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The Wire's Final Season and the Story Everyone Missed

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Well now, it's been a week since The Wire's final episode and a certain calm has descended, leaving a little less agita and a little more reflection. A moment for one last question:

That wasn't too vicious, was it?

Sure there was a fabulist and, yeah, he snatched the big prize. Couldn't resist, sorry. That was a bit beyond the historical reality; at the historical Baltimore Sun, he was a mere Pulitzer finalist. And okay, the city editor, the honorable fellow, the one for whom journalism was an ethos, he got slapped down and thrown to the copy desk. We did that, too, because hey, to criticize such a newsroom culture did indeed carry those risks in Baltimore.

But the fifth-season story arc began with a wonderful bit of adversarial reporting on deadline -- good, clean newspapering it was. And at the end there, that other fellow wrote a very sincere narrative about a very real and genuine soul. Righteous journalism that makes a good reporter get up in the morning.

True, the top editor had to get up on a desk amid the deluge of the internet and the declines in circulation and advertising. And yeah, he gave the more-with-less talk to maintain morale and it rang a hollow because at this point, buyout upon buyout, the grey ladies are down to bone already. But he was sincere in his grief. He hated closing those foreign bureaus and cutting back further in the newsroom. But what can you do? The suits in Chicago are running scared.

All in all, the last season of The Wire wasn't that cruel a portrayal, was it? There was some love in there for the ink-stained wretches. A few funny lines, too. Tell me you didn't laugh at the burnt-doll harem in the photog's trunk. C'mon, it's okay to smile.

Ah, fuck it, who's kidding whom?

It was way worse than you thought. Any of you -- save for a couple sharp journos who were able to stand back just far enough to realize what the real critique was. Lowry got it, and tellingly, he used to work for the L.A. Times but is now a step or two removed from a metropolitan daily, writing for Variety. And a couple of others at alternative weeklies figured it out - again, perhaps, because they're less vested than everyone at the big, vulnerable dailies.

But the rest of you blessed, scribbling souls? Not so much as an offhand reference, and that goes not just for the journalists displeased enough with our newspaper tale, but for the larger number of commentators and critics who thought we did swell. No one went near the theme; everyone stayed dead-center and literal, oblivious to the big-ass elephant in our mythical newsroom.

Let's be clear, though. I'm actually rigorous about letting criticism of the show stand without arguing back. I'll rant a bit about journalism, or the drug war or any other issue that I rub up against. But if you didn't enjoy The Wire this season, then let's concede for purposes of this little note that you are correct. We sucked. The writing was a train wreck, the characterization limp, the acting and plotting, shameful and shameless both. Jumped that shark in high-topped Nikes, we did.

Okay, I don't actually agree, but neither would I argue. We said what we wanted to say and now everyone else is entitled to talk back without some counterbitch finding them. So let's happily concede that all criticism stands and get to the real fun.

Because the thing I can't leave alone, the thing that makes me giddy as a schoolgirl is this: Whatever else I am -- a traitorous apostate to newsprint, the angriest hack in television, a kicker of small dogs -- you must acknowledge that I am now, also, the newly crowded King of Meta. That's right. I am your new lord sovereign of buried, latent, subtextual argument. I dragged it past sarcasm, past cynicism, and all the way to balls-out snide. Crown me up and kneel, ya bitches.

Here's what happened in season five of The Wire when almost no one -- among the working press, at least -- was looking:

Our newspaper missed every major story.

The mayor, who came in promising reform, is instead forcing his police department to once again cook the stats to create the illusion that crime is going down. Uncovered.

The school system has been teaching test questions to improve No Child Left Behind scores, and to protect the mayor politically and to validate a system that is failing to properly educate city children. No expose published.

Key investigations and prosecutions are undercut or abandoned by the political machinations of police officials, prosecutors and political figures. Departmental priorities make high-level drug investigation prohibitive.

Not the news that's fit to print.

Drug wars, territorial disputes, and the assassination of the city's largest drug importer manage to produce a brief inside the metro section that refers only to the slaying of a second-hand appliance store owner.

Par for the course.

That was the critique. With the exception of the good journalism that bookended the story arc -- which is, of course, representative of the fact that there are still newspaper folk in Baltimore and elsewhere struggling mightily to do the job -- the season amounted to ten hours of a newspaper that is no longer intimately aware of its city.

And here comes the meta:

In Baltimore, where over the last twenty years Times Mirror and the Tribune Company have combined to reduce the newsroom by forty percent, all of the above stories pretty much happened. A mayor was elected governor while his police commanders made aggravated assaults and robberies disappear. School principals in Baltimore and elsewhere in Maryland were obliged to teach test questions to pump scores at the expense of meaningful curricula. Politicians then took credit for the limited gains that were, of course, unsustainable as the students aged into middle school. Politically sensitive casework was butchered or pursued selectively by political interests and departmental indifference. Notable killings and machinations in the drug world were the talk of the streets.

