Only Inmates Run Shit

I haven’t been around here much, so perhaps I’ve lost all right to speak on this site. However, I liked the last episode bunches, in large part because of what’s happened with the fake serial killer plot. While for many of you, it’s been the sticking point for this entire season, I think it’s turned into a stroke of pure Wire genius.

On and on again, what’s the key word about this show: systems. Or, in its applied form, bureaucracies. The whole hook has been that these things are impersonal, indifferent, and, in their blank rationality, often uncomfortably irrational. They are not human minds, blessed with elasticity and empathy. They are what they are, and they churn on with no purpose beyond self-renewal. No matter what happens in the margins, on the streets, or between the cracks, it’s more of the same “get crime down”, “bring up test scores”, “get territory”.

Some of you have compared Jimmy and Lester’s ruse to Hamsterdam. Hamsterdam was a social experiment, one that, like Stringer’s attempt at reform, could only exist until the system caught up with it. Plus, it was, like String, remarkably rational. That’s why so many public officials were intrigued by it, and why the co-op did have some staying power. Until the same old asserted itself in the form of Marlo Stanfield, who makes the old new and the new old again.

The serial killer thing is something different. I wasn’t for the drawn-out evidence tampering, mostly because it was silly and boring. But in its present form, the killer is a virus turning bureaucracy on itself. The police department—and, on a parallel course, the information industry that Templeton’s manipulating—now belong to outsiders. If it’s been mute and confusing all along, why not use these perplexing qualities toward rightness and justice? Jimmy has spent this whole show as the rebel, the outcast. Now, as he himself intoned in #57, he’s the boss. Templeton’s along these same lines, minus the decency part: He’s a self-serving liar who wants out of Baltimore; he’s found a way to get the editors, who represent the feckless modern media, to basically bankroll his exodus.

The key difference is that Templeton’s irredeemable, while Jimmy’s arguably serving the greater good. But they both have their all-too-noble foils: Gus and Bunk, who, not coincidentally, are being touted by everyone as the season’s finest performances. I guess I can see it; however, it seems more like we respect the sheer gravitas of their positions, which we once thought Freamon stood for.

I kind of find this outlook naive, and if anything, it’s the possibility of Bunk breaking the Marlo case that I find unrealistic. Or Gus having some sort of journalistic triumph that slaughters Templeton and puts the higher-ups to shame. It’s like, okay, these are honest men doing honest work and they’ve come through in the end. But what about The Wire up to this point would suggest this is anything less than fantasy? You might think McNulty and Templeton are outlandish, but their story arcs at least work with/within/in the same realm as The System. We’ve seen McNulty go from utterly defiant to co-opting the Department that he once battled against. Bunk, he’s just acting like there’s no external pressure or stress on his hermetically-sealed need to do things the right way.

If everything is connected, and everything is histrionic or crumbling, how many times out of ten are we ever going to see this outcome?

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39 Comments on “Only Inmates Run Shit”

  1. Mark C Says:

    First time commenting at this site, damn fine writeup.

  2. Gaary Says:

    If this season follows the trends of the others, it will probably show that neither Bunk or Gus will “succeed” in the end. When Templeton’s monster comes crumbling down, Gus will likely be blamed by the higher-ups for allowing it to happen. Bunk’s case will probably come ever-so-close to catching Marlo, Chris, and Snoop but something from McNulty’s fallout, most likely personal between them, will cause him to miss his chance and he will end up still sitting on those 22 bodies.

    The previous seasons have pretty much shown us that the “good” guys don’t win. People that stand up for the just cause usually become consumed by those that are corrupt in their same world – Bodie standing up for the moral way to run corners and Joe being the thinking-man’s ringleader opposed to Marlo’s less respectable manner is a good example because we pull for Bodie and Joe even though they’re doing something that actually is bad (selling drugs).

    Everyone pays for their actions on the Wire, good or bad, because the systems that control them have too many pressures and other people concerned for their own neck, and they are not hesitant to throw anyone else into the fire at their own benefit. The inspiring and celebratory storylines at the end of this season will most likely be few and far between.

  3. Andrew Says:

    I think it’ll end with either Gus or Bunk triumphing over McNulty or Templeton, but I don’t see it going completely the other way either. My prediction right now is that Bunk’s police work will get him Chris. How could it not when he’s got a beaten corpse with Chris’s DNA on it? But it’ll be McNulty and Freamon that get Marlo, the big fish. That conclusion wouldn’t seem to contradict anything the show has done before.

  4. Andrew Says:

    I meant to say “I don’t think” in my first sentence. Sorry.

  5. Cranky Says:

    Really glad to see this piece. I definitely wasn’t “getting” all the brouhaha over how terrible McNulty’s behavior has been; how he’d stepped over the line, how . His line has never been defined. He lives by a credo that is required to survive for any length of time with any personal integrity in a hierarchy that is mangled and tangled by corruption and/or mismanagement:

    It’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.

    As a long-term survivor, you can take that one to the bank.

