Cutline?: Clark Johnson stars as a metro editor in The Wire's fifth season Baltimore Sun.
David Simon is an opinionated man with a big mouth. Anybody who has ever interviewed, worked with, or talked to him knows this. The Wire's fifth season debuted this past Sunday, Jan. 6, and one of the season's many story lines involves a fictional daily newspaper called the Baltimore Sun. Now, nobody likes seeing a version of themselves portrayed in fiction--especially journalists--and especially when that portrayal is as complex and fraught as we've come to expect from The Wire's depiction of institutions. A reporter is ethically challenged. Head editors make questionable news decisions and editorial-coverage proclamations. Veterans are mistreated. Midlevel editors find themselves in frustrating positions. This is the world of newspapering on The Wire--a show not exactly known for its depiction of shiny, happy organizations. Since 2000, in fact, Simon has been publicly critical of the editorial management that took over The Sun when he left in 1995, most noticeably in an article by Abigail Pogrebin in the October 2000 issue of the now defunct media magazine Brill's Content. Understandably, the real Sun has taken some offense. Since Sun TV critic David Zurawik offered his overview of the new season's first seven episodes, in the Sunday, Dec. 30, edition of the paper, five other pieces about the show have run under the Sun's aegis. Two by columnist Sun," Franklin says in a Jan. 10 phone conversation. Franklin says he has watched a few of the season's early episodes. "Look, this isn't a documentary, it's not a reality show. To my mind, this doesn't depict the real-life Baltimore Sun newsroom any more than ER depicts the emergency room at Cook County Hospital or Grey's Anatomy depicts a hospital in Seattle. "Sure, it's awkward to have yourself being portrayed on television and to be writing about yourselves," he continues. "But David Zurawik, who is, to my mind, one of the nation's premiere TV critics, I think has done a terrific job under difficult circumstances writing about the season and critiquing the season and doing it in a fair and even-handed way." Despite Simon's personal history with The Sun during his tenure there, he has nothing but good things to say about the current regime. "What The Sun did was gracious and brave and typical of the who-gives-a-damn indifference of a good newspaper," Simon says, by phone on Jan. 7, of the paper agreeing to let The Wire call its fictional paper The Sun. "And I admire them for it and I am grateful to them for it. It would not have mattered much for us to call it the Baltimore Light or the Baltimore Beacon, but they allowed for just a little bit of verisimilitude in our fictional story and they did so at some risk. And for that reason, viewers ought to be clear about the differences between fact and fiction. I want to thank them [the paper] specifically." Simon doesn't know how he can say it any plainer. "Look, this is a fictional story," he says of the fifth season. "These characters don't exist at the Baltimore Sun. The events as they are depicted do not occur in the manner described. And to say further that there are journalists who are doing very good work at the Baltimore Sun and trying extremely hard to put out a good newspaper every day. And that they should feel no personal connection to the fiction [The Wire's paper] as they attempt to do that job. They certainly shouldn't feel any shame." The Sun had an idea of what was coming with this season. About a year ago, before the fifth season even started shooting, Simon and a few of his producers met with Franklin, managing editor Bob Blau, deputy managing editor Sandy Banisky, and others, to ask if it would be possible to use the publication's name in the fifth and final season of the series. "I was very open about what the story line involved," Simon says. "I told them that there would be a reporter with some challenged ethics. I also told them that there would be some good journalism on display but that it would deal with some of the myriad problems that are confronting newspapering certainly over the last few years." "What happened was David and some of his producers came in and we had lunch, and he basically told us he wanted to focus the final season of The Wire at least in part on the media's role in Baltimore and asked for permission to use the Sun name and Sun facilities to some degree, and that sort of thing," Franklin says. "And what I told him was, `Look, I'm the editor, I oversee the newsroom, but any kind of arrangement like that is going to have to go through the business side of the operation.' So the then-publisher, Ronnie Matthews, had another executive at the company work with David to see if they could come to agreement, and eventually they did." That agreement, according to Tim Thomas, the Sun's vice president of business development (and former vice president of marketing), was modeled after similar filming agreements made by the Los Angeles Times, another paper owned by Chicago's Tribune Co. And that agreement basically granted the producers of The Wire permission to shoot interior and exterior spaces of the Sun's Calvert Street newsroom headquarters and the printing facility by the Fort McHenry Tunnel, and the right to photograph and reproduce the Sun's name, logo, slogans, etc.