“The Wire” creator David Simon on the future of news, small ideas and legal weed
David Simon has one thing in common with the 45th president of the United States, whom he has criticized on social media and in public: He understands the power of television, Twitter and other electronic media to instantly disseminate ideas in ways the printed word never could.
Simon, 57, is the creator of HBO’s genre-defying/defining series “The Wire,” whose achingly realistic marks can still be seen on nearly every police procedural or crime drama of worth since its finale in 2008.
Simon’s HBO follow-ups — “Generation Kill,” “Treme,” “Show Me a Hero” and this summer’s James Franco-powered porn drama “The Deuce” — haven’t had quite the same cultural impact, but they have been similarly smart and resistant to oversimplification.
Simon is also active in social media and blogging, which has netted him both praise and threats from the usual corners of the internet.
What informs and guides all that, however, is Simon’s first career as a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun, which placed him eye-to-eye with the devastating, monolithic, occasionally triumphant forces that shape urban life.
Simon will receive The Denver Press Club’s 23rd annual Damon Runyon Award, named after the influential journalist and author, at a banquet at Denver Athletic Club on March 31 — a paid event that is open to the public via denverpressclub.org.
We talked to Simon via
phone in advance.
Q: You have no shortage of awards and accolades. What did you think when you won this one?
A: I wasn’t familiar with the award until they offered it to me, but I’m familiar with Damon Runyon. I read him as a young police reporter, and a little bit in college, but I really got into him when I was covering cops, for obvious reasons. Not that my (writing) bore a particular resemblance to his Great White Way; his characters were more playful and could be a lot more affectionate with the crime of Runyon’s milieu than Baltimore in the 1980s. Nonetheless, he was a guy who created a whole world and had done so to grand effect. I very much enjoyed reading him and still think somebody should make a great movie of “The Snatching of Bookie Bob.”
Q: You’ve said that for newspapers and book publishers, it’s been an e-race to the bottom. We’ve seen more than a few examples of who got there first, but who’s escaping the gravitational pull of that right now?
A: Right now The Washington Post and especially The New York Times are experiencing it because they have a national product that everybody feels a plausible need or even a willingness to pay for. But to support independent journalism, the trick has always been what to do with regional papers. They’re doing an essential service but it’s a loss-leader service. There’s good work being done at my newspaper, The Sun, and only 120 guys left. We used to have probably 500 people in editorial, so they’re not covering the same amount of ground. But where they do commit, you’re getting really strong work, certainly in the wake of and even prior to Freddie Gray and the city’s struggles since then. So there are places where good work is clearly still being done. Just less of it.
Q: Are there any lessons from the TV world for keeping journalism viable outside of big cities?
A: Cable succeeded — and is now threatened by some of the same forces, including streaming and people pulling the plug — because of its subscription model. Look to the cable model for what journalism should have been doing in the 1980s and ‘90s, particularly in the ‘90s as we were coming online. Not every station can be self-sustaining. Not everybody wants C-SPAN, The Weather Channel or The Cooking Channel. It’s effectively like that with a daily, general-interest newspaper. Everybody got it for different reasons: the metro section, the classified section. The model was such that the things people found essential — like sports or stock tables — sustained things like covering the zoning board. What would have happened if, at the point which you were going online, you were offered what the cable companies were offering? By basically synthesizing the visual information world under one bill, they were able to offer content and sustain the stuff that wasn’t all that popular. On a small scale, that’s what happened to me at HBO, because I was in same tent as “The Sopranos,” and I was basically the metro section. Q: So how would that model
work for newspapers?
A: Pick from these two newspapers or sports magazines, ESPN or Sports Illustrated, The New York Times or The Washington Post, and at the end of the month you get one bill and electronically you’re on all these paysites. Your bill is specific to your zip code, so de facto you can have either the Rocky Mountain News (which is now defunct) or The Denver Post. You’re in this county so you can have this newsletter or that one. If journalism had looked at itself that way, and marketed from the top down, then you’d effectively have the healthier leader, like The Times or The Post, which you’re getting for international coverage, linked to functional reporters covering institutions where you live. Anti-trust concerns might have aroused a Justice Department around that, but if they could have done it instead of just opening the barn doors and letting the information go for free, that’s what might have saved them.