  6. Mike Says:

    The McNulty plotline was a total WTF to me in the beginning, but Lester brought it into ‘useful’ focus. I don’t think McNulty saw it turning the system inside out – the character doesn’t think that way. Besides, he wanted bodies for the Marlo case, not to run some sort of social experiment.

    The real inside out part is that Bunk finds himself on the side of the system when arguing against McNulty – the same system he’s fighting against to try and get real work done.

  7. thomvecchio Says:

    Beautiful post. The only thing I would add is that Simon has stated clearly that he is writing a Greek tragedy: Does Omar’s broken leg remind anyone else of Achilles’ ankle? Your piece helps bring into focus for me the interplay of the tragic characters of McNulty, Omar et al with the acts of the gods: the system, the bureaucracy, the game.

  8. HonTea Says:

    Wonderful post.

    The way in which McNulty finds himself suddenly at a higher level in the system (manipulating it, yet, of course, still trapped within it) is something that deserves more attention. These words have been highly illuminating.

  9. quesera Says:

    How is Templeton the irredeemable one? All he’s done is lie. So what? Reporters lie all the time. What’s the big deal? He’s a fabulist. His worst “crime” is having an over-active imagination. He hasn’t hurt anyone.

    Jimmy, on the other hand, has mutilated and desecrated corpses. These deceased had family members who mourned them! He has kidnapped a living homeless person and preyed on this feeble man’s handicap. You cannot just abduct a sick person from the street like that. He’s tied up resources – like the DNA lab – that should be used for solving real cases. He’s also an alcoholic, cheating husband and deadbeat father. Jimmy has hurt people.

    I remain unimpressed with Bunk. He sat on those 22 bodies and did nothing for an entire year until Jimmy’s antics suddenly lit a fire under his ass. If he does arrest Chris, I hope Levy rips his case apart. That DNA lab is a mess and highly unreliable. The cops, of course, are corrupt and liars. If the legal system can get Clay Davis off, I will laugh if it acquits Partlow too.

    As for the newspaper, I can’t say I care what happens. The whole role of the paper seems trivial to me. Its sole purpose is to facilitate this ridiculous serial killer storyline. I know Simon is attached to “paper”, but he should have made television the focus of his media storyline. Unlike the docks, I’m simply not emotionally invested in the death of newspapers. Some dinosaurs – like cassette tapes and vinyl records – are meant to die.

  10. andrew gall Says:

    Also a first time poster, long time reader. So much good stuff here. I know this is off-topic, but it’s been bothering me: why did Joe help Marlo get “clean” money when he knew that Marlo was giving that money to the Greeks and ultimately go undermine him? He knew the money was for the Greeks, right? I’m sure this is obvious and I just misunderstood or missed something.

  11. anonymous Says:

    The notion that Templeton — whose singular role as a societal watchdog and truthteller is the necesssary preamble to any attempt at legitimate social or political change — is engaged in anything less than a venal sin is both naive and vastly cynical in the same instant.

    Professional reporters sometimes get stuff wrong, or are fooled, or are myopic. They have all the faults of other human beings. But the vast majority of them do not, actually, lie. They try to acquire some element of truth and relate it, albeit it there are any number of practical hindrances to this effort — some constructed by those being reported on, some constructed by media organizations and their priorities. But journalism is, for most practitioners, an honest calling.

    There have been fabulists before and there continue to be fabulists. And there are journalists who minimize and ignore the continuing nature of the problem. But lying is not the natural state of journalism, and it’s depressing that so many Americans think it is. Seventy percent, in the last poll I saw. But to say “What’s the big deal?” is to ignore the essential role that journalism has to play before any society can even begin to reform its own corruptions.

    That, I think, is what The Wire is saying by including the newspaper in the last story arc. We’ve seen all the city’s deficiencies and problems laid out in detail over the previous four seasons. Who will begin to challenge and address them? To begin to assert for the importance of those problems? The newspaper? TV news? The internet? Uh oh.

    The modern newspaper, gutted as it is, remains the only chance at comprehensive coverage of complex issues — whether that newspaper is acquired in paper or digital form. TV news in most, if not all markets, is reactive and with the exception of siren-chasing, is usually reading the local newspaper each morning to find out what to cover. And the internet? A great device for commentary on the existing issues of the day — Slate, Salon, blogs like this one — but the internet is not at all a form that manages to send reporters to school board meetings and crime scenes and zoning hearings and London and Beijing and Fallujah to acquire first-generation news coverage. It snatches and links to that hard journalism parasitically, and then provides the froth of debate atop the hard work of professional journalists.

    Amid the death of newspapers, we’re never going to begin to solve anything because we can’t even effectively make ourselves aware of the real problems. Jefferson said he would rather live in a nation with newspapers and without government than the other way around. It seems that Quesera is in a hurry to live that Jeffersonian nightmare. He critiques newspapers as dinosaurs — and certainly, having paper delivered to doorsteps every morning is a technologic anachronism; they must become on-line entities to compete. And certainly, as well, by giving away their content for free and failing to anticipate the challenge of the digital world — they have made themselves vulnerable to market forces, but that doesn’t mean their pivotal role isn’t essential, or that as newspapers decline, any other institution is actually replacing them in that essential role of gathering first-generation news.

