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HBO's The Wire as Living Anthropology

The latest episode of HBO’s The Wire – “Not for Attribution” - is airing right now.  In this episode another round of budget cuts threatens to bring the already battered Baltimore Sun newspaper to its knees.

Simultaneously, this NY Times headline popped up on my computer.

Los Angeles Times Editor Forced Out

The top editor of The Los Angeles Times has been forced out for resisting newsroom budget cuts, executives at the paper said Sunday, marking the fourth time in less than three years that the highest-ranking editor or the publisher has left for that reason… The Los Angeles Times had a newsroom staff of more than 1,100 people at the start of this decade, but the number has declined to below 900, officials say. Its weekday circulation has dropped to about 800,000, from 1.1 million.

The LA Times and the Baltimore Sun are both owned by Tribune Media, taken over just last month by Chicago real estate magnate Sam Zell, self-nicknamed the “Grave Dancer.”

Watching tonight’s episode (yesterday, as new episodes are available one week early On Demand), my husband turned to me and said, "it’s like watching living anthropology."

The Wire
is a commitment. 

The series requires attention and dedication.  I’m convinced that loyal Wire viewers have grown a few extra synapses after exercising their brains on this complicated series. The cast is a huge ensemble (about 75 listed on the HBO website) and they come and go.  The payoff is fantastic for the viewer.  Once you have the basics, it’s completely addictive. 

The Wire keeps the gray matter in the pink and increases the C.Q. (citizen quotient).  It should be required viewing in high schools and colleges, with study guides. 

This year, through the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun, season five is a revelation.  Baltimore is a microcosm, a cautionary tale.  Want to know what’s happening writ large?  Look at Baltimore.  It’s a modern tale, the tragedy of the information commons.

The series explores the demise of the Fourth Estate, reduced to a mere profit center.  At the top, there is no sense of the public good, that an independent media is indispensable to a functioning democracy.

UPDATE (Jan. 22, NY Times): Departing LA Times Editor O’Shea issues a scathing statement.  The NY Times characterize the comments as "remarkable."  Said O’Shea: "I disagree completely with the way that this company allocates resources to the newsrooms, not just here but at Tribune newsrooms all around the country."

The Wire is going to break my heart, I know it is.  But it’s one of the few times I’d say: it’s worth it. 

No other television series dissects so many institutional worlds, so vividly, so authentically - government, criminal enterprise, the family, the fourth estate, the police etc.

As Baltimore’s institutions fray, from funding reductions, corruption, and apathy, one still knits the city together every morning - the Baltimore Sun, where The Wirecreator David Simon (Homicide: Life on The Street) once worked the crime beat as a police reporter.

But the newspaper is also crumbling, reeling from buyouts and layoffs imposed by the avaricious parent "in Chicago" which is fattening itself by eating its children.

In tonight’s episode, “Not For Attribution,” the Sun’s respected foreign bureaus are shuttered and a fresh round of budget cuts forces out some of the most experienced staffers - the ones who know the city and its players intimately, the ones who can reach deep down for the truth.  But "do more with less" is the management mantra. 

It’s a crazy management fantasy since there is nothing "more" left to do "less" with. 

In spite of budget shortfalls and staffing woes, in an earlier episode, there is a brief, shining moment of pride for the newsroom.

It’s time to go home.  But Gus Haynes, the city editor, spots an item buried at the very end of the City Council agenda.  Yep, this is a politician’s preferred spot for questionable agenda items.  By that time, it’s late.  Everyone – including most of the press – are long gone.

The item appears at first glance to be an innocuous vote on a zoning change which would, in turn, clear the way for a private/public real estate swap.  Haynes recognizes a name - Ricardo Hendrix, the real name of Fat Face Rick, a drug kingpin.

The reporters discover that Fat Face Rick is getting a sweet, sweet deal.  Fat Face Rick sells his building to the city for $1.2 million.  The City, in turn, sells him a better property a few blocks away for $200k.  He’s making a cool one million on the deal AND he scores a better property.

Sun staff track down at least $40,000 in Fat Face-linked campaign donations funneled to City Council President Nerese Campbell.  The newsroom moves into high gear.  Cub reporters fan out to research and gather reaction quotes. 

