Taking Tiger Mountain

I surprised myself this past week, as I’ve been having some lingering thoughts about this final season when I though I was all used up. Yet here I’ve been, musing about the purpose of the show in general, and about David Simon’s agenda(s), and about what he might think are the uses of the program to its viewers. Call it force of habit, or the final thrashing out of my system of this program’s grip on my imagination and my conscience. I’ve fallen so in love with the way The Wire frustrates, brutalizes, challenges, and inhabits me that there will be a real absence. It’s nice having this dependably screwy prism through which to refract our own conceptualizations of our society and culture. I guess I’ll just have to read the papers.

And the newspaper is the thing to which I would like to return for just a moment, particularly since it was the ostensible primary theme this season. Of course when Simon has spoke of it before the season he didn’t say “the media” but talked more about “how stories get told and how information reaches the public,” which is as much about “newspapers” as season 4 was about “schools” versus how people get educated, how they learn, and how some don’t learn despite the best intentions. I would argue that while so much of this show is about laments for lost things and the flashes of ancient glory, Simon in some ways offers the show itself as a starting point to something new, the beginning of whatever the next world of storytelling might look like.

When Simon turns up in that Sun newsroom, pencil or pen clenched in his teeth (to prevent a wry smile?), it struck me that behind all the accusatorial plotting and rhetoric that’s come out of the show and out of Simon’s mouth, with the supposed intention of creating a conversation about the decline of good city newspapers and why our standards have fallen just as conglomerates consolidate and blandify local papers, that behind all that Simon just desperately misses being in the newsroom. He cut his teeth on all the issues we see transmitted through the show’s five seasons in that newsroom, learned not just how those issues got covered but who were the human faces behind those issues, and what were the stories behind the stories (in other words he started piecing together how “it’s all connected”).

It’s how he got to Homicide, and HLotS, and The Corner, and The Wire, and it’s how he will get from here to the next thing. In that sense, his final insertion of himself into the show isn’t simply some Hitchcockian cameo, some Where’s Waldo distraction, but rather an admission that for Simon, this is all deeply personal because this is all about some aspect of his life or the lives of those he has sought to make a career examining, and not simply as an entertainment, but as a life experience. The newspaper is not just another (particulary weighty) character in The Wire, the institution of the newspaper is the genesis of The Wire‘s very existence.

By placing himself in that newsroom he’s telling the viewer that these stories we love so much, even the stories about the paper, are captured in real life less and less, but can get captured in the teleplay. Newsrooms with depleted staffs and greenhorn reporters miss the tales of the Omar Littles and the Prop Joes, to say nothing of the Dukies or even the Namonds. Simon is romanticizing his conceptions of reporting and information-transmission because he feels that within these perhaps-arcain modes lie the stories that make us more engaged in the place where we live and the people who we live next to. And he’s managing to still tell those stories many years and miles removed from that newsroom. So there’s a kind of inversion, where the newspaper begat The Wire and now, in its admittedly circumscribed way, The Wire has achieved what the newspaper cannot.

It’s a sort of sentimentalized civics lesson to be sure, but I think that although Simon truly does lament the end of the honorable city paper, he would agree that any mode that can replicate its contributions is welcome. And modesty doesn’t befit him, so he’d probably admit that in the absence of the old ways, The Wire is at least a start on a new way of delivering stories, of getting to know our neighbors, and of getting down to the hard work of considering the best way to move on in this scarred, ailing, desperate, hysterical, terrific land of ours, or at least to start turning from the abyss.

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17 Comments on “Taking Tiger Mountain”

  1. rimrat Says:

    The big city newspaper isn’t dead. The heyday of the newspaper was that brief period after the invention of efficient indoor lighting and efficient transportation systems, when literacy was high, and before the arrival of competing media. Say, from roughly the Civil War era to the 1920s. Newspaper readership has been on a decline ever since but the print medium is not going away.