    What if the Baltimore Sun depicted on The Wire were functional, if it was not merely shallow, and undercut by buy-outs and layoffs? What if it were able to depict, with precision, the world displayed in the previous four seasons of the Wire? What if instead of Templeton’s ambitious fabrications, or pre-conceived projects by Pulitzer-obsessed editors, journalism of a higher order were honored and nurtured in the at newsroom and qualitative judgments about the school system, the police department, City Hall, and the death of the working class were rendered for readers? Is that not the beginning — the essential beginning — of solutions?

    Quesera is absorbed with a cop show and bored with the notion of how journalism fits into that or fails to fit into it. But perhaps by thinking about what ISN’T HAPPENING in the Sun’s newsroom and the obvious disconnect from the world outside, The Wire is saying something about why things continue as they do, without improvement or even honest awareness by society as a whole.

  12. Mark Says:

    I am happy to see there are people who are still on Simon’s side with this season. I had my skepticism in the beginning, but, now thats its so far out of control, it has really gone into that “Wire genius.”

    I must admit I’m worried, but prepared, for how this season may end; it looks like our “favorite” characters might go out on a low note. In fact, at this point, if things are to end with any kind of conclusion, going down the tubes seems to be the only ending that would have enough time to develop.

    Since the season is coming to an end, I have to admit that I’m going to miss reading this blog almost as much as I will the actual show. There is just so much thoughtful and well-written analysis here. Its not often one proofreads his posts on a television blog to make sure its up to the standards of the other posters. Anyway, it may come across as cheesy or premature, but thanks to everyone for their input with this community.

  13. Anonymous (if that is your real name; are you DS?), that was a thoughtful and well-written rebuttal. But I have to say that I disagree.

    I don’t think, and I don’t think anyone can honestly maintain it either, that the role of the newspaper is societal watchdog and truthteller.

    In fact, I would argue that the very nature of newspaper journalism is farcical– to presume a day’s worth of “news” and insist that all citizens should be informed of such, is inherently untruthful.

    I think the themes explored in the first four seasons of The Wire can only be addressed properly in literature and philosophy, and in the rarest of exceptions, in television (namely The Wire and only the Wire).

    Newspapers are self-important because they need to be; they need to sell their product. But the very nature of the thing– journalism, the ‘of the day’– is ephemeral and thus extremely biased toward recent events and recent opinions. Thus it is extremely unusual for newspapers to take the long view, to paint for us an all-encompassing universe.

    I do not dance on the newspapers’ graves, but I do not mourn their passing. For if they had not established themselves as purveyors of stuff for mass consumption, they would not be so mediocre. It is not their corporate nature that has been their undoing; it was hubris.

    People do need to know about the council sessions and school board meetings and such. It’s a shame, then, that newspapermen have presumed an objectivity that does not belong to them– to anyone– and given this to us in condescending, over-simple middle school English.

    All that said, I’ve enjoyed the B-More Sun plot more than most I’ve talked to about it. There is some absolutely astounding, mind-blowing meta-commentary going on there. This show we’re watching isn’t the Wire, but it’s still really, really good.

  14. King of Diamonds Says:

    Mr.Peterson, where are people like Bubbles supposed to get their news? From afreakin’ blog?

    There’s a reason Ducquan was looking for a job in a hard copy of The Baltimore Sun. It wasn’t because his iBook was over at Mac Genius Lab.

    “People do need to know about the council sessions and school board meetings and such. It’s a shame, then, that newspapermen have presumed an objectivity that does not belong to them– to anyone– and given this to us in condescending, over-simple middle school English.”


  15. Maybe people like Bubbles don’t need news.

  16. Gukbe Says:

    re: John Petersen

    I don’t understand your problem with the newspapers. How does one see the long view without the day to day? And where in America are people meant to get their news if not from newspapers?

  17. Curtis Says:

    The post from anonymous is brilliant, but especially as amplified by King of Diamonds. Thanks for your smart thoughtful comments.

  18. kidjock Says:

    Brilliant post Anonymous. Mr. Peterson, I pray your prediction never comes true. Newspapers are critical to American history. Their watchdog nature and journalistic integrity are all that keeps the Bushes and Cheney’s and Clintons and Obama’s from having a blank check with our tax money.

    When was the last time you read anything remotely investigative on any other news media? The local news in D.C. is investigating people driving on suspended license tonight. SUSPENDED LICENSES IS NOT INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM! I’m sorry but I hope we do not have to rely on online media for our news. It is obvious this generation does not have the attention span needed for the big picture view which the newspapers most certainly provide better than any other media form.

  19. Gukbe Says:

    I understand that everything will always be subjective in journalism, but the attempt at objectivity is very important, especially nowadays.