Q: No medium is immune to copyright concerns these days, or things “wanting” to be free, as some have described the effect of the internet.
A: Right. And look, I’m contending with it in another medium now. But nobody got hurt like journalism got hurt. Maybe music. We don’t make a lot of
stuff in this country anymore, but we’re still manufacturing the (crap) out of ideas, and they’ve managed to undercut the entire economy.
Q: You’ve railed against what you see as the futility of the drug war, but it seems a lot of “regular people” are just now waking up to the ravages of heroin, for example, because they can’t ignore it. Since Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, how do you see that trend advancing nationally?
A: You tell me. Is (Colorado’s) Oxycontin use up over other states, or is there any appreciable difference since marijuana was legalized? That’s the primary argument against the liberalization of marijuana: that it’s a gateway drug to other things. Even though, yes, all the rummies drinking rye down by the Cross Street Market, 94 percent of them started with a beer. So is beer a gateway drug? On some level, 94 percent of all murderers who picked up a gun probably had a traffic ticket. Do traffic violations pose the inevitable route to violent crime? There’s a specious equivocation we were sold for 50 to 60 years of the drug war. People who have compulsive disorders are going to struggle with addiction regardless of where they begin, whether it’s caffeine or a beer or a barbiturate.
They’re going where they’re going unless it’s interrupted in some definitive way externally. The (anti-marijuana forces) are ignoring the fact that millions upon millions upon millions have used it recreationally and haven’t become drug addicted in the same way that millions have used alcohol and not become drug addicts. So I’m really dubious on the gateway drug part of it. (Note: Many bigger picture trends are still unclear following recreational legalization in Colorado, although legal marijuana has been associated with fewer opiod deaths and other positive trends nationally).
Q: And certainly, you’ve said in the past that the drug war is as much about social and cultural control as it is about public health or safety.
A: The reason we have the drug war is to police our feared other, and not necessarily to police dangerous drugs or drugs that do the most harm, or we wouldn’t be chasing marijuana, we’d be chasing AnheuserBusch and R.J. Reynolds. On the other hand, I have a counter-intuitive argument against what Colorado did, which has nothing to do with my concerns about marijuana. And I’m sort of alone in this, but I see this as being political inevitably: If we could get marijuana separate from the drug war, this country would allow the police and prison system to beat the (crap) out of brown people and poor white people disproportionately. Once middle-class white kids can get their high legally, it’s like the military getting rid of the draft. We weren’t taking kids of opportunity, so wars of choice became much more viable with a volunteer army. The military’s never going back to a draft because it’s given them much more credibility to fight even interminable wars of attrition as long as everybody’s there of their own volition. White, middle-class kids stopped protesting wars on campus once they weren’t vulnerable to fighting them. The opposition to the drug war should be comprehensive and should have a real, sustained sense of how laws are used disproportionately on black kids. If you’re really serious about addressing this nightmare, the totality of it, it’s probably a bad idea to be looking at marijuana separately, but not meth or heroin.
Q: You seem like a pretty intense guy most of the time. What disarms you?
A: I’m charmed by the same things other people are charmed by. I laugh at the same stupid (stuff ). Don’t we all? I watch mostly movies and sports. I don’t watch 24-hour cable unless something’s going on. Somebody has to tell me a television show began and ended well and then I’ll be watching it. I hate going to something where I don’t know if the guy knows how to end a story, so I’m not a good consumer of my own product. I really find “Archer” funny. There’s a level of silliness where it’s just ... fun is fun. I was really rooting for “Moonlight” at the Oscars, but I put in the screener of “La La Land” the other day and I was just charmed. So those aren’t big ideas. Whether the Baltimore Orioles have enough pitching is not a big idea. I can be taken aback by a perfectly turned double-play. By the things that my 7-year-old daughter says.
“The Wire" creator and former Baltimore Sun journalist David Simon is the recipient of the 23rd annual Damon Runyon Award. Photo by Krestine
David Simon, creator of the HBO series “The Wire,” smiles after the filming of a scene for the show in 2002. The former Baltimore Sun journalist is the recipient of the 23rd annual Damon Runyon Award, which he’ll get at the Denver Press Club on March 31. Associated Press file