    There is an answer in your question. You’re right that Simon’s newsgathering experience was the genesis of all that follows. All that follows would not have happened without the newsgathering experience … and the attendent ethic that the presentation stick as closely to the facts as possible.

    The newspaper remains, and will remain, the primarcy means by which facts are gathered. There is an Internet component and that will grow. Some bloggers are exploring new forms of journalism that don’t rely on a corporate model, like the newspaper, to gather facts. But most don’t. Much of the Internet is reactive … a la the Drudge Report, which breaks the occasional big story (and sometimes nonstory) but mostly still relies on newspapers for its facts.

    YouTube has begun serving as an alternative to TV news but only in the most preliminary sense. No one has quite taken the YouTube format to the level of a comprehensive ongoing news report. But the germs of that are there …

    Still, how do either of these models, Internet “print” and video, ever become lucrative enough to function as comprehensive, trusted newsgathering operations? No one has figured that out.

    I’m getting out of the newspaper business after 30 years in the newsrooms. They don’t want me here, as I am white, male, over 50 and have an irritating habit of questioning assumptions, and I have other options to explore. But I fully expect some sort of newspaper will be produced for the foreseeable future. It won’t be a newspaper I want to work for, or want to read. But it will be there.

    Newspapers will survive, just as radio and the movies survived TV’s arrival. I don’t think there ever was some sort of Golden Age of journalism when newspapers were delivering great, thoughtfully produced news. Most newspapers have always been mediocre at best and many are simply devolving from mediocre to poor. The Baltimore Sun, both the real and fictional versions, is one of the greatest newspapers in the country with an amazing history. In Simon’s view, it wasdeclined. “Wire” viewers seemed to think that this was a depiction of a lousy newspaper. Not so. At most newspapers, “Gus” would have been dumped on the copy desk decades earlier.

    Writing you today, from the copy desk, on the rim … where I started 28 years ago … and no I haven’t been here the whole time.

  2. Curtis Says:

    Great stuff there, rimrat and I completely agree. I’m still pretty anxious about reporting getting paid for though. Facts don’t just happen; somebody has to notice and write them down.

  3. anon Says:

    This post got me thinking about something that I haven’t really seen people discuss on here: What other ways are stories being told on the Wire? I, like many, thought the newspaper storyline was the weakest point of the season because the characters weren’t given enough screen time to develop and there was too much focus on the Templeton storyline which I just never really cared about.

    But what other ways are stories being told? There’s not just the newspaper, but the way institutions tell stories to remember their own (the legend of Omar, McNulty’s wake), and the way institutions tell their own stories to the public (Carcetti spinning the serial killer, Clay Davis’s ridiculous rally). I’m sure Simon thinks he’s making some point in the way all these come together. What is that point? Does he succeed in making it? What do you guys think?

  4. Matt Says:

    rimrat — if the fictional version of the Baltimore Sun is one of the greatest newspapers in America than we are in a heap of trouble.

    As for being pushed out for being “white, male, over 50 and (having) an irritating habit of questioning assumptions” — are you saying that affirmative action is as much to blame as cost cutting for the decline of the newspaper industry? Or if not “as much” — at least bearing some?

    These are serious questions: don’t take them personally — just curious.

  5. MissnBodie Says:

    This is an interesting take, and reminiscent of the recent interview with Simon where he states he found it ironic that no one picked up on the major point of the newspaper subplot, that the paper was missing all the big stories, namely the ones mentioned in the lead post, while oral history in the communities remains the best way to preserve someone’s memory, albeit embellished. (The biggest story not reported is of course, not Omar or Prop Joe, but the coverup and its ramifications for Carcetti, Rawls, Perlman and Marlo. Remember, nobody at the Sun is covering City Hall or the courts anymore, except for the guy working the Fed. Cts. at the same time).