    I’m all for a degree of editorializing, in its place, but things have become absolutely ridiculous, especially on television (which, I believe, is where most people get their news). I went abroad for 5 years, and before I left I remember watching Headline News and noting how about 60% of the stories they would run in their half-hour cycle weren’t proper news. I’ve come back and even that is gone…it seems to be more of these catch all pundits who act like they have expertise on every single subject. Somehow, just being on television gives these people ‘credibility’ with the public, which is a scary thought. Add to that the rise of the internet and the “Have Your Say!” bits on the news, and we’re getting an awful lot of people talking about a whole range of topics they know nothing about.

    I think we need not only newspapers in the physical form, but the institution of the newspaper, with its system of checkers and editors, to get the best possible news, without the hyperbole of the pundits. From a history perspective, newspapers have been hugely important for research both into events (and biases) of the past, and having a ‘public record’, updated daily in print, is indispensable for future generations.

    Anyway, I really don’t think it is journalistic hubris that has led to the death of newspapers. Internet/free media is obviously a factor, but so is corporate buy-outs obsessed with selling more and more, and the pressure to write ‘fabulist’ bullshit to convince the public to buy them, which in turn decreases credibility. Templeton’s sin is a big one. It might not cause the immediate problems of McNulty’s, nor is it as obviously destructive as Marlo’s ruthlessness, but it is chipping away at an institution this country needs, and depriving the people of any kind of barrier between PR and themselves will lead to a pretty fast erosion of the ability to made educated, reasonably well-informed decisions on the issues that matter.

    I know a sixth season will never happen, but maybe they should do an hour long special after the finale in which some average joe just wanders around for a day, completely ignoring everything around him, watching the news for a few minutes, agreeing with bill o’reilly when he dismisses the entire printed media as ‘far left and loony’. Then he’ll stand in front of a mirror and watch himself masturbate whilst mumbling about being a ‘self-made man’ and complaining about ‘those lazy blacks’ not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

  20. TimW Says:

    Absolutely brilliant post, anonymous. After reading quesera’s post I was going to reply, but you’ve done it more effectively and succinctly than I ever could. Bravo.

  21. No. Why is the perceived contrast between newspapers and television/Internet/new media? I love that I am automatically perceived to be some whippersnapper who plays Halo and reads blogs but doesn’t have the attention span to read newspapers.

    You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.

    I see television nonsense and Internet ephemerality (take YouTube) as an extension of the inanity of newspapers. Yes, I can see where newspapers can be a source of good investigative journalism, but as opposed to what some of you have said, I would say that there is too much of this.

    There is too much news. There is too much crap. We shouldn’t care. I am tired of having it stuffed down my throat that in order to be a proper citizen and not an uninformed boob I need to participate in the original thought-stifling Zeitgeist.

    Fuck the Zeitgeist.

    We should be reading books. Great works of literature, philosopy, science, and mathematics. Discussing big events.

    Knowing every detail about how the Chinese are poisoning our childs’ toys, or could eating sugar be good for you or which future fascist president is going to win New Jersey does not make one a smarter or better person. Knowing about Enron or Jayson Blair or the local tax cuts does not make one intelligent or even interesting.

    Far from it. In fact, the smartest and most interesting people I know by and large ignore the so-called “news.” They do not read the papers or watch television, but they have read Hegel and Marx and Hobbes and John Dewey and the important American stuff. And I think that this makes them deeper, more interesting people than those who engross themselves fully in the bluster of “issues.”

    Fuck issues. And fuck the Zeitgeist. Newspapers do not contribute to free thinking. They restrict it.

  22. I don’t know what the “original” is doing there.

    Yes, I write a baseball blog. The world of baseball journalism is a great example of how newspapers are full of idiocy and falsehood covered by fanatic sensationalism.

    At root, this is what all news is. Baseball is just a purer form of politics.

  23. Mal Says:

    “Yes, I write a baseball blog. The world of baseball journalism is a great example of how newspapers are full of idiocy and falsehood covered by fanatic sensationalism.

    At root, this is what all news is. Baseball is just a purer form of politics.”

    I’m afraid I don’t agree with that. If the Orioles beat the Red Sox it has absolutely no affect on me, especially as I’m in a separate country, but there can be no doubt about the result. If Obama gets elected, that will have noticeable effects on the rest of the world, although the gulf between the real decisions and how they are presented in the paper will most likely be huge.

  24. “the gulf between the real decisions and how they are presented in the paper will most likely be huge”

    That’s the point.

  25. anonymous Says:

    “Fuck the Zeitgeist.

    We should be reading books. Great works of literature, philosopy, science, and mathematics. Discussing big events.

    Knowing every detail about how the Chinese are poisoning our childs’ toys, or could eating sugar be good for you or which future fascist president is going to win New Jersey does not make one a smarter or better person. Knowing about Enron or Jayson Blair or the local tax cuts does not make one intelligent or even interesting.

