Today on Real Talk with Jason Whitlock, the guest was television writer, author, and journalist, David Simon. Simon is the creator of the HBO television show ‘The Wire,’ as well as co-creator of ‘Tremé.’
Here are a few quotes from today’s interview as Simon discusses the impact of ‘The Wire,’ the idea of impact regarding his own work, whether the show is ever a burden and the importance of newspapers. If you’d like to hear the whole interview, click here.
Are you satisfied with the impact of the show? Has it started the conversation that you wanted started?
Not really, but the truth is, you know, I wasn’t satisfied when I was a journalist. You would write stories, and they would go into the ether, and you would think that you had done a little something, and then they would come and argue about it and pass a law that made it worse, or not. In a way, a long time ago, when I was still at the Baltimore Sun, I gave up on the idea of impact as being plausible. And I had to sort of ground myself in the idea of you’re telling stories, and if you tell a story well, and it’s executed well, and it’s the story you intended, that’s pretty much all you can do. I got in trouble recently, and I think your first question might be referring to this for actually answering somebody’s question, where they asked me what I thought about something, some reaction to ‘The Wire.’ And I answered honestly because they asked me what I thought, not whether I expected it, or whether I cared, or whether I gave it much thought beyond answering their question. But I did, I answered their question and a little bit of hell broke loose.
I actually wasn’t referring to that, I was going to save that for later because I’m a bit younger than you Dave, so I still believe in impact. You’re depressing me, that a show that good, that perhaps it will never have the impact that you and I, or certainly I, would hope that it would.
Well, I mean I guess I’m saying, it’s always good to have hope, but I guess I’m saying, when you’re telling a story you can’t, I found it to be problematic at least, to anticipate, that’s kind of the extra, the lagniappe, as they would say in New Orleans. It doesn’t help you, in terms of execution, to start anticipating how you want people to react. You just gotta go out there and tell the story. Afterwards if you’re being a little reflective, you know, I can look at ‘The Wire’ and say, ‘yeah, a lot of people found it as entertainment and for some people it may have changed their paradigm for thinking about urban issues, but the biggest urban issue it took on was the drug war. And, while there may be a little bit more of a discussion about the drug war being an immoral fraud, nowadays, there’s a complete inactivity in terms of our political leadership looking at it. So, you know, on a practical level you might look at ‘The Wire’ and say it had no impact on the issue we cared about the most. But, having said that, would I not do ‘The Wire?’ Would I not tell that story? No, I very much enjoyed and felt very gratified and meaningful pursuing that story, so it’s just that you can’t put your head there or you’re going to be constantly disappointed.
For someone like me though, it has made David Simon formidable, it has given him a platform and I see that as a positive.
Sure has, you’ve been all over push that. You must be selling box sets out of your car trunk or something, damn.
Alright, obviously you are against the drug war, as are most right-thinking people, but your other passion, you have this great passion for newspapers and understanding their importance. You started a blog, I read your most recent blog where you were calling bullsh*t about the numbers games that are still being played in Baltimore. Tell us why you’re doing the blog and about the latest post on the blog. I think that ‘Wire’ fans…the reality that ‘The Wire’ portrayed is still going on.
