? Freamon? They quit playing by the rules in a rigged game. That's almost a form of sanity, self-destructive as it might turn out to be.