    Far from it. In fact, the smartest and most interesting people I know by and large ignore the so-called “news.” They do not read the papers or watch television, but they have read Hegel and Marx and Hobbes and John Dewey and the important American stuff. And I think that this makes them deeper, more interesting people than those who engross themselves fully in the bluster of “issues.”

    Fuck issues. And fuck the Zeitgeist. Newspapers do not contribute to free thinking. They restrict it.”

    So sayeth Mr. Peterson, who has risen above the daily miasma of issues and is capable of “discussing big events” without actually acquiring the latest facts, arguments and commentaries about those events by sullying himself with newsprint.

    But, um, how does reading Marx or Hobbes — or Goethe or Cervantes or Name Dropped Here — tell a citizen how the insurgency is being countered in Iraq? Or not countered in Iraq? How does it explain a national candidates unwillingness or willingness to address the complexities of the health care crisis? How do these lofty minds depict the drug war as it actually exists on the ground in Baltimore or Detroit or Philadelphia? How does it tell you who to vote for and who to vote against — based on their opinions and performance — on your kid’s school board?

    Yes, newspapers are rather droll and proletarian when compared with the bound volumes of Great Ideas. The next time I run into this generation’s Kant or Kierkegaard at a zoning board hearing with his pen and notepad out, ready to document for fellow citizens some act of governmental neglect or chickanery, I’ll know that there’s no need for the daily rag ever again.

    But it might be a while.

  26. My point is that by getting swept up in the “daily miasma of issues” one actually knows less and less about “how the insurgency is being countered in Iraq? Or not countered in Iraq? How does it explain a national candidates unwillingness or willingness to address the complexities of the health care crisis?” and starts reproducing other people’s opinions as their own, becoming extremely limited in mind and adopting the thoughts of interested parties: demagogues, sophists and sycophants.

    Being on the outside and reading the newspaper about Iraq, health care, or the drug war, one is no better informed than one who doesn’t read. Being a student of history is more conducive to being informed about public policy, as one is thereby able to recognize patterns and progress in human events. Only then should one examine the facts of particular issues, and extremely carefully.

    Above all else, what I find reprehensible about newspapers and the media in our world is the abominable notion that we are all required to have an opinion about everything.

  27. anonymous Says:

    You’re deconstructing everything, and doing so a little desperately, I think.

    Ignoring the daily miasma of issues — acquiring no new facts about current events other than being a “student of history” — is certainly not a recipe for knowing more and more about our society and how to address its problems. The world outside is complex, confusing and untidy. The early versions of it — as reported by a press — are often incomplete at best.

    But it IS the world outside. There is no substitute for that fact, no mitigation.

    You don’t have to have an opinion on everything, or anything for that matter. You don’t have to be informed about anything except great literature and history. But this opting out — is it responsible? Is it somehow more dignified than committing to some measure of engagement in the immediate and external world? Is it genuinely humane and empathetic?

    Newspapers and journalism are imperfect. And a reader of newspapers and a consumer of joournalism has to be discerning, concentrating on the most honest and substantive efforts to understand and inform, and ignoring the tawdry or fatuous or uncertain accounts. That’s why there are headlines and sections and a certain segregation of stories. But there are some empirical values in newsprint. The NYT or Washington Post is more comprehensive generally than the New York Post or the Baltimore Sun. And on any given day, the contents of any major newspaper represent a series of incomplete, first-draft accounts of the immediate doings of mankind. Is some of it wrong? Is some of it ambiguous? No doubt.

    But to ignore current events in its entirety? Or to accept the version of current events offered by television or the internet only? Or to presume yourself knowledgeable on what is happening now based solely on historical facts or great books or mathematical concepts, without making a meaningful effort to acquire some empirical awareness of the facts on the ground? And then to justify this ignorance by arguing, incredibly, that prose reporting by professionals who are actually assigned to cover events and beats and institutions and produce first-generation accounts will, if perused, make you know “less and less”?

    It’s hard to know less than nothing at all. You seem to believe that a consciousness of literature, or mathematics or philosophy or history is sufficient to make valuable, contributing citizens. It’s sufficient to make an interesting person at a cocktail party, sure. But to create someone who is emotionally and intellectually part of the collective and therefore part of any willful attempt to improve the society? Doubtful. Ridiculously so, I think.

  28. All right, Anonymous, you make good points. But please refrain from language of utter exasperation and incredulity. I am a reasonable, rational person, just like I presume you are. And just as I expect that you have arrived at your current understanding by reasonable means, I would hope that you would presume the same of me.

    Part of the problem with your argument, for me, is the idea that in our understanding of things, fact piled upon fact makes us know more, that all that data of experience contributes to a thoughtful and well-versed understanding.

    But I have an image of the mind that is different. Just as experience can add understanding, it can also take away from understanding. Information can inform or mislead. By itself, ultimately, it is useless. Something, namely intelligence, must guide that information.

    The presumption of newspapers is that information can be and ought to be presented simply, guided of course by some structure, but mostly free of bias and greater purpose. This works on a small level, but ultimately it is a failure of language. It is dishonest and insincere, and contributes to the widespread, almost endemic dishonesty and insincerity of public debate.

