“The Wire” cre­ator David Si­mon on the fu­ture of news, small ideas and le­gal weed

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By John Wen­zel

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.

Have­mann, pro­vided by Blown Dead­line Pro­duc­tions

“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

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