    Reading this post reminded me of Bunny, who like Gus was a man of principle demoted and discarded by the system. I suppose Daniels fits this model too, though his story is a bit more complicated by his ambition, murky past, and devotion to his ex-wife and Perlman. Thus a parallel between Season 3 and Season 5 emerges. McNulty’s demotion after Hamsterdam allowed him to follow Bunny’s (and Daniels’) advice that the best way to police was from the streets. They needed to know whom they were helping in order to form the relationships necessary to serve and protect. Hamsterdam is a form of community policing that works. They meet and educate the lieutenants, the drug trade is controlled, and the neighborhood prospers (well, you know, relatively). In the process McNulty forms a bond with Bodie and Carver begins his maturation expressed more powerfully in Season 4. Season 4 incidentally follows the same theme, though without the clear character parallels, with Prez, who never learned how to work the streets as a cop, finally appreciating the individuals in that community. Thus, seasons 3 and 4 teach that the stories are at the local level, and integrating the system with the individual is essential to honest and successful institutions.

    Briefly then, Season 5 faults the newspapers for their version of ‘juking the stats’ while not ‘community policing’ by putting more reporters on the beat and getting to know the community. Only Fletcher does that. Even saintly Alma doesn’t follow through on her connection to McNulty to figure out why only two murders are being charged. Similarly, Templeton misses the story behind McNulty’s admission. Yes the editors are bad, but are they worse than Burrell or Rawls or Old Mayor or Carcetti for desiring a Pulitzer above integrity? In my view it’s a wash. The real flaw, as Simon and this post have led me to ponder further, is that there aren’t more Guses and Fletchers who take the time to connect with the people.

    Does Fletcher represent ‘a new hope’ for the Sun? His work completes Reginald’s redemption, and along with Simon’s cameo and Gus’s smile from the copy desk suggest that perhaps in such a newsroom, the paper can do a bit of real po-lice work of their own.

  6. John Peterson Says:

    [quote]It’s a sort of sentimentalized civics lesson to be sure, but I think that although Simon truly does lament the end of the honorable city paper, he would agree that any mode that can replicate its contributions is welcome.[/quote]

    Yea, and that’s strange, because it seems that Simon would rather be writing for the paper than anything else, but [i]The Wire[/i] does more to tell the stories of Baltimore than 1,000 newspaper articles.

  7. Curtis Says:

    JP — use these instead of these [ ].

  8. Curtis Says:

    …er “” oh, well…

  9. rimrat Says:

    Both Baltimore Suns are apparently squandering their greatness by gutting their institutional memory and cashing in on the century-plus they’ve spent building up respect within their communities. That said, the “Wire” Sun’s bad editors are better than many of their real-life peers and the newspaper still apparently has a newsroom full of dedicated professionals. If anything, the editors … and even the lying reporter … still seem to about their notion of journalism, however flawed. Most of the midlevel and above editors I’ve known — including some Pulitzer prize winners — were more concerned about keeping the editors up the line happy than they were with any journalistic ideal. There are exceptions, but most are just corporate lackies. Considering that even the journalists of “The Wire” produced a prize-winning series that offered a kind of truth, despite the lie, and I will have to say it is better than the average newspaper. That ain’t praise.

  10. rimrat Says:

    Much of the irony of “The Wire” is that the Sun editors and Carcetti and Stringer Bell and the union leaders aren’t the worst among their kind but among the best.

  11. Phil Says:

    Fantastic post and some amazing thoughts from rimrat.

    All the best

  12. That Honey Nut Says:

    …with a whimper?

  13. Pete Says:

    Hey, WIRE fans, I made an homage to the show. Watch it at:

  14. Jaywest03 Says:

    Season 5 is available on DVD TOMORROW!!!!

  15. Anna Says:

    This is my first time on this site. I love the writing and am so grateful to have found it. I JUST started The Wire for the first time (on S1Ep2) and am blogging about it after friends encouraged me because they missed the show so much. I will be sure to direct them to this site as well. If you’re interested: annagetsdowntothewire.blogspot.com

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