    In the past century newspapers have done little good for anyone. Made us superficial people, yes. Caused the spread of powerless language, indeed. Made the average person much more knowledgeable about local, national and international events, of course. But fostered understanding? No.

  29. Triumph Says:

    Anonymous, I think you’ve made several good points, and you’re certainly going to force Mr. Peterson to capitulate on a few things if you continue with the present stream of logic.

    However, lurking behind the arguments of Anonymous seem to be some rather disenchanting presumptions and strawmen.

    Having grown up in the age of media onslaught, it is difficult for me to comment on an honest and insightful media. It’s clear that the market is not in favor of actual reporting – but rather in favor of having our opinions told to us. We enjoy demagoguery, sophistry, and we enjoy hating or loving our pundits with earnest passion. Becoming well-informed in this era seems not only impossible, but counter-productive – it only condemns a person to the same elitism he or she would be resigned to by retreating into history and philosophy. If I really find out what’s going on – isn’t that going to make me the same kind of wingnut I would be as an ignorant dweller of an ivory tower? It seems the market has spoken: people like having their facts to come attached to a viewpoint – it’s more interesting that way. What you seem to be arguing for bears a kind of elitism as well – that newspapers should not succumb to the demand for profit, but be run by enlightened people/corporations/what-have-you whose main motive is truth.

    Real things happen, and they’re important – Iraq, the ‘war’ on drugs, the continual loss of personal freedom – but when the choices seem to be to fight against the tide of inane banter, empty rhetoric, juked stats, corrupted bureaucrats, television wags, and then the ‘educated’ citizens these things leave in their wake by way of our de-fanged media – maybe the ivory tower is best after all.

    Putting this back on The Wire – even if the paper were run well over the past twenty years, what changed in Baltimore as a result? Haven’t the machinations of the engorged bureaucracy paved over much of the impact that an ‘enlightened’ paper of record might have? The newspaper has always been in the background of each season – but has it exposed the real issues? Now, as viewers, we’re learning it, like most everything else in The Wire’s world, is only getting worse – what good was it doing then?

  30. anonymous Says:

    Apologies to Mr. Peterson if my tone offended. Genuinely. I thought that your earlier arguments were expressed with some definite all-or-nothing hyperbole and perhaps I was hyperbolic in response in a manner that was unwarranted.

    The excesses and failures of journalism are notable and obvious, I agree with you. But thus far, you have not cited an alternative method by which a pluralistic and free society can convey with immediacy the world of current events to citizens. Decrying the imperfections of a free press do not invalidate the essential role of such, or manufacture a viable alternative — other than your expressed argument to look for truth independent of any examination of the immediate, current world and its immediate, current problems.

    As to the hyperbolic notion that newspapers have done nothing to make the world better in this century: I could cite, amid the dross and failure, any of the myriad examples in which corruption, greed, cruelty or indifference resulted was depicted and chronicled by journalists and produced specific change. But I will limit myself — off the top of my head — to this one: Any history of the civil rights movement, if it is complete, will include among its pantheon of heroes a long list of Southern journalists and editorial writers who aggressively championed the end of Jim Crow, often at risk to their social standing and safety. The folks who manned the Atlanta Journal-Constitution alone moved heaven and earth to change their region, something acknowledged by everyone in the movement. Would integration have triumphed anyway? Certainly. Would it have come as soon as it did if Southerners were not confronted by the spectre of their most prominent news organizations turning against the old ways? No. And thereby pain and suffering were diminished and a common good came to pass earlier, not later. For every lapse in journalism that you can cite, I can cite a similar display of integrity. There is no point to argument by anecdote, but neither is there much point to saying that in the past century, newspapers did little good for anyone. The hyperbolic impulse, though provocative, is its own dead end.

    As to Triumph’s comment about the minimal impact of a well-run paper in Baltimore on the city’s entrenched problems: Do we know that Baltimore’s problems are as entrenched as they seem on The Wire? And if we believe this is so, do we then know that The Sun has been any better run than the newspaper depicted on The Wire? Or are you crediting the drama with getting one premise correct, but not the other? Perhaps Baltimore did not have a well-run and committed newspaper? Or perhaps it did and the problems would have even been worse without that newspaper riding herd? Hard to make an empirical judgment, it seems, though absent empiricism, you do exactly that.

    Again, hyperbole seems to be the dominant argument against reading a newspaper and trying to address oneself to the day’s fundamental issues and events: “Becoming well-informed in this era seems not only impossible, but counter-productive…”

    I honestly can’t see how, absent some semantic gymnastics, such a statement can be defended or argued. Trying to acquire information on a complex world, and trying to do so from imperfect media, will certainly not be pristine or precise an exercise, or without its grevious frustrations and contradictions. But endeavoring not to acquire information and turning to more gratifying and self-absorbing intellectual pursuits can’t in any way constitute a victory for involved citizenship, or never mind that, an empathy for the rest of humanity.

