Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified one of David Simon’s books as “The Wire.” Its title is “The Corner.” It also incorrectly stated that WUSA reporter Andrea McCarren asked for the student newspaper to be pulled; she complained to the school about the paper’s coverage. One of Simon’s quotes referring to McCarren was based on this incorrect information and has since been removed.
A recent censorship scuffle between a local TV news reporter and the staff of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School newspaper riled up parents and Post readers alike, but it especially resonated with one person in particular — David Simon, creator of the HBO show “The Wire” and recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant.
When a high school friend forwarded him Paul Farhi’s story about the B-CC Tattler, Simon, an alum of the school and former editor of the same student newspaper, said he “just started smiling. It brought me back . . . I looked at what the principal had done, and I thought, ‘I can't resist. I have to write a thing at the bottom of this article.’ ”
Simon left a comment on the story, under the user name “AudacityofDespair,” a reference to one of his lectures about the decline of the American empire. “Journalism isn’t there to make everyone happy or leave everyone undisturbed,” he said, describing his own experience working on B-CC Tattler from 1976-78, when he endured a similar scandal for a story about underage drug use.
After seeing the comment, The Post reached out to Simon, who was in New Orleans working on his HBO show, “Treme” — to confirm that the commenter was actually him, and to hear more about his high school rebellion.
As this year’s commencement speaker for the school, “I felt like writing in support of whoever’s on the Tattler now,” he said. “It felt like the thing to do.”
The kerfuffle started when WUSA reporter Andrea McCarren, a parent of a student, complained to the school principal about the current issue of the newspaper. McCarren said her children, who attend the school, where being bullied because she was featured in an article for reporting on teen drinking. Bethesda-Chevy Chase principal Karen Lockard recalled issues of the paper, only to later change her mind. She apologized to the students for her decision and Simon praised the current staff of the Tattler for doing their jobs.
Simon worked as a reporter, business manager and editor of the Tattler before going on to become a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, where his reporting led to the book “The Corner” and the hit TV series “The Wire.”
“I sort of knew from a very early time that I wanted to go into newspapers,” he said. “It was my only extracurricular, which I guess makes me a nerd.”
One day, the paper staff was brainstorming ideas for an issue, and they decided that they would write about how easy it is for high schoolers to buy drugs.
“I would say two-thirds of the Tattler staff smoked marijuana, including me, and our feeling was, let’s be blunt about this and see what happens,” he said. “We sent a reporter out and said, ‘Go buy drugs, see how long it takes you. It can’t be anyone you’ve bought drugs from in the past.’ ... We gave him some money. He came back in 15 minutes. It was one of those experiments, like a seventh-grade science experiment with a Bunsen burner — ‘The flame should be this color.’ Well, it is!”
Simon put the story in the paper without first showing it to the newspaper adviser, and it caused an uproar in the school. Faculty members told him that the story was offensive. His parents were called in for a conference with a teacher that was ostensibly about his grades, but he always felt had something to do with his story.
In the end, though, the principal took no action against Simon. It was the era of the Watergate reporting in The Post, and there was a pride in journalism. Eventually, the incident faded in the school’s history.
“I'm not saying it was great journalism,” he said. “It was a bunch of kids working on their paper engaged in the journey that is journalism, figuring out how to address their world without regard to the powers that be.”
Simon says he won’t address the incident in his commencement speech for B-CC — “Seniors . . . are looking outward to the year beyond.”
Here’s Simon’s original comment:
I used to edit the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Tattler. When I did so, we wrote a cover story on underage drug use at school and the pervasiveness of drugs in teenage culture. Faculty members were upset and there was outside coverage of the matter in the Montgomery Journal and the Washington Star. But the principal at the time, F. Thorton Lauriat, stayed rock solid. It was a student publication, by students and serving students. I never heard a word from the man, the issue was distributed and there was no suggestion of prior restraint by school officials. The faculty adviser was pretty damn mad at me, but hey, if you don't make the faculty adviser mad, you're probably not doing it right. Journalism isn't there to make everyone happy or leave everyone undisturbed. Mencken called it foam from the lip of a mad dog. That overstates things a bit, as Mencken was apt to do -- but not by all that much.
Kudos to the staff of the Tattler for trying to do their job as they saw it. Shame on the school administration for seeking to restrain a student publication, and some modest credit to that administration for rethinking its position, albeit after prior restraint had been undertaken and achieved. That they saw the error in their thinking is creditable; that they first gave their journalism students a lesson in government censorship, disappointing.
I'll try not to bring this up at graduation this year, commencement addresses adhering to a generally non-controversial tack.
Commencement Speaker, 2012