Tuesday, 24 March 2009
IF THERE is one storyline that touches me deepest in The Wire, it is Series 5 where the systematic deconstruction of the Baltimore Sun’s influence in the city is facilitated by a management eager for prizes rather than ‘the truth’.
Attention grabbing stories, however spurious, badly researched and written, are lauded by senior management while job cuts see staff with extensive contact books and years of experience taking buy-outs.
Creator David Simon announces his intent with a fairly simplistic metaphor midway through the opening episode of the series.
As city editor Gus Haynes (pictured right, played by Clark Johnson), a former crime reporter turned desk man, comes back from a smoke he notices two editorial staff in the conference room watching a fire in West Baltimore.
He asks if either have called the crime reporter – neither have. His reply, “Who watches a fire? There’s some shameful shit going on round here,” gets to the heart of the meta-narrative that runs, often unseen, through all five series: corporate journalism is watching as itself - and the communities it is supposed to serve – are burning and dying.
Simon admitted at a talk with USC students (available on youtube.com) that it is a simplistic visual metaphor but he couldn’t help himself.
Perhaps the simplest of messages have the most power and by the end of The Wire we are left in no doubt about the complicity of the institution of journalism in the degradation of society by the other institutions of civil society.
It chimed with me when I first watched it because at the same time something similar was happening on the newspaper I last worked on.
Older staff with great contacts books were being let go, desk men and women who taught me how to maintain the spelling, stylistic and ethical standards of the paper were leaving for poorer newspapers, becoming PRs or taking redundancy. These were people who helped me grow-up (very quickly) and gave me the kinds of values Haynes instils in junior reporter Alma Gutierrez in series five.
The result now is that the newspaper I worked on is becoming a vessel for press releases.
In recent history that newspaper broke incredible stories of civic corruption thanks to the contacts of the council reporter. One of the most recent crime reporters has written an award winning expose of one of Europe’s biggest drug dealers who came from our city. He has, needless to say, left sometime ago feeling unloved and overlooked for senior jobs given to lickspittles with a tiny sliver of his talent and news sense.
The days of his kind of expertise are gone because it costs too much. As the outgoing crime reporter says in The Wire, it costs a whole lot less to put out a poor newspaper which no-one reads than trying to get a quality product on the streets.
The news hole is shrinking thanks to the internet and we have to do more with fewer staff.
Ironically, by commanding remaining staff to fill more pages with lifestyle nonsense, we have never said less journalistically in the history of our industry.
Through job cuts and redundancies we are literally rendering ourselves impotent journalistically while patting ourselves on the back for saving shareholders overheads. Nero is the obvious, clichéd parallel and I’m not good enough to ignore it.
There is little or no real analysis on the newspaper I worked on and less investigative reporting on hard news issues.
Poor (celebrity) columnists and their knee jerk reactions to trifling headline grabbing national stories are our puerile stock in trade now.
Communities we served are ignored largely because we have no-one of experience to get out and speak to them as it costs too much. We are in thrall of blogging about what we had for dinner rather than about what’s going on in the lives of the people who live in the areas we should have sworn to uphold.
If The Wire (Series 5) tells us anything, it is that the historic role of the regional newspaper as a watchdog on corruption and crime, civically, is dead.
It also shows us that management, hidebound by delivering cuts to satisfy share holders are, at best, unable to avert this catastrophe. Perhaps more pertinently, at worst, they are unwilling to thanks largely to self interest.
Man, I’d have loved to have worked for Gus Haynes, he’d have been a righteous dude to have gone into war with in conference. He’s the journalist we’d have all loved to have been.