'The Story of the America That Got Left Behind'
The Wire's creator, David Simon, speaks at UT
By Wells Dunbar,
4:52PM, Wed. Mar. 19, 2008
"He had many good qualities," David Simon said of the man the award he received last night was named for: newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst. He also noted Hearst "outran a bunch of 'em."
At UT to receive the 2008 William Randolph Hearst Fellow award, David Simon – journalist, author, television writer, and maybe most famously, creator of the critically revered HBO series The Wire – cited three reasons for coming, The first was UT School of Journalism director Lorraine Branham, who worked along Simon when he started at the Baltimore Sun writing stories for the cop blotter "all ending with the phrase, 'police have no suspects.'" Second, he'd never been to Austin – or her many fine barbecue establishments. Third, he was "really tickled" to accept the Hearst award, as this May Day, he's scheduled to accept the Upton Sinclair award, named for The Jungle author, "liberal neo-socialist muckracker," and one-time California gubernatorial candidate – whose hopes were dashed by Hearst's printed smears.
For Simon, a man who's traded in bitter institutional ironies over The Wire's five seasons, this was too good. "These two men, who are dead many a year – they hate each other!" Moderator and UT film instructor John Pierson inquired about Simon's newest project – a potential TV series set in New Orleans, one he doesn't quite "have a green light on" yet. Here he hopes to address something he fears came across too subtly on The Wire – his belief that "cities matter." While the soul of Baltimore came across at times obliquely, a New Orleans tale – about "people trying to reconstitute their lives in a neighborhood, post-Katrina" – "can demonstrate in a filmic way why the city matters … In New Orleans, it's coming down the street at you in a second-line parade."
He said it would be a smaller story than the sprawling Wire, yet equally wary of didacticism: Simon's disdain for the quasi-fictionalized Sun newspaper's Pulitizer-sniffing sensibilities in The Wire's fifth and final season is apparent in the nuanced perspective of all his work. "Very few" of the public crusades he witnessed during his tenure at the Sun felt "honest or organic." (Controversy has dogged this season's portrayal of the Sun newsroom, and Simon's decision to staff it with fictionalized versions of his previous bosses there – whom he doesn't exactly hold in high regard.) He similarly feels his entertainments can't explicitly advocate for change, lest they be seen as hectoring. "The show has to be it," Simon says.
Although that 's not to say Simon isn't outspoken. "For 40 years, a policy has failed and failed miserably," Simon said of the so-called war on drugs, a prevalent theme throughout The Wire, his book and HBO miniseries The Corner, and to some extent, his Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets book and the NBC series it inspired (most accomplished with the help of collaborator Ed Burns). Citing a recent Pew Center study counting one in 100 adult Americans behind bars, Simon said "we're locking up people faster than ever – and they're less violent." A question premised on the fall of the American empire had Simon responding, "I'm not sure that's such a bad thing." Describing America as an oligarchy with democratic tendencies, he pointed out, "I have a lot of opinions," but for his current project with Burns, an HBO miniseries adaptation of nonfiction tome Generation Kill – about the first wave of recon marines storming Baghdad – "my opinions don't belong in that piece." Whereas "The Wire was a political argument," Simon said the tone of Kill is author's Evan Wright's.
With the J-School setting, and The Wire's recently-wrapped season on the press, the topic of the media kept returning. Simon agreed with the widely-held belief the Internet has left newspapers in the lurch, calling bloggers and newshounds that editorialize on reporting "basically a parasite that's killing the host." But he lays blame at the papers themselves for not making a more indispensable product. Saying the Sun was willing to put "500 boots on the ground" in the 1980s to to vanquish the competition, they weren't willing to do so later, for the sake of providing a "better product." "So when it (the Internet) came," said Simon,"the paper that greeted it was less essential."
Also, a discussion of the term "Dickensian" as the ultimate pejorative arose. Simon has beef with the dead Briton; instead of laying blame for his characters miseries at the feet of the industrial revolution, there's always "some benevolent soul stepping in at the end" to right the wrongs – "the right guy" – when in reality, "there's not enough right guys to fix it." When, in Wire season 5, the Sun turns its attentions to "the Dickensian aspect" of Baltimore's homeless, Simon sees it as a exercise in self-aggrandizement designed to hammer one quantifiable aspect of a social ill, while ignoring the larger problem. "The little waif … I can win a prize with that shit!"
A question and answer session shined a light on the cottage industry for academics The Wire has spawned, with not one, but two questioners describing their use of the series in the classroom. Simon also returned to the concept of jury nullification – advocating juries refuse to indict in nonviolent drug cases despite the evidence – a topic The Wire writers recently addressed in an Time Magazine editorial as a way to address the failure of the drug war free of constricting institutional ties.
"It's the story of the America that got left behind," Simon said of his series. "That's what those five years were about."