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February 04, 2008



To see what The Wire is positing on the media its inability to deliver any meaningful analysis of actual problems, it might be helpful to notice how stunted and small the ambitions of the newspaper actually are. And then, whether this mediocrity is indeed the currency of too many news organizations.

What are they covering? What are they incapable of covering? What are they capable of addressing in any kind of systemic, intelligent way.

As to why no consumers actually care about urban stories? Either because they are never actually offered such in a qualitative way, or because such stories are inaccessible to a top-down, predominantly white, middle-class newsroom. "Where am I gonna find homeless people?" indeed. Is there an audience for such stories, well told? A small one, perhaps. Wire-sized. Not Soprano-sized. But that's entertainment. Good journalism is supposed to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, regardless of the profit-margin. Or at least that's the nobility to which journalists like to pretend. But in this newsroom, too many people are looking to aggrandize themselves, build resumes, win prizes, while at the same time cutting back on resources.

And in the middle, Gus Haynes with a city, uncovered in so many respects. Or miscovered, perhaps.

Given the cutbacks, given the external pressure of the internet, given the myopia of a newsroom culture that emphasizes gotcha and prizes and personal ambition, how is it even possible that anything deliberate, and unhyped and analytical can be undertaken? It's a subtle portrayal, perhaps, and it asks the viewer to consider what isn't happening in that newsroom as much as they view what is occurring.

Everyone's attention is focused on the fabulist. Or on the fathead editors who are Pulitzer-conscious. But underlying all of it is a depiction of a news product that doesn't get close to the human truths demonstrated out in the street. It's what IS NOT happening that is the sociopolitical narrative. Even if they wanted to be more sophisticated in addressing these problems, could the people in that newsroom -- as a whole, given the financial limitations and the low ambition of their leadership -- achieve such? The Wire is saying that newspapers are aiming lower than ever and becoming, well, simple in their pursuit of the American narrative. You see that in what doesn't happen onscreen.


I think that's all spot on--but the show has created its own distractions that pull viewer attention away from that sociopolitical narrative. The best Sun scenes came in the first and second episodes, before Templeton's fabrications were overwhelming everything else that's going wrong in the newsroom. All the problems are spelled out there--reporters who passively watch a fire, editors who encourage florid heartstring-tugging, careerists who can't be bothered to cultivate local knowledge. The fabulist plot distracts from those criticisms much as the fake serial killer is pulling resources away from the real cases.

(By the way, I thought it was telling that Gus doesn't recognize the real names of Proposition Joe and Hungry Man the way he did Fat Face Ricky's--the bullshit serial killer story has distracted him from the real gang war that's about to explode.)

Fabulism and plagiarism are absolutely legitimate targets and I can see why Simon and Bill Zorzi want to go after them, especially since it apparently happened at the Sun. But they're just a symptom of the deeper structural problems weakening journalism, and the last two or three episodes have focused too much on the symptom.

Anyway, thanks for writing.


Actually, I thought the editor didn't recognize Prop Joe's given name because Joe was so decidedly and intentionally low-profile, a tribute, perhaps, to Joe's way of doing business.

Headline atop a two-paragraph brief:

"Second-hand electronics shop owner found shot to death in home. No suspects or witnesses, police report."

As to dealing with the macro in the last few episodes, what about having no one at the courthouse to be aware of an ongoing grand jury investigation and perp walk for Clay Davis, coupled with the info that the city court reporter's voice mail is still working, though the reporter is long gone? A newspaper so marginalized by TV, the internet and declining circulation that prosecutors make only a cursory effort to assure coverage of something they want in the public domain? Haynes says as much.

Or the disappearance of the fabulist from the vaunted schools project, hurtled as he is into opportunistic and inch-deep coverage of homelessness as an issue. First the school project was given narrow boundaries -- keep it simple, the schools are at fault, larger societal pressures complicate the narrative -- and now the guy assigned as the lead reporter has effectively reassigned himself even from that narrow-scope effort. Sure, he's a fabulist and now he's covering fiction. But the institution's ability to follow through on its own stated goals -- a school project -- turns out to be paper thin. The editors don't know he's a faker or that the homeless killings are bogus; they just know there is suddenly more traction on one issue than another. We know, from season four, how essential the school disaster is to understanding what has become of the city. But editorially, the newspaper doesn't have the gravitas to sustain a serious, or even non-serious look, at the issue. They are reactive. And thin. Hopelessly so.

