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Baltimore Sun's 'Wire' Portrayal Fuels a Hot Debate

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Internet may be killing newspapers, but it's great for fanning a ruckus among the journalists covering the funeral.

If all we had was print, we never would have had the poly-linked blogfest tempest over the final season of HBO's "The Wire," on sites like Slate.com, Poynter.org and something called Fimoculous.com, along with New York magazine's Vulture blog.

"Wire" creator David Simon has said his theme over the series' five years of brutal, savvy cop-show-cum-urban-studies-seminar set in Baltimore has been nothing less than "the decline of the American empire."

This year focuses in part on the inner workings and faults of a fictional newspaper named after a real one, the Baltimore Sun, where Simon was a reporter from 1983 to 1995.

In the show and some of the commentary, there are accusations and insinuations of grubbing for prizes, gutting coverage and favoring the sweet tale over the complex truth. And even though much of this controversy is incomprehensible to a viewing public that has seen only two episodes, a lot of journalists have seen it on advance DVD copies. Hence the Internet uproar.

While the plot is "decidedly fiction," Simon says, it is "rooted in our personal experiences," and in all the online back-and-forth, Simon and his fans and critics refer to real former Sun journalists who may have inspired some of the art.

Former Sun top editors John Carroll and William Marimow "are notable journalists with impressive resumes," Simon writes in a cross-post to Slate.com and Ubiquitousmarketing.com. "But in Baltimore, in their hunger for prizes, they tolerated and defended a reporter who was making it up wholesale." Without naming a reporter in his recent blog posts, Simon says the most egregious example was published five years after he left the paper. He made the same charge publicly at the time.

Simon arrived fresh out of college filled with world-saving ideals. He did not leave happy; he took a buyout at the downsizing newspaper. In blog posts and a new online essay, he makes clear who may have inspired two of the fictional editors portrayed in the show as corporate toadies.

Carroll, now writing a book after editing the Los Angeles Times, and Marimow, now the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, say in interviews they reject Simon's characterization of their leadership.

"I deeply resent Simon's dishonest efforts to revise history," Marimow says.

"I once nominated David for a Pulitzer, and it was about the only conversation I had with him that was pleasant," Carroll says. "He's a very angry guy." He says the Sun ran "a very prominent correction" of the story to which Simon alludes. At the time, he and Marimow defended the reporter's talent and integrity.

There's no feud so passionate as a newspaper feud. Plenty of reporters are "Wire"-heads, but this year as a bonus they can be outraged or entertained by Simon's take on their daily grind.

The newspaper part of the plot involves a reporter who just might be making stuff up. Cost cuts and shortcuts at the newspaper have parallels at the police department, and both institutions flounder in their efforts to portray and protect.

What sparked Simon's online blast about Carroll and Marimow was a post on Slate.com by Deputy Editor David Plotz, who sounds like a fan but who said he was "praying that [Simon's] fury at the Sun won't overwhelm his genius for storytelling."

As fast as the reviews have been coming in, Simon has been e-mailing responses, provoking counter-responses and commentary on the commentary on the commentary. Jim Romenesko's Poynter.org blog, journalism's online water cooler, ran the mock-exasperated headline: "Write about David Simon and you'll probably hear from him."

Hyperlinks lead to hyperlinks lead to hyperlinks, until you get this on Fimoculous.com: "Vulture contested the copy-editing scandal, but today David Simon himself took issue with Vulture taking issue with David Simon taking issue with the word."

That refers to a bit in the first episode, where a grizzled rewrite man informs a callow cub that buildings can be evacuated, but "to evacuate a person is to give that person an enema." Well, the wags at New York magazine reported this out with a dictionary editor and found that since about World War II it's been okay to evacuate a person without emptying him. Correction, anybody? Simon countered that a real Baltimore Sun copy sage once lectured him on "evacuate," and that sage's name was Jay Spry, same as the character in the show.

Amid the drollery, scores are being settled, serious issues are being debated.

"Simon's portrait of Marimow is not just unfair; it verges on psychotic," Bill Wyman, who worked with Marimow at National Public Radio, writes in his blog, Hitsville.

Both Marimow and Carroll reached points when they stood against further newspaper downsizing. Marimow was fired from the Sun four years ago. Carroll resigned from the Los Angeles Times in 2005. "To parade Bill or me as some kind of cost-cutting agency of a brutish corporation is preposterous," Carroll says.

Last season on "The Wire," Simon named a loathsome member of the police department "Marimow." This year, the top editor of the fictional Sun says he came from a Philly paper, like Carroll and Marimow. When it is clear the fictional Sun is missing stories because so many beats are unfilled, the managing editor says with peppy cheer: "Simply have to do more with less."

Says Simon in his Slate post, "The Wire's depiction of the multitude of problems facing newspapers and high-end journalism will either stand or fall on what happens on screen, not on the back-hallway debate over the past histories, opinions, passions or peculiarities of those who create it."

The theme of trying to do good work with diminished resources hits home in a lot of newsrooms. Between posts about "The Wire" are posts about cost cuts, corporate sycophants and layoffs -- at real newspapers.

Only 1.2 million viewers watched the first episode Jan. 6, the show's smallest audience for a Sunday premiere. About the same number tuned in this past Sunday.

After a round of scheduled interviews arranged before the season began, Simon says he is declining further interviews in solidarity with the screenwriters' strike.

Whether or not they fairly allude to real people, the fictional journalistic villains and heroes seem one-dimensional to some reporters who've watched. But then, wouldn't members of the longshoremen's union have said the same thing about Season 2, which featured the Port of Baltimore?

There's one odd anachronism. The calendars in the fictional Sun newsroom all say 2008, but there's no talk of the online duties reporters have to perform nowadays to feed their papers' Web sites. The show is all about the next morning's front page. The fictional Sun sheds foreign bureaus, like the real Sun. The fictional buyouts, like the real one Simon took, cause veterans with deep knowledge of the city to be replaced by a smaller number of kids with a lot to learn. (One scene for this season was filmed in the real Washington Post's Style section, where an oh-so-superior fictional Post editor interviews an ambitious fictional Sun reporter seeking a job.)

"The show does not resemble the newsroom that I know," says Tim Franklin, current editor of the Sun. "Reporters and editors have never worked harder than they do now and never have worked under more ethical guidelines than they do now. . . . To suggest there isn't great work going on or that we have abandoned urban coverage is ridiculous."

Simon does not completely trash the business. He has gone out of his way to praise the work going on now at the Sun. In the show, the fictional city editor and some of his colleagues are still animated by the same almost impossibly idealistic passion to expose and reform that drew Simon and so many others to the craft in the first place.

"Tim Franklin is right," Simon says in a Romenesko post. "The people on the ground in Baltimore, though there are less of them, are doing the most to produce the best newspaper they can."

This season of "The Wire" may be one of the last serious dramatic treatments of a newspaper before newspapers are changed into something completely different. Thomas Kunkel, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, hasn't seen "The Wire" before, but he's going to tune in this season.

"One thing you have to give David credit for is having the conviction to pull a newsroom onto the national entertainment stage," Kunkel says. "The average citizen needs to be aware of what's transpiring with the traditional gatekeepers of public affairs news. If the Baltimore Suns and the major papers like that go down in flames, we are all the poorer."

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