‘Civil lib­er­ties are at risk’

‘The Wire’ cre­ator David Si­mon on the de­cline of jour­nal­ism, the rise of Trump and bring­ing The Pogues to the stage

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Pa­trick Freyne

‘The Wire’ cre­ator David Si­mon on Trump, Amer­ica and be­ing un­der siege.

Tele­vi­sion cre­ator David Si­mon is in Ire­land this week­end for a pub­lic dis­cus­sion with Richard Ford and Fin­tan O’Toole about US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. “I only found that there was go­ing to be a po­lit­i­cal dy­namic [to the talk] when I read it some­where on­line,” he says and laughs. “I am ob­vi­ously will­ing to rant about pol­i­tics. I’ve been do­ing it for a while.”

Si­mon has al­ways been a politi­cised writer. He’s the showrun­ner be­hind sev­eral of the best Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion se­ries of re­cent years: The Wire, which ex­plored ev­ery nook and cranny of a fail­ing Amer­i­can city; Gen­er­a­tion Kill, set dur­ing the in­va­sion of Iraq; Treme, about the af­ter­math of the New Or­leans flood; and Show Me a Hero, about a racially- tinged hous­ing cri­sis in 1980s Yonkers.

His shows stray from the usual tem­plate of the golden age of drama, which fo­cuses on larger-than-life Shake­spearean an­ti­heroes such as Tony So­prano or Wal­ter White, in favour of de­pict­ing com­mu­ni­ties at the mercy of greater so­cial forces. “It’s a dif­fer­ent strain in the dra­matic tra­di­tion,” he says, “the idea that univer­sal forces are larger than in­di­vid­u­als. There are a lot of peo­ple who don’t want to watch nar­ra­tives that are framed in that way be­cause they get enough of that in real life. But other peo­ple find it cathar­tic. . . I’m more in­ter­ested in sys­tems and struc­ture and process than most writ­ers writ­ing drama.”

Water­gate

This might be be­cause he was never drawn to screen­writ­ing when he was younger. He wanted to be a jour­nal­ist. “And not just a jour­nal­ist, I wanted to be a ‘ news­pa­per man’ which seems even more an­ti­quated. My home­town pa­per was the Wash­ing­ton Post and at 13 or 14 I read the Bern­stein and Wood­ward cov­er­age of Water­gate con­tem­po­ra­ne­ously . . . I came up at that point when jour­nal­ism’s pre­sump­tions were that we were go­ing to get bet­ter and more so­phis­ti­cated and more com­pli­cated and were go­ing to be able to speak about any­thing that mat­tered to the hu­man con­di­tion. News­pa­pers were go­ing to be­come like mag­a­zines and mag­a­zines were go­ing to be­come like god­damn books.”

What hap­pened? A ter­ri­ble con­flu­ence of chain own­er­ship and dumb­ing down, he says. “I wanted to write about sys­tems and process and the out- of- town edi­tors who were al­ready look­ing past the Bal­ti­more Sun [where Si­mon worked] to higher in the news­pa­per chain; they wanted prizes and ‘im­pact’.”

What does he mean by im­pact? “Putting a pelt on the wall. If a com­pli­cated is­sue had two con­flict­ing forces I would watch my news­pa­per aban­don the cov­er­age of one to high­light the other. They were writ­ing to­wards sim­plic­ity and out­rage in the hope of a sim­ple vil­lain and I think that be­came fun­da­men­tal at many sec­ond- tier news­pa­pers.”

The fifth sea­son of The Wire ad­dressed many of his frus­tra­tions with me­dia. “[ The Wire] cri­tiqued law en­force­ment, pol­i­tics, pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion as it’s prac­tised, and it was all well re­garded by the av­er­age jour­nal­ist un­til we turned the cam­era on them and said: ‘ What? You think you’re do­ing your jobs?’ ”

He took a buy- out from the Bal­ti­more Sun in 1995. His non- fiction book about polic­ing, Homi­cide: A Year on the Killing Streets, had been adapted into a TV se­ries for which he had writ­ten scripts and he be­gan sub­li­mat­ing his jour­nal­is­tic in­stincts into drama. “The frac­tur­ing of the TV au­di­ence away from free net­works and ad­ver­tis­ing, where you needed to have a 25 per cent share, left room to have a grown-up medium if you wanted.”

Trump

Many of his projects fo­cused on the type of post- in­dus­trial class and race is­sues that have come to the fore in the era of Trump. “A lot of peo­ple have asked me would Frank Sobotka [ a union leader in The Wire] have voted for Trump,” he says. “And I say, ‘No, we wrote him smarter than that.’ But would some of his mem­ber­ship? Yeah, some of them would.

“I don’t think it’s un­fair to note that the Demo­cratic Party took for granted and walked away from the trauma of the work­ing class . . . They main­tained the al­le­giance of the black and Latino work­ing class be­cause they didn’t walk away from civil rights or an hon­est im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy, but the white work­ing class had less and less rea­son to feel al­le­giance.”

Si­mon of­ten sounds more like a so­cial­ist ac­tivist than a tele­vi­sion screen­writer. He laments “the tri­umph of cap­i­tal over labour”. He de­fends glob­al­i­sa­tion but adds: “It would be nice if some­one had given an hon­est as­sess­ment of what was go­ing to hap­pen to the man­u­fac­tur­ing classes once man­u­fac­tur­ing dis­ap­peared.”

Trump is not the so­lu­tion to these prob­lems, he says.