Well, I started the blog…my ex wife actually, who I’m very good friends with and we’re co-parents together, and I’ve got her as one of my closest friends…she said long ago, she understands the internet way better than me and did for a long time and she said, she actually gave it to me as a gift. She reserved DavidSimon.com years ago and I had no clue, and I left it there. It was dormant, five, six, seven years. I don’t know how long and I got into this trouble that I referred to earlier which I had seemingly said something I didn’t mean to say, which is partly my own ineloquence at that moment of being asked, you know, ‘what do you think of all the attention of ‘The Wire’ now?’ And I realized, you know, in order to even correct the record in any kind of coherent way, I was going to have to work through the same reporters who were so excited at my verbal screw up the first time. So, even though I could do that to a certain extent through the reporters I found to be more careful, or covering television, it felt problematic. And for the first time I realized what my ex-wife was talking about which was, you know, this thing is a way of saying exactly what you think, at the moment you think it, and you can edit it and you can show it to other people before you put it up. It’s basically; it is the great and unequivocal democratization that the internet offers for all voices. There’s no argument with that and I have no intention of arguing with that. I think the Internet is the tool of the future for human communication. I think we’re all going to be writing digitally and I think cutting down trees, at this point, is a complete inoperative. But, having said that, what I value is not so much newspapers or the paper part of it, I value the newsrooms. My understanding of the city got better because I was with like-minded people, in terms of the skills sets, and what we were trying to do. We weren’t all like-minded about our politics or anything, but we were like-minded about our purpose. Which as, I try to acquire the most reality we could and pull it through the keyhole and present for the rest of the civic firmament and put it out there. As many stories got killed in that newsroom, for being half thought out or un-researched or just plain wrong, as got in the paper. And that’s a part of the Internet. The profession aspect of journalism is the part that the advocates of new media just don’t get. They don’t understand what it means to cover a beat, what it means to use or not to use by sources, what it means to spend your first few years not understanding the stats you deal with until finally, they can’t lie to you anymore and in order to do that, they have to pay you a living wage. You know, you gotta take a mortgage and raise kids and nobodies going to do it as a hobby. So the idea the internet was going to become this all-points on the compass, everybody’s writing about everything, and we’ll all sort it out, and it’ll all be there, and we don’t need newspapers or we don’t need newsrooms, is just the most infantile self-aggrandizing thing I’ve ever heard and yet, you continue to hear it and it continues to be argued. And the industry itself, the newspaper industry itself, didn’t respect it’s own product. They spent the years leading up to the Internet, cutting product. You know I was a buy out in ’95, I took about a buyout five years before the Internet was even a factor because they realized on Wall Street that you make a lot more money putting out a mediocre paper than a good one. So, the industry itself was, you know, culpable. What’s lost for society is a news report where we can actually figure out what the real problems are and begin to address them. Absent that, no good can come from anything. And as I said earlier, I don’t know if good comes from anything anyway, but it definitely doesn’t happen if we don’t even understand. If meaningless stats take meaning, if crap becomes gold, if mortgage based securities are worth something, that’s the origin of all of our problems I believe. We don’t even know what we’re talking about anymore.
I’m going to wrap up because I don’t want to keep you too long, but is ‘The Wire’ ever a burden? Is it interfering with people getting into ‘Tremé?’
Listen, nobody watched any of my stuff when it was on the air. That’s the other thing I was trying to convey to people, which is ‘The Wire’ had less viewers every single season from season two on, dramatically. Less viewers in season three than in season two, less viewers in season four with the kids, who everybody loved, in retrospect, less viewers in season five. It came what it became after it existed, and after it was off the air, and after people found it by word of mouth, and they found it by HBO Demand, and they found it by DVD boxsets, and nobody watched ‘The Coroner.’ And the best thing I’ve ever done in terms of execution, and the thing I’m probably most proud of in terms of how close it came out to exactly what we wanted to say about the subject matter was ‘Generation Kill.’ And nobody watched that on TV. This is just a small anecdotal thing but I think it typifies what the delivery system, the only delivery system that we’ve managed to be good at which is; you know the year after the DVD’s came out, or ‘Generation Kill,’ I have the figures in front of me so it sort of points it up to me…we sold 160, 000 DVD’s, a modest, respectable number, but nothing great, of ‘Generation Kill,’ the year that the boxset came out. The next year, 100,000, so it’s shrinking, which is what it’s supposed to do. Every year it should be less and less. The year after that, 160,000, and in the first quarter of this year, 40,000. So it’s actually sustaining itself. How does it do that? Nobody is writing about it. It’s just word of mouth. Once the things exist, they exist. If ‘Tremé’ finishes its run and it exists, people will find it on its own terms and if not, then no good can come from anything. If you don’t finish the stories, nothing good can come from anything. But they let us finish ‘The Wire,’ it existed and then people finally found it. But nobody, nobody thought it was….and I think I’ve pretty much demonstrated, I don’t know how to make a television show that people watch right away, or understand completely right away, or see a purpose for right away. Some of that stuff is late and some of it is to be discovered as you journey through the TV show, and some of its to be there right at the end because you’re building towards the end. You’re building towards the last 20 minutes of any story or the last 30 pages of any book. So, I mean, I’m not going to blame ‘The Wire’ for ‘Tremé,’ I’m going to blame the way we make television. When make television, we’re thinking of the whole thing and we’re thinking of what were going to say and we’re never going to make anything that’s commercially viable.