It's subtle. But season five seems to be operating in a negative, what's-missing-from-the-picture motif. You have to look at what isn't there and what isn't connecting to the Baltimore depicted in the earlier seasons. As viewers, we now know something of the city and it's problems and we can watch as The Sun flails around not getting close to what we know to be real and essential. It's not just reporters watching a fire burn, or a single fabulist, it's an institution that can no longer even comprehend the larger idea of a real fire, really burning.

Jones, one of the Jones boys

If The Wire is really about the decline of civic institutions and urban decay in the US--and I agree that it is--then the obvious question *isn't* Yglesias' one viz. why the media should be a focus, along with law enforcement, politics, organized labour and education.

The question is: where's health care on that list?

I adore the show and, heck, the writers can write about whatever the hell they want to write about (i.e. no fan entitlement here, I hope). But given the show's themes and Simon's stated intentions, a season on the US health system seems like an absolute no brainer.


Suggestion: The problem with building such a subtle critique and asking viewers to look at what isn't there is that we're more naturally inclined to look at what is there, especially when what's happening on the screen is so broadly drawn. The show has created a huge distraction that pulls against the subtler aspects of its media critique, which I agree are still there. But they're fighting for column inches.

"it's an institution that can no longer even comprehend the larger idea of a real fire, really burning"

That hits the nail right on the head, perfectly capturing the show's larger criticism of postmodern culture. I think the season delivers it best in the non-Templeton, non-Whiting scenes, though, where it delivers tight little jabs of realistically observed detail and not broad caricatures.

Jones: Since it's now focused so broadly on civic institutions, The Wire is potentially expandable to any number of areas if only HBO had the interest. Simon has said that if they did do a sixth season, which he never planned on and HBO doesn't appear to be biting on, it would be about Latino immigration. If I heard they were plotting a seventh season on colleges I would hunt them down and bombard them with horror stories from my last job until they agreed to hire me. So yeah, they could write about anything, though I'm glad we won't see the show degenerate into a painfully earnest issue-of-the-year fest. The show needs to hold onto its original focus on drug crime and police investigation or else it loses its best dramatic hook.

I do think it's important that they've broadened out to the media. This is the first time we've seen the show tackle white-collar labor, the cultural industry, and the cultural aspects of postmodern society.


I agree with that completely. It is always easy for the drama to overwhelm the subtext. But the drama needs to drive story because subtext never can.

A series of disassociative scenes of bad journalistic impulses or indifferent journalistic decisions would clear the room of viewers in no time.

In this same way, journalists who complain that there isn't enough about how the internet is devouring newspaper work are up against this same logic. Scenes of bloggers downloading Baltimore Sun reportage, offering it for free along with their own commentary are to the point. But as far as story and plot, who gives a shit? The presence of the internet and its influence has to be acknowledged of course -- the top editor did so when announcing buyouts and bureau closures -- but it is the economic preamble of the story. It is not much of any story worth telling as a drama, however. It is good premise, but anti-drama in the extreme.

But you are on it as to how fragile subtext is within the context of narrative. Only those people watching carefully and thoughtfully are likely to encounter it.

By the way, your fresh essay is great.



I've been idly wondering how (or if) the show could incorporate the internet more prominently without seeming like it's pandering. I mean, if they had a blogger character--that would just be sad, like a paunchy divorced dad trying to work a college bar. (The only way I can see it working is if they have a reporter/Sun employee who blogs for the paper. Or more importantly, if they had a larger purpose for featuring such a character.) You're right, the pre-season fuss from critics like David Zurawik is overwrought; the internet is there about as much as it needs to be.

I like the recent expansion out from the Sun to other media with wider audiences: that strikes me as a characteristically Wire-like move from the local and the particular to the bigger picture. And those scenes work as punchy little bursts because they're tied into the larger story (and not always the fabulist story--thinking particularly of Clay's radio rounds) and they don't hit us with a lot of expository dialogue. Maybe we're over that hump by now?

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