And yes, in real life, there wasn't much written about such in my city. Amid buyout after buyout, the Baltimore Sun conceded much of its institutional memory, its beat structure, its ability to penetrate municipal institutions and report qualitatively on substantive issues in a way that explains not just the symptomatic problems of the city, but the root causes of those problems.

The Sun began doing so in the 1990s -- before the internet, before the Tribune Company did its worst -- when beat reporting and any serious, systemic examination of issues was eschewed in favor of "impact" journalism, special projects and Pulitzer sniffing. It continued doing so into the present decade as the Tribune Company followed the Times-Mirror buyouts with even more ruthless abandon. And now, with the economic vise that is the internet tight around her, The Sun - like so many once-worthy regional newspapers -- is fighting for relevance and readers.

It's admittedly easy enough, if you are writing a fictional television show, to sit in a diner booth or on a bar stool with a police lieutenant or an assistant principal, an assistant state's attorney or a political functionary and have them tell you the good dirt, knowing as they do that fiction is a safe abstraction. Fiction makes everyone comfortable and talkative; journalism -- good, probing journalism -- is a much harder, much more rigorous task. It is time-consuming, expensive, deliberate and demanding.

It would not have been easy for a veteran police reporter to pull all the police reports in the Southwestern District and find out just how robberies fell so dramatically, to track each individual report through staff review and find out how many were unfounded and for what reason, or to develop a stationhouse source who could tell you about how many reports went unwritten on the major's orders, or even further -- to talk to people in that district who tried to report armed robberies and instead found themselves threatened with warrant checks or accused of drug involvement or otherwise intimidated into dropping the matter.

It would be hard for a committed education reporter to acquire the curriculum of a city middle school and compare it to what children were taught before No Child Left Behind reduced teaching to rote repetition, or to track a rise in the third-grade test scores into the fifth or seventh grade and thereby demonstrate how temporal and false the gains actually were. And to get teachers talking, even on background, about their anger and frustration at this flummery?

That kind of trust comes slow.

But absent that kind of reporting, we will all soon enough live in cities and towns where politicians and bureaucrats gambol freely without worry, where it is never a risk to shine shit and call it gold. A good newspaper covers its city and acquires not just the quantitative account of a day's events, but the qualitative truth and meaning behind those events. A great newspaper does this routinely on a multitude of issues, across its entire region.

Such a newspaper was not chronicled on The Wire. There were still good journalists in our make-believe newsroom, and they did some good work -- just as there are still such souls in Baltimore and every city laboring in similar fashion and to similar result. But there used to be more of them. And they covered more ground, and they knew the terrain in a way that they no longer do.

I confess I thought that journalism was still self-aware enough to get it, that enough collective consciousness of the craft's highest calling remained, that reporters still worried about what their newspapers were missing.

We certainly expected more attention from the media. Write a television story arc about the betrayal of the working class, the fraud of the drug war or the lie of No Child Left Behind and you can't get off the entertainment pages. Maybe an education magazine writes a column on inncr-city curricula, or a libertarian website revisits the idea of drug decriminalization.

But suggest that high-end American newspapers have been gutted by out-of-town ownership, besieged by the internet and preoccupied by a prize culture that validates small-trick and self-limiting "impact," rather than seriously evaluating problems? Now you've got the full attention of the media.

We are grateful for ink. Always.

But for all of it to amount to a forest-and-tree farce? To argue about whether Whiting is more venal or one-dimensional than Valchek? To debate whether Gus Haynes is more of a hero than Bunny Colvin? To wonder whether anyone would be disciplined for cursing in a newsroom, or why they made the top editor wear those suspenders, or whether it was a cliché to have a fabricator driving the overt plot? To argue about whether the drama had become arch or unsubtle? And to studiously avoid any sustained discussion about whether the depicted newspaper is, in all respects, capturing the meaningful narrative of the depicted city? And whether that is an accurate critique?

When we were beating the story out, Bill Zorzi wondered whether -- in the final episode -- it might be necessary for Gus Haynes to vocalize the theme, to turn to Alma or Luxenberg or some other character and say, "We're so thin, and we waste what little resources we have left on the wrong things. I wonder what's happening in this city that we don't know about. I wonder what we're missing?"

But no, show don't tell is the rule. To have the city editor saying such things would have been, well, arch. And unsubtle. As it is, I argued, any good journalist will -- if he or she loves the business -- follow this story and wince at the stories systematically missed, the undiscovered and unreported tales of the city known to viewers for four seasons. As wounded and onanistic and self-absorbed as the profession has become, there are still plenty of people for whom that matters above all.

So I talked Zorzi down on that one.

My bad, Bill. My bad.

David Simon, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun for thirteen years, is the executive producer of HBO's The Wire. The drama's final season, depicting a Baltimore newspaper, concluded last week.