“I’ve never seen a more as­ton­ish­ingly ill-equipped hu­man be­ing to lead a na­tion. I think our sys­tems are un­der siege and I think our civil lib­er­ties are at con­sid­er­able risk and I think ba­sic facts are no longer the cur­rency of our civic de­bate.”

Are the cut­backs in jour­nal­ism com­ing home to roost? “Cer­tainly,” he says; but later, he adds “Since the sys­tems fail­ure that was the elec­tion, you’d have to be blind not to credit the fact that some of our main­stream me­dia have re­sponded well . . . The same me­dia that failed to stand apart from power be­fore the Iraq war or to prop­erly weigh the ac­cu­sa­tions be­ing de­liv­ered dur­ing the elec­tion is do­ing a hell of a job now in some in­stances.”

He also feels a cer­tain amount of per­sonal ur­gency. He has ar­ranged pro-im­mi­gra­tion fundrais­ing events, do­nated money and been ac­tive on Twit­ter. “I don’t want to look at my kids and say I wasn’t full-throated at this mo­ment.”

He’s not afraid of an ar­gu­ment, he says, though he notes that “some peo­ple just need to be told to get f***ed . . . I’m a lefty Jew and I’m pretty un­re­pen­tant about who I am . . . and it brings out a lot of ugly on the in­ter­net. There’s a real sub­text of racism and anti- Semitism in this coun­try that didn’t go away with Obama. In fact, in some ways it was hy­per­bolised be­cause of Obama and now it has been given free rein be­cause of the in­dif­fer­ence of this pres­i­dent to his rhetoric.”

De­bat­ing on Twit­ter helps him work out his own think­ing, he says, but only when he’s ar­gu­ing with peo­ple who are “gen­uine and can avoid the usual traps of bad rhetoric”. It’s also good for his writ­ing, “be­cause if you write straw men then the drama gets weaker”.

Some­times his so­cial me­dia in­ter­ven­tions are more light- hearted. Last year, when John Banville sug­gested in this news­pa­per that writ­ers couldn’t be good fa­thers, Si­mon tweeted the im­mor­tal words: “Speak for your­self, f*** nuts. Fam­ily is fam­ily. The job is the job.”

He laughs. “Oh, that poor guy,” he says. “Lis­ten, I didn’t mean to go af­ter him. I don’t even know Banville. But that whole thing – come on! I can­not get up on a cross be­cause I’m a f*** ing writer and pre­tend that I had to go to Cal­vary in or­der to put words on the page. What the f***? I can­not muster half the self-re­gard re­quired to be­lieve that the cost of be­ing a writer is you treat peo­ple poorly.”

He’s con­tin­u­ously busy. With his wife, the nov­el­ist Laura Lipp­man, his long-time col­lab­o­ra­tor Ge­orge Pele­canos and Druid Theatre’s Garry Hynes, he’s cre­at­ing a mu­si­cal built around the mu­sic of the Pogues. His work is filled with mu­sic, but when he was ini­tially ap­proached to write it by the late Pogues gui­tarist Philip Chevron, Si­mon tried to dis­suade him. “[ The Pogues are] some­where beyond the realm of or­di­nary mu­sic.”

Then, in Au­gust, his mini- se­ries The Deuce will air on HBO. Set in Man­hat­tan dur­ing the porn boom of the 1970s, it de­picts “the al­most in­stan­ta­neous cre­ation of a mil­lion- and later bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try that has per­me­ated Amer­i­can life. It’s an in­dus­try pred­i­cated on misog­yny and the prod­uct is flesh and it has been a trans­for­ma­tive force in Amer­i­can cul­ture whether we like it or not. We don’t sell you a bot­tle of beer with­out wrap­ping it in some sex at this point.”

What’s the com­mon thread run­ning through his work? “I would say that whether we do Gen­er­a­tion Kill or hous­ing bu­reau­crats or drug deal­ers or cops, our hearts are al­ways with labour or mid­dle man­age­ment.” He laughs. “We’re al­ways look­ing at where the money goes, where it comes from, who ben­e­fits, who doesn’t ben­e­fit and what hap­pens to the peo­ple in the ma­chine.”

What good does writ­ing about these things do? “You’re talk­ing about ‘im­pact’,” he says. “One thing I had con­tempt for in jour­nal­ism was, ‘We’ll write it this way and then we’ll get a new law passed [or they’ll] hang this guy’s pelt on the wall’, and in try­ing to do that they would of­ten shave the story to make it a per­fect lit­tle ar­row of out­rage . . . That’s just dis­hon­est . . . So even when I was a re­porter I threw out the idea of ‘im­pact’.”

So what’s the goal? “My goal is to tell the truth and not cheat, so that later on whether they fixed the prob­lem or they didn’t, they can’t say they didn’t know.”

‘‘ Oh, that poor guy. I didn’t mean to go af­ter him. I don’t even know Banville ‘‘ We look at where the money goes, where it comes from, and who ben­e­fits

David Si­mon, Richard Ford and Fin­tan O’Toole dis­cuss “Po­tus 45” at the Step House Ho­tel at 5pm on Satur­day as part of the Bor­ris Fes­ti­val of Writ­ing and Ideas

David Si­mon: Porn ‘has been a trans­for­ma­tive force in Amer­i­can cul­ture whether we like it or not. We don’t sell you a bot­tle of beer with­out wrap­ping it in some sex at this point’.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MATT MCCLAIN/WASH­ING­TON POST/ GETTY IMAGES

Pogues mu­si­cal

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