The Sun nails the story; it makes the front page, below the fold. 

At a local bar, the veteran reporters celebrate their small victory over corruption.  So when the round of cuts hits the paper in tonight’s episode, it all the more disheartening to watch.  The next time the City Council tries to slip something past the public, there might not be any reporters around with enough experience to understand the implications.

Unctuous James C. Whiting III is the teflon executive editor.  Facts just slide right past him.  He’s white and elitist, patrician and privileged.  If there’s a villain in the complicated, pantheon of characters in The Wire, Whiting is it.  So far, he’s venal.  Fairly or unfairly, creator David Simon reserves some of his greatest contempt for this character.

Maybe (probably) his template is John Carroll, a former editor at the Sun.  In classic fashion, Lawrence Lanahan dissects the controversy here in his excellent Columbia Journalism Review cover story, "Secrets of the City - What The Wire reveals about urban journalism."

Whiting blithely kills a piece about the University of Maryland having failed to meet its desegregation numbers, merely based on vague claims by a friend (the Dean of Journalism Gene Robbins) that "numbers aside…the campus is much more hospitable to minorities.  Things have changed for the better."  

When challenged by Gus, Whiting says "race is beside the point."

In one masterful scene, the stage is set:

In his patrician style, Whiting muses with an emphasis on the second syllable:  "The word I’m thinking about is Dickensian.  We want to depict the DickENsian lives of city children and then show clearly and precisely where the school system has failed them."

But..not really.  Whiting wants to target the educational system as the easy culprit and skim over everything else. 

The editors make a case for complexity.  

"A lot of things have failed them.  They’re marginalized long before they walk into class," says one.

Gus argues for the multi-faceted approach.  “You’ve got to look at the parenting.  Or lack of it.  the drug culture.  The economics of the neighborhood."

But Scott Templeton, the ambitious general assignment reporter, has good instincts, at least for what Whiting wants to hear.  “You don’t need a lot of context to examine what goes on in one classroom," he brownnoses.

Whiting basks in the support:  “I think Scott is on the right track.  We need to limit the scope, not get bogged in detail.”

Scott.  He’s younger, spoiled and pale, and he doesn’t want to pay his dues.  Baltimore is a "sh*t news town," he says.  He’s already got his eye on the prize - a position at a bigger paper.    

Newbie colleague Alma Gutierrez is happy with her contributing by-line for the Fat Face story but Scott whines, "you can’t go far on contributing lines.”

"Where do you want to go?" asks Alma 

"Times or Post, where else?" replies Scott.

Scott is hand-picked to write the “color piece” about opening day of baseball. "Put your special touch on it, just like you did with your Preakness piece," instructs managing editor Thomas Klebanow.

Scott says he would really like to "find an old timer who would rather die than than miss an Orioles opener."

But outside the stadium fans would rather talk about labor lockouts and the steroids scandals that are destroying baseball’s credibility.

"F*ck baseball," concludes one.

Scott’s coming up empty and you’re starting to wonder why Klebanow thinks Scott has a "special touch."

Scott returns to the office.  His color story is about some 13 year-old African-American kid named E.J, confined to a wheelchair after being crippled by a stray bullet.   E.J., claims Scott, was stranded at the gate after he couldn’t afford a scalped ticket.   There is “no art.”  The photographers were "too booked," asserts Scott.

Both parents are "gone, lives w/ his aunt,  only would let me go with his nickname" because he skipped school.

Gus questions him closely, something that’s SOP in a case like this, but Scott bristles.  He "resents the implication."

Whiting walks out of his office to compliment his boy.  "Good read, " he says to Scott, "you really captured the disparity between the two worlds….”   

When Gus protests they don’t even have a full name, Whiting coasts past the inconvenient info.  "It’s not an ideal situation…but the reluctance to give their last name clearly stems from his fear of being discovered as a truant."

Gus tries to defend standards again but Whiting has a tin ear.  He interrupts Gus dismissively, in Latin. "I think we’re on terra firma here.”

"huh - no art on the kid, " muses one staffer, later.  "[a beat] huh."

In tonight’s episode, Scott is assigned the task of coming up with some “react quotes.”   Unhappy with work that he clearly considers beneath him, he fabricates the quote. 

