Monday, March 10, 2008

"The Wire" and New Media

"The Wire" is over, and like many white urban liberals, I'll now have to find something else to do with my Sunday nights. (Thank god baseball season is around the corner.) The final season of "The Wire" created more acrimony amongst fans of the show than any other season, except possibly Season 2. Most criticisms of the show focused on the plot involving show creator David Simon's former place of employment, The Baltimore Sun. In Simon's Sun, real homicides, particularly those that happen in poor African American neighborhoods, end up buried deep within the Metro section of the paper, while the fake murders of white homeless men get prominent, page one, above-the-fold coverage:
"This is why I'm the king of meta," Simon said with a mischievous grin. "Everything that you know about 'The Wire' up to this point never appeared in the newspaper." He then recounted the many plot points taken from Simon's real-life Baltimore experiences -- the corrupt mayor asking for cooked crime stats, the elementary school test scores spawned from students being taught the tests, the deaths of Prop Joe and Omar -- all indicators of the city's real problems that never appeared in the Sun's pages, in reality or on HBO. "Watching a TV drama to get the truth, that's the real joke," Simon added.
Simon's critique of the newspaper business is whithering indeed, portraying the bosses of the paper as either heartless bureaucrats or prize-hungry opportunists. The "real" journalists and editors, those who want to cover the city as it is, are buried by the paper and its corporate parents in Chicago.

The newspaper plot failed for a number of reasons, including a lack of characterization. Some of this was due to timing. By introducing all the reporters in the show's final season, Simon and company short them of valuable time given to developing the police, the drug dealers, the school kids, and the city hall politicos. In previous seasons, Simon never would've left editor Gus to stand as Patron Saint of the City Desk, flawless and noble to the end, or to leave Scott Templeton to be nothing more than a fraud and a sham. The characters lacked nuance and at times, humanity, and it showed up on the screen.

But the newspaper plot suffered for another reason, as well. Newspapers are losing traction in the public consciousness, giving way to cable news channels, ESPN, and, most importantly, the internet. Electronic media has accelerated the news cycle and changed the appetites of the average news consumer, so much so that even the nightly news, once the most important source of information to the average American, now seems hopelessly out of touch, viewed by the elderly exclusively (or at least, that's what I've been led to believe by the people who buy ad time on these shows). "The Wire" ignored electronic media, particularly the impact of the internet on how newspapers cover crime, and it did so to its own detriment. Here in LA, where homicides have been in the news lately, the LA Times (owned by the same parent corporation as Simon's Sun) has done something rather remarkable. The Homicide Report, written by Jill Leovy and Ruben Vives, aims to cover every homicide in Los Angeles, regardless of where, why, or how it was committed. The goal is to give coverage to the tragedy that is every killing, to remove homicides from the world of statistics, to keep the problem fresh in the public's imagination.

The genius of the Homicide Report, about which I've written before, is that, through RSS feeds and the like, it can be delivered to you in the same way the good old fashioned newspaper used to be before you canceled your subscription. I'd like to have seen Simon examine something like this phenomenon, and maybe, given another ten episodes, he might have. It isn't hard to imagine Alma Gutierrez, the reporter the Sun exiles to the Carroll County Bureau (everyone familiar with "The Wire" knows what it means to be sent to "the county"), starting a blog similar to The Homicide Report, covering the stories she feels deserve it. As it stands now, the Baltimore Sun has blogs about the military, education, entertainment (where their critics panned the finale of "The Wire"), and beer. But no homicide blog yet.

Blogs have often lowered the level of discourse in journalism. The anonymity allows for a certain recklessness, it seems to me, and the consumer has come to expect something different from a blog than it does a magazine or newspaper. But blogs and other forms of internet reporting have also uncovered previously underreported issues, forced greater transparency upon public institutions (It stretches credulity that the cover-up at city hall, the police department, and the Sun would go uncovered in the contemporary news environment), and made newspapers more nimble. Examining this would've made the final season of "The Wire," great though it was, even greater.

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