The 'Why' is Epic.

David Simon

I got to ask David Simon a question!

The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism hosted a talk with David Simon, creator of The Wire, which all journalists agree is the best show ever. Despite this past season in the newsroom. I braved rush hour traffic in Connecticut to go.

You should know now that I have an incredible, inexplicable crush on David Simon. I know I’ve been harsh in my reviews of some season 5 episodes on this blog. The thing is, I’ve been looking forward to his examination of newsrooms since G.D. started telling me about the show a few months ago. I haven’t been a Wire fan for very long, but when I fell, I fell hard. It’s mostly an intellectual crush, but it’s a crush, nonetheless. That’s probably why I didn’t like the newspaper storyline; my expectations were pretty high. Watching the show this season I felt the same way I’d feel if I saw George Clooney that I (don’t really) know and love in a Michael Bay movie.

The challenges facing today’s newspapers are complex, and I personally don’t believe the show did as good a job with it as it’s done with everything else. The Scott Templeton story line was distracting and, a bigger sin, not particularly entertaining. It wasn’t as entertaining as the real life stories which many people know about Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. The meta story Simon says he was aiming for, that of a newsroom so detached from its city and focused on prizes that it misses all of the true stories, isn’t fed by the narrative of someone whose just making crap up out of ambition. In my opinion, a newsroom disabled by rounds and rounds of cuts and filled with 20-somethings, like me, and reporters who just aren’t very good, like Templeton, rather than seasoned veterans with institutional memory, is a better one. I think it better makes his point. He keeps insisting the Templeton storyline was true and pertinent, but he hasn’t clearly explained why lying tells the same story of systemic degradation that we’ve seen in every other Baltimore institution through the show. Mostly, though, Simon seems proud that no one, or at least, few journalists who comment on the show, got the meta story. He seems to think it proves his point with journalism, that no one is watching the bigger picture. He should know that sometimes a story that nobody gets is a story not effectively told.

The great respect and intellectual crush I have on Simon also probably explains why I got unreasonably nervous when I asked him my question after standing in line for half an hour at the mic. Whatever question I managed to ask after stumbling through my nervousness and mumbling over the sound of my pounding heart, I wanted his answer to be “That’s the smartest question ever, you’re hired!” I asked about the Templeton storyline. He said the same thing he’s always said about how it’s true, it’s not that rare, and he wouldn’t change a word.

Simon is a personable speaker, and his passion as he talked about the plight of newsrooms was better than much of what made it into the 5th season. He said he’s afraid not enough of today’s newspaper reporters are asking the big “why” question, which, of course, is what makes a story worth doing. The “why” is generally what people don’t tell you as you report a story, so it’s the hardest thing to get at. He’s not wrong. And he feels that newspapers made a bad deal in the beginning by putting their stuff online for free, and by trying to do the kinds of things that the web and broadcast do better anyway. He, and others, think long form journalism that is nuanced, analytical, and well-written would save newspapers. Unfortunately, that’s not the climate newspapers reporters live in. Simon kept saying there are no incentives for doing those kinds of stories. But the truth is it’s not about that. There’s not always enough time for the half of the reporters left in newsrooms to do them and not enough space in the paper for stories that explain.

In response to a question about why he never really showed characters smoking pot, he said it probably would have been more realistic, but he didn’t want to reinforce the false notion that marijuana is a gateway drug and is associated with drugs like heroine. When asked if he was afraid of reinforcing stereotypes of African Americans, he said he had been disheartened to see the connections some people made, but said that he wrote about the Baltimore that he knew and couldn’t reach out to anyone whose mind was already in the racist gutter.

Much of what he said, he’s said before. He didn’t speak much about his new show, which I thought he would.

He did not hire me for a job.

  • Great post. As a major Wire fan, I’d probably go see him in person. As a journalist I believe the “why” is getting harder to get from subjects because EVERYONE is protective of their image. Even “everyday” people are so guarded and for fear of lawsuits you need so much verification which is harder to get. Some days the stars align and you can get a good one to press, but other times you’re just deseperately seeking the “why” to no avail.