Again, Gus demands details on the source.  Scott demurs and says it’s "not for attribution."  When pressed, Scott cleverly produces the name of the one person who would have every reason to want her name kept out of the paper -  Nerese Campbell, the City Council president.

Now it’s just too easy.  This is getting to be a habit.  Scott looks like he’s headed on a fabrication bender far less noble than Officer McNulty’s drinking and evidence fabrication binge.  (Except McNulty actually cares about his job and the pile-up of murdered disenfranchised on the street.)

This blogger named GVG believes Scott is based on Sun reporter Jim Haner.  (He’s a big fan of The Wire and African-American, one of the voices we don’t hear from often enough.)  

Haner was responsible for a “reported conversation between the governor and an activist city minister [that] did not occur, as The Sun acknowledged in a retraction published Jan. 25.”

Wire creator David Simon complains about this incident in the sneak peek of his upcoming March 2008 Esquire essay called “A Newspaper Can’t Love You Back.”

Tragically, even if Scott gets his commupance, he probably won’t go down alone.  TheWire isn’t quite as relentlessly tragic as Oz (there’s a lot of dark humor in The Wire) but TheWire isn’t about letting the audience off easy either.  Scott may crash and burn eventually, but he may drag Gus with him.

Gus!  who wakes up in terror at 1 a.m. and calls the night copy editor to make sure he didn’t accidentally transpose some statistics in the port story.  It was here that most working stiffs in journalism immediately identified. 

(NJ Star-Ledger critic Alan Sepinwall made me laugh out loud when he admitted to having a "little man crush on Gus Haynes.")

I keep my laptop next to the bed.  I’ve lost count how many times I’ve re-checked a blog post, just one more time, in the middle of the night.  "Losing sleep" is not a metaphor. 

I think about the time I misspelled Grey’s Anatomy as “Gray,” not “Grey.”  A good friend came to the rescue by email.  (You know who you are, buddy.)

Sepinwall says he lays awake too.  "I once woke up in a cold sweat at 1 a.m., having realized that I referred to Bruce Campbell in a column when I meant Billy Campbell."

During one TCA tour last year, I bumped into a friend standing in the hallway of the hotel, waiting to conduct a scheduled interview.  This person is a meticulous critic who produces volumes of material and is consistently on top of the game.  But that day, this person was agonizing, near tears, over a tiny factual error.

Yeah - so we all make mistakes.  (And I use the “we” and “us” loosely because I’m a mere blogger.)  But knowing it happens to the best is really no comfort at all.

As I watch the smug, ingratiating Scott fabricate so recklessly, I’m enraged.

By this time, The Wire has me on the hook, writhing like a swordfish.  I want to scream at my television and Gus.  Call Nerese Campbell!  Call Nerese Campbell!  Fact check the source!

Whiting seems just the non-stick type to come out of this unscathed.  Will he shift the blame for his bad judgment onto Gus?  Or, like most characters on The Wire, will Whiting shape up to be more multi-dimensional?

But forget Scott.  He’s already beyond redemption

If (probably when) Gus takes the hit for Scott’s transgressions, this will be one of The Wire’s great tragedies.  (And Bubbles.  What will come of Bubbles?)  Because if the Baltimore Sun is holding the city together with - well, with chicken wire -  then Gus is the last of the institutional memory.

For David Simon’s years as reporter at the Baltimore Sun, I shall be forever grateful.  One of television’s best series grew out of his experience.  But will there ever be another Wire?

As Lawrence Lanahan pointed out in his CJR article, “dedicated as the Sun’s reporters are, walls are falling down around them.  Since Tribune Company took over in 2000, the Sun’s newsroom staff has declined from approximately four hundred to three hundred. (The Poynter Institute estimates that 3,500 newsroom jobs have been cut across the country during that time.)  The Sun’s local newshole has shrunk.”

And now tonight, again, there’s the LA Times…

It seems increasingly unlikely that the writer/creators of groundbreaking television of the future will come from the newsrooms.

Below, the fifth iteration (hands down my favorite) of The Wire’s opening credits.  This time -  Steve Earle’s cover of Tom Waits’ "Way Down in The Hole."