‘Wire’s’ newspaper report
After spending four seasons examining the failures of Baltimore’s civic institutions, “The Wire” in its final run takes on particularly personal terrain for creator David Simon: the Baltimore Sun.
Simon spent 13 years at the Sun (now owned by the Tribune Co., as is the Los Angeles Times), until he took a buyout in 1995, disgusted with cost cutting. Since then, he has stewed publicly about the paper and the two editors who were at the helm when he left: John S. Carroll, who went on to be the editor of The Times, and his then managing editor, William Marimow.
Simon says both men, who came to the paper in the early 1990s after it was purchased by Times Mirror, had low regard for veteran Sun talent and an obsession with winning prizes. Among his scornful descriptions of them, “self-aggrandizing hacks” is one of the mildest.
Carroll and Marimow reject his assertions, saying that what had been a moribund paper was revived under their watch.
“He’s the kind of guy whose ego needs to be fed by anger,” Carroll said.
For many Sun staffers, the anticipation of seeing their paper depicted in “The Wire” is mixed with leeriness about the prospect that it has been colored by Simon’s bitterness.
“David left here upset at the way people who were then editors treated him and has made no bones about it,” said outgoing associate Editorial Page Editor William Englund, whose wife, Kathy Lally, is one of 10 former Sun employees who appear in cameos this season. “It’s not going to be a love letter to the paper, that’s for sure.”
Simon said as much in a talk he gave in April as part of a Baltimore storytelling series, in which he said he watched Carroll and Marimow “single-handedly destroy the Sun.” He described how he named an obnoxious police lieutenant “Marimow” in “The Wire” last season as “a little kick in the ass” and called the series’ final focus on media “my fantasy for revenge,” indicating that he modeled the top editors in the show after the two men.
Simon now dismisses those remarks as “hyperbole.”
“I wouldn’t waste 10 hours of HBO programming to settle a particular score with anyone,” he said via phone from Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was working on his next HBO project, “Generation Kill,” a miniseries about a group of Marines in the 2003 Iraq invasion. (He declined to do publicity for “The Wire” because of the writers strike but agreed to speak about his portrayal of the Sun.)
“The story line reflects the problems that I saw inherent in journalism, and those problems have to do with more than the Baltimore Sun and more than those particular editors,” he added.
Still, Simon acknowledged that his frustration with Carroll and Marimow was “one aspect” that inspired the story line, saying: “Every now and then we take a potshot. I’d like to think they’re deserved.”
Carroll, who retired from The Times in 2005, said he’s grown “accustomed to periodic Simon eruptions. I think David has a certain narrative of his life in which he is the hero, and if he left the paper angry, it’s essential that the paper got worse,” he said. “In fact, it got better.”
“I, for one, have had enough of his constant revision of history,” added Marimow, now editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Anyone who was there knows the truth. And I think the truth is that a newspaper that was somewhat inert in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was resuscitated under the leadership of John Carroll.”
Mike Ollove, the Sun’s narrative editor and a Simon friend, said he believes this season of “The Wire” will be about more than his personal grievances.
“He’s incredibly provocative and perceptive, and underneath everything he does he’s telling a larger story about the institution, so I think whatever he says is going to be valuable,” Ollove said. “I’m convinced, whatever else ‘The Wire’ is going to represent, it’s going to be clear David thinks journalism is a righteous profession.”
Still, it’s plain the portrayal of the paper won’t be a rosy one. The tone emerges in the first episode; as several Sun reporters smoke on the loading dock, discussing looming budget cuts, one mutters, “Someday, I want to find out what it feels like to work for a real newspaper.”
After internal debate, the Sun agreed to cooperate with the production and allow “The Wire” to use the newspaper’s name (although the paper has been fictionalized). In turn, producers agreed “that their portrayal will be a fair and nuanced depiction of a modern American newspaper,” according to Tim Thomas, the Sun’s vice president of business development.
How that will be assessed remains an open question, but Tim Franklin, the paper’s editor, said he’s not concerned. “This is not a documentary, it’s a drama,” he said. “In that regard, I don’t know that this is going to depict a real-life newsroom any more than ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ depicts a real hospital in Seattle.”
Some Sun staffers said they think this season of “The Wire” could actually help illuminate the stresses on print journalism. Since Tribune took over in 2000, the paper has lost about a quarter of its staff; its last three foreign bureaus shut down at the end of the year.
“Maybe it will do us some good to have our story told and help viewers understand the circumstances facing a lot of American newspapers today,” said Steve Kiehl, who covers urban affairs.
Still, others said they’re weary of Simon’s gripes, noting that the paper has gone through much more difficult transitions since he’s left. The newsroom tensions in the early 1990s now appear mild compared with the current upheaval.
“David is a very talented guy; I’m sure he’s going to say things that are true,” said veteran reporter Michael Hill. “But you’d just like to see him here confronting the financial realities we have. Those of us who stayed here, yes, maybe we agree with some of his analyses, but we still put out the paper. We get a little tired of hearing what a terrible rag we work for.”