-the "marks," in advertising parlance. "We gave them a limited right to use the marks," Thomas says by phone Jan. 10. "There's stipulations on them being able to use our marks, and one of those stipulations that the producers agreed was that they wouldn't use our marks to imply that The Sun is affiliated with or endorses the show in any way. We just felt that what we were granting here was a realistic setting to a complete work of fiction. We didn't want David Simon to have to use a fictional paper called the Baltimore Tattler or something. "The Sun is an institution here, and we felt that providing a realistic setting was perfectly fine," he continues. "What [Simon] said was, 'Here's the basic story line,' [and] he really wanted to have that realistic setting for his story. And we said, `OK, then you need to provide some assurances to us.' And we had many discussions, but the agreement essentially says that he agrees to use our marks in a way that won't damage our reputation or our first-class image. He agreed to do that and he said that--and he actually wrote it into the agreement--that he'll provide a fair and nuanced depiction of a modern American--I'm quoting--a `modern American newspaper in a fictional drama.' So that's essentially the agreement that we came to." What is more than likely rankling many Sun staffers is one specific plot line still developing this season. "There's a story line that develops about fabricating news," Franklin says. "And, first of all, I think it's a cliché, it harkens back to a couple of other prominent episodes in the newspaper business in past years, but that is just not the ethical standard that journalists here or, to my knowledge, at any other metro newspaper ascribe to. We have very strict ethical codes of conduct and reporters work very, very hard. They're very conscientious. They try to get it right. And that's just not what it's about." "I understand the sensitivities of people at The Sun, and it's for that reason that I wanted to say this," Simon says. "They are entitled to distance, in the same way that [Gov. Martin] O'Malley's entitled to distance from Carcetti and [mayor] Sheila Dixon is entitled to distance from [The Wire's City Council president] Narese Campbell, and all of our characters are rooted in the real but nonetheless not real. "Having said that, to be at all relevant, it has to take place in a world in which the internet is transforming journalism in the ways that it's doing, in which buyouts and cutbacks and layoffs are a fundamental part of the industry," he continues. "That's happening nationwide. And in which there is a continuing concern over the--how should I put this?-over the priorities of out-of-town newspaper chain ownership. I think these are all legitimate criticisms that have to be addressed if the piece is going to be meaningful because these are the fundamentals in newspapering today." Does Simon have a problem with certain Sun editors from his past? Damn right he does. "I left The Sun very disappointed in management, but if you go back you'll find that I held my tongue for about five years," he says, before discussing the incident that made him break his silence, incidents specific to Simon's dealings with former Sun editors John Carroll and William Marimow. "I've never been one to hold my tongue if I thought something was wrong, and I understand that it's problematic for people who worked with them in other situations where they've done notable, commendable things. I don't doubt that they have been involved with a great deal of positive work. But in Baltimore they tolerated a journalistic fraud and they defended that fraud in the same manner that cost [former New York Times executive editor] Howell Raines and [the late, former New York Times managing editor] Gerald Boyd their careers. And to this day they seem to be comfortable with it. And they did it in the newspaper where I grew up. That was their mistake." So, yes, it's personal, but not at the sake of the show. "The point of the Stoop [Storytelling] piece was me laughing at my own vanity," Simons says. "It really was. The 4 or 5 million people who are going to watch The Wire do not care what happened on July 26, 1995, in the Baltimore Sun newsroom. Here I am posed at the moment where I could address myself to the most personal story there is for me in The Wire--as I was not a cop, a dockworker, a schoolteacher, or a politician--and in truth, the story has to survive on its own. It has to contain so many different elements and so many different emotions in order that it can accomplish what it needs to over 10 hours. So it has to have a variety of themes, some of which are intensely affectionate to journalism and some of which is an argument of how journalism fits or doesn't fit against the other elements of The Wire already created. And all of that stuff has nothing to with David Simon or what he did at the Baltimore Sun." Franklin does admit that steadfast ethics are a constant in any journalistic practice. "I think you always have to stay vigilant and talk about it in the newsroom and talk about it with your reporters and have training sessions, and we do those things," Franklin says. "Accuracy and ethics are things that have to be part of the very core of the institution and what you do. But the bottom line is you can do all those things and, I suppose, still have a rogue reporter going off on their own. But I think if editors and reporters are communicating every day, communicating about stories and asking good questions of each other, then hopefully that can be caught and prevented." Possibly, the lingering distaste for those episodes of dishonest journalism in recent years--Janet Cooke, Jim Haner, Rick Bragg, Jayson Blair, Jack Kelly, Stephen Glass, etc.-- is what makes the still-developing story line in The Wire's current season still feel relevant. It is difficult to stop a dishonest reporter who doesn't care about violating his or her readers' trust and his or her institution's name. People lie, they make things up, and they bend the truth to suit what they want to say. Maybe that is one of the many themes The Wire is hoping to address over the course of this season. "Newspaper critics who don't know of my distaste for these fellows, they come to [Season 5] cold and they experience it for what it is on the screen," Simon says. "Those who know a little something about it or who once talked to me at a party or who read the piece in Brill's, they bring that to their criticism. And there's not too much I can do about that. But given the 50-some odd reviews that I've got on my desk right now, I'm pretty sanguine that we got it right. If 25 of them came in and said, `Bullshit,' I'd be worried."