    It is abdication of a kind. And, I think, a willful and ugly kind of ignorance.

  31. I have used hyperbole, to be sure. It’s a lazy way of communicating, but it’s also effective, up to a certain extent, which we have reached.

    The charge of irresponsibility is a big one. Do I practice willful ignorance by ignoring the issues? Am I an arrogant, youthful iconoclast, selfishly pursuing erudite things irrelevant to the concerns of today?

    We need to ask, then, what the motivations of my more “informed” peers are. Are they participating in a public forum when they watch The Daily Show? Or are they merely accessing an easy form of entertainment that also allows them a pretense of knowledge about public issues?

    I say it’s the latter, and I could extend “The Daily Show” to the”Baltimore City Paper,” where opinion columns are found amongst “This Modern World” and “Savage Love” thereby showing that the source of entertainment, political opinion, and sexual morality is the same. A little unfair– I must avoid hyperbole. But this is the other option, as far as I can see: a superficial seriousness where being informed is only the rhetorical shell. Underneath the goal is being opinionated.

    Of course, as you’ve said, there are many sources and an informed citizen should exercise judgment as to the ones he uses. But wherever I look, the challenges to learning what is actually going on are too great. I live in a democracy and it is presumably my duty to know about public policy, but it doesn’t ever seem like the ones making policy feel like public servants; that is, that they are beholden to and must report to me about what they are doing.

    When we see Carcetti running for office, we like him. Even after he twists around Bunny’s Hamsterdam for political gain (“You’ve been dealt a winning hand and you act like you forgot how to play”), I believe him when he says, “I am so serious about fixing this city.”

    But by the time he gets into office he is so compromised as to not be in a position to fix the city. In fact, the process has destroyed what is good in him; far from fixing the city, he is now part of the city’s problem.

    Ultimately, democracy isn’t democracy; it’s demagoguery and back-room political dealings. And if we live in such a system, newspapers are merely the tool of various political factions, none of which actually serve “the people.” In this world, people like Teresa D’Agostino know nothing of West Baltimore and don’t care to, and if I try to know about them, I feel like a bumbling commoner living vicariously through celebrities. D’Agostino is nobility, and “newspaper reader” is a elitist’s slur.

    So, to go back to what prompted this discussion, yes, Templeton is a menace, he is abhorrent, and he’s not the norm. He is like the Clay Davis of newspapermen. But for every Clay Davis, there a thousand not-nearly-as-corrupt politicians who compromise the noble calling of their professions in the name of utility and necessity. The man who gets to a position of power, even if it’s just the power of a newspaper reporter or beat cop, has usually compromised himself to the bureaucracy; not just the bureaucracy of his own particular institution, but the greater institution of society.

    And if the society is a lie, and I think democracy has to be a lie in some significant sense, anyone who becomes important in society is in some way complicit in that lie. And if they are unwilling to accept that, they are “heaved away with great force.”

    Whoa, Holden Caufield, inveighing against “phonies.” Grow up, you say.

    But if I’m right, and it is how I say, then what a fool I would be to participate in a false debate between Democrats and Republicans, universal or privatized health care, and the like, when the winner determines which lobby gets paid, but it’s never me. For I am a peasant.

    But some things- you name civil rights- are such pressing social problems that eventually the powers have to come to recognize them as problems, even if fixing them is good for nobody powerful. There are two huge social problems facing our society today. One of them I won’t mention, the other is the War on Drugs. I know how I feel about that. But if I support the presidential candidate who wants to fix that problem, I am laughed at for being a recluse who is disconnected with reality.

  32. Triumph Says:

    Just a minor point before I make a full response, Anonymous – I was in my comment only referring to the world of The Wire, and not to the actual Baltimore Sun, or anything that has actually occured.

  33. King of Diamonds Says:

    “And on any given day, the contents of any major newspaper represent a series of incomplete, first-draft accounts of the immediate doings of mankind. ”

    Newspapers are the not only called”The Daily Record”, they ar in fact The Historical Record. And however biased, manipulative, horrifically biased capitalist corporate loser machines they are, they still are the only HARD record we have of history. They are our Egyptian cunieform, our rosetta stones. The fact that with a few keystrokes a hacker could wipe out a page, site, server etc does not give me courage to abandon our current best record keeping device, one made out of physical atoms with measurable mass, weight and volume, for some new emphemeral format that is a data file. Paper may fade and decompose but it’s usually good for a few hundred years or so which is pretty good for an old dead tree.

    Did the Holocaust really occur? Yes. How can we prove that some 50 years later? Papers. I bet Kant or Hegel or Nietzche would have luaghed at the notion that a new extemporaneous format could satisfactorily record human events.

    Another argument is that it’s not just what’s written in any paper that makes it powerful, it’s the possibilty that ANYTHING could be written. It is like a judicial system. To nod to Foucault one might say a paper disciplines and punishes. I could write an essay on this but I am tired and my logical faculties are blunt right now.

    Great discussion folks. I think I might have actually learned something. Ssh.

