01/14/2008 03:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Wire 's Faulty Diagnosis

Like a lot of current and former newspaper journalists, I'm watching The Wire with a sense of weird fascination as it focuses on the Baltimore Sun. I love the show, and have high hopes for the media plotline. Newspapers are under assault by the remorseless forces of postmodern capitalism, which is grinding down their ability to watchdog city hall, draining their pools of institutional knowledge.

But: I don't get The Wire's "Sun" plotline. It's interesting. I want to see where the show goes with it. But its diagnosis about what ails the business doesn't make sense.

David Simon seems to have taken a bunch of industry trends and put them in a blender with an admixture of his own resentment and nostalgia. And what came out, in contrast to the show's amazingly cool, disciplined eye for every other aspect of urban society, has so far been the worst possible thing for a drama, both preachy and sentimental.

I say this having experienced both ends of the trends under Simon's microscope. Scott Templeton, the ambitious young yuppie reporter -- I was that guy 20 years ago at the Times-Picayune. I got shit like him too, some of it deserved. The editors liked and promoted me, and other staffers sometimes grumbled about all the great stuff I got to do. (I did not, unlike -- apparently -- the Templeton character, make stuff up.) And now, I am also the mid-career hack who took a buyout as the honchos cut back. Though, in the anomalous case of the post-Katrina TP, sheer necessity demands that they actually do "do more with less."

Like Baltimore's police department, school system, and city government, The Wire's Sun is run by venal bureaucrats who care mostly about advancing, or at least preserving, their own careers. But in the case of the former institutions, those characters are at least human. The police department's Burrell and Rawls are corrupt hacks, and we root against them, but we understand what motivates them, and they're fun to watch. (They also have interesting wrinkles -- will Rawls ever be outed?) At least so far, though, newspaper editor Whitting is a pompous, obvious fool. His motivation, such as it is, appears to be to win a Pulitzer while doing his best to ignore what's going on all around him.

Simon conflates two trends -- the "yuppification" of newspapers, and the dismantling of newspapers during the Internet age. These are actually countervailing trends. As newspapers became more professionalized, perhaps they lost some feel for the urban landscape, but their overall quality and ambition rose. In the past ten years, especially at medium-sized papers like the real Sun, cutbacks and corporate hackery have eroded much of that progress. But for Simon, these two trends are one and the same.

This is a weird way to look at it, and that comes through in this week's episode, in which there's a baffling newspaper meeting to discuss a proposed investigation of the school system.

There's a good debate to be had about the efficacy of doing big newspaper projects on urban dysfunction (or anything else). Many of them turn out unreadable, journalism's bran flakes. Many are done with winning Pulitzers in mind. But the newspaper project is a way to delve deeply into what's going on in a way that can't be done in daily coverage. Watching the earlier seasons of The Wire, I loved watching (and, as an investigative journalist, identified with) the painstaking work of the major crimes squad -- McNulty's romantic view of the exceptional opportunities of going deep, and Freamon's delight in the arcana of the criminal web, the stuff that nobody else is interested in. Clearly Simon identifies the work of the major crimes squad with the best newspaper work.

Yet in the meeting, saintly, salty city editor Gus Haynes argues against the proposed project, saying it's a mistake to beat up on the schools, you have to look at the big picture, the cultural and political roots of urban decline. Here, the debate dissolves into incoherence. You can't investigate the schools at all, because it's too narrow a topic? Really? Or, you can't do it because the clueless editor is unable to put the schools in their proper socio-cultural context, so he shouldn't try at all? Or ... ? The decision to zero in on a particular classroom was portrayed as silly. But Simon is the guy who gave us "The Corner." Can't you zero in on something and show the broader picture?

This is getting down into the weeds, I know. But it's obvious this newspaper project, if it goes anywhere, is going to be a big disaster. Ironically, it's investigations that always get the short end of the stick at medium-sized newspapers: when cutbacks come, they're the first to go. Now The Wire is targeting them too. What are the would-be Lester Freamons at papers around the country supposed to think?