All he ever wanted to be was a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, but circumstances beyond his control turned David Simon into a maker of TV drama. On Tuesday the creator of The Wire, lauded when it aired as the greatest show on television, received a MacArthur “genius” grant. It wouldn’t have happened had he never been a journalist. By KEVIN BLOOM.
The fact is at the same time one of the most interesting and one of the most banal things about him: David Simon was a reporter at the Baltimore Sun before he became the world-acclaimed creator of the HBO television series, The Wire. Banal because, well, who really cares what he did before he turned himself into an Artist with a capital ‘A’? He could’ve been a lawyer, a business consultant, a car salesman; once he transcended his previous life, it no longer mattered. But interesting because almost every in-depth profile that’s been written on the man – and there have been plenty, from the New Yorker to The Atlantic to New York magazine – notes that all he ever wanted to be was a journalist. He became a stringer for the Baltimore Sun while still at college, and during his senior year filed so many stories that the union bosses complained he was making everyone else look bad.
Emily Nussbaum, who wrote the most recent big profile piece on Simon (published in New York magazine in April), observed that while she found it impossible to get him to open up about his current life, he would talk endlessly about his time at the paper. “I was making less than 50K,” Simon told her, “but I couldn’t have cared less, because most people don’t get to do that! Don’t get to say what they think about their bosses, about the product in the paper, who’s good, who’s bad, who cooked a quote. It was a perfect profession for somebody who is willing to sacrifice a certain amount of tangible shit in life for the opportunity to – voice. And the editors who were great could handle those personalities: ‘He’s a fucking hothead, but he’s our hothead.’”
Aside from his hotheadedness, which manifested itself on the job as a passionate engagement with whatever story he happened to be working on, what made Simon an outstanding reporter was his devotion to HL Mencken’s “life of kings” – the idea that there was no better way to spend his days. He also once called journalism “God’s work”, but his thirteen years as a crime reporter in the badlands of Baltimore (a city referred to by its inhabitants as “Bodymore”) made him increasingly pragmatic. In the end, his aim was simply to write a good story without “cheating it”, and he resigned from the Sun in 1995, he said, “because some sons of bitches bought my newspaper and it stopped being fun.”
Fifteen years later, Simon would be a recipient of the Macarthur “genius” grant, the annual no-strings-attached award of $500,000 set up to allow its beneficiaries “unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create, and explore”. Of the 23 recipients of the award in 2010, announced on 28 September, he would be by far the most prominent. It would be The Wire, a groundbreaking television series inspired by his journalism – and his two critically acclaimed works of non-fiction, Homicide (1991) and The Corner (1997) – that had earned him his reputation.
Watch: The opening scene and credits of The Wire, episode 1, season 1.
During its six-year run on HBO (2002 to 2008), The Wire was called the best show on television by Time magazine, Entertainment Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Daily News, Slate, the San Francisco Chronicle and the UK Guardian, the last of which was so blown away by the series that it ran a weekly blog following every episode. Not long after the final episode aired, the show officially entered the storehouse of elite American knowledge – classes on The Wire were offered to law, film studies and sociology students at universities across the country. Harvard chose it as curriculum material for a course on urban inequality, and two professors explained why: “Though scholars know that deindustrialization, crime and prison, and the education system are deeply intertwined, they must often give focused attention to just one subject in relative isolation, at the expense of others. With the freedom of artistic expression, The Wire can be more creative. It can weave together the range of forces that shape the lives of the urban poor.”
The professors were of course remarking on the fact that each season of The Wire was themed around a different aspect of Baltimore’s functioning (or, more to the point, non-functioning): the illegal drug trade, the port system, the city government and bureaucracy, the school system, and the print news media. It was no accident that Simon ended off the show exactly where he started in life and had intended to remain, the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun (which gave its ex-reporter permission to use the name). The fifth and final season was, in Simon’s words, about “what stories get told and what don’t and why it is that things stay the same”. Alongside the theme of homelessness, issues covered in the final season included the profit-motive of newspaper owners, the layoffs of editorial staff, and the inevitable decline in journalistic standards. Simon’s ultimate message was that the news no longer matters; that it no longer has the power to outrage or change society.
But there was a clue in the final episode of the fifth season of The Wire, a small and subtle hint from the man who as of Tuesday officially became an artistic “genius”, that suggested his time as a journalist would always define him. The clue was four words displayed on the wall of the Baltimore Sun’s lobby, the same four words that got Simon into the game in the first place, and which he used as the episode’s epigraph: “…the life of kings”. The full quote by HL Mencken reads as follows: “…as I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings.” DM