  34. Triumph Says:

    To begin with, it is difficult discussing things with an idealist – too often they conflate the world as it is with the world as it should be. I read Anonymous’s arguments and nod my head in agreement, then somewhere he switches to the ideal world and I realize I’ve been duped.

    The undercurrent of your responses to myself and Mr. Peterson seems to be something along the lines of a secular Pascal’s Wager – ‘getting involved’, or ‘being knowledgeable’ is always preferable to remaining ignorant and uninformed. Even if there’s only a tiny chance that you will actually use that information, whether in voting or discussing or what-have-you, the only ‘drawback’ to such an arrangement is knowing more. But I don’t want to know more about Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama or John McCain. I don’t want to be passionately debating the virtues of each as though they were something real – for they are mostly artifice and sham. These men and women who live almost under constant scrutiny – how can they be anything but complete automatons? Why should I have an intense interest in this process?

    I recognize the paper *should* be the daily record. I also recognize that too often, it is not. What can I do to change such an entrenched system? Become Charles Foster Kane, try to work for a newspaper to somehow change it in some small way, or make withering statements on the Internet about it while refusing to be a consumer. Isn’t that what choice consists of in capitalist America? We vote with the purse, not the ballot.

    Regarding civil rights – I have no doubt the Journal-Constitution played a large role. Where is the grand liberation of the late 20th century? You can surely see how I’ve got no frame of reference here – a newspaper can be a vital organ, but lately they’ve become merely mouthpieces.

    You’re arguing that a free press is vital to a free society. I’m agreeing. What I’m saying is that our press is free, but wastes its time on nonsense, and our society, likewise. Knowing more about the way things actually work can serve to make a person more alienated from his fellow citizens, not more connected or involved.

    As Mr. Peterson quoted, you want it to be one way – it’s the other way.

  35. christycash Says:

    I find a lot of the comments on this thread deeply disturbing, particularly the ease with which some people are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. do you really believe that we would be better off without NEWS?! this is insanity. I studied foucault also, and you know what? i bet foucault read the newspaper. i bet derrida did, too — my guess is he was somewhat interested in what was going on in the world. but you know who really kept up on the news? Edward Said. Camus. Fanon. People, revolutions happen — oops, life happens — when citizens have access to information. I cannot honestly believe anyone smart enough to get The Wire could not grasp this simple idea. There isn’t a zero-sum choice between “erudition” and “information.” They’re related. Would you prefer not to know about separtatist movements in Kosovo? You brought up lead paint in toys. Perhaps you’d rather not know about that, and just buy them and get sick? You think that you know less the more you read about Iraq? I’d say there’s a problem with how you’re reading, or what sources you’re reading. not all newspapers are created equal. I’m coming too late to this and I don’t plan to comment again on this thread, but I need to say that I am dismayed by some of this.

  36. Christycash, your post strikes me as dogmatism, and your dogma is that newspapers are good and we should all read them. You ask “Would you prefer not to know about separatist movements in Kosovo?” The answer is yes, I would prefer not to “know” about them in the sense that I would know were I to read the newspaper. This is American dogmatism. If we read the newspaper about the world, we are informed about the world. That are you are disturbed that I would dare challenge this notion strikes me as the sign of fanaticism. Better off without NEWS? Insanity! But I am not a subscriber to the idea that the world is constantly making progress for the better, so I look back to a time when there were newspapers– not too long ago– and wonder how they ever got along.

    King of Diamonds, you write that “Kant or Hegel or Nietzche would have luaghed at the notion that a new extemporaneous format could satisfactorily record human events.” But the fact is that newspapers were around at that time. I guess you didn’t read those articles. Why? Because more important than newspapers were what those guys were writing. And in their time, when educated people actually read Greek plays and Roman history and German philosophy, being a “newspaper reader” meant you were low and common and you read stuff that was printed on cheap, thin paper because it was trashy and insubstantial.

    So it is certainly ironic that you would refer to newspapers as “The Historical Record.” They have been around for a while, but really only a small portion of time in relation to the history of the written word. Once they were king, but that time is waning. What we have now, which will not be destroyed by “a few keystrokes of a hacker,” is the Internet and all the physical servers around the world that contain its information. I am not celebrating this. The way information is reported, processed and consumed on the Internet is far uglier than the way of the newspaper. But there’s no going back.

    I want to be a free thinker. It’s all I have. So I can challenge the idea that to know is to know information. Intelligence is a principle of knowledge; its basis is not to know facts but to know how to understand them in their own context, and in the greater historical context. I see the way “information” is reported, processed and consumed in newspapers to be inimical to free thinking.

    Another time for “People, revolutions happen — oops, life happens — when citizens have access to information.”

  37. “…when there were NO newspapers…”

  38. Melocoton Says:

    Too late to this, I know, but I emphatically submit that the more I read about Iraq in newspapers the less I know about Iraq.

  39. I agree with the more level headed of these posts. No news? Come on people. Take the blindfolds off. What we need is to teach people to understand what they are seeing.

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