UPDATE (Nov. 14): And now Mike Rowe has responded to David Simon's response to Mike Rowe. Got all that? Read it here. We'll stay out of it, except to quibble with Rowe's statement, "in spite of the headline in the article where you were quoted, I'm not coming to 'save' Baltimore." The headline to this article is "David Simon responds to Mike Rowe's attempt to 'save' Baltimore's reputation after 'The Wire.'" And in Rowe's initial post, he said, "What if I brought my crew to Baltimore and did a segment about the people who are trying to save the reputation of a city that's been consistently portrayed as a den of iniquity? Somebody's gotta do it, right?" The headline was not inaccurate, based on what he wrote.
Last week Mike Rowe, the Ford pitchman and television host, released a piece of prose on his Facebook page called “Rewiring the Wire.” Rowe, famous for his former Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs” and its CNN-based successor “Somebody’s Got to Do It,” began his piece with a complaint about David Simon’s “gritty crime dramas” “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Wire,” by saying “Both shows were very popular. And both shows convinced millions of Americans that Baltimore is a fantastic place to buy drugs, find a whore, or get murdered. Better yet...all three at once!"
It’s a rather insulting description of the complicated world that Simon’s shows present. Sure, people ask Baltimoreans all the time, “Is it really like ‘The Wire’?” But what does that mean? Sure there are gangs and cops in the show. But there are also teachers, dock workers, politicians, guys who work in the gym, and journalists. This is why it is initially surprising that this response comes from the “Dirty Jobs” guy. More than anything else “The Wire” is a show about work.
So maybe we should ask: Is work in Baltimore like “The Wire”? In many ways, the show accurately portrays the extremely complicated ecosystem of work in the American city. Whether a drug dealer, a cop, or a dock worker, you are controlled by forces that you cannot even see, much less control. And this is precisely what Rowe’s show avoids, focusing on the individual workers and the mechanics of their jobs, without contextualizing them. Simon has referred to these institutions as the inscrutible gods of his tragedy. Rowe takes the tragedy out of contemporary work, creating a world of noble, godless laborers.
Rowe then notes that he has just joined "a modest PR campaign called ‘My Baltimore,’ a straight-forward attempt to remind the masses that there's more to my hometown than heroin and gonorrhea.”
He explains that “My Baltimore” will run print and radio ads but not television spots. “But then it occurred to me that I host a TV show that’s almost never confused with a 'gritty crime drama.' What if I brought my crew to Baltimore and did a segment about the people who are trying to save the reputation of a city that’s been consistently portrayed as a den of iniquity? Somebody's gotta do it, right?”
So, he decides to do an episode of his show as part of this PR campaign. He says he wants to make an “authentic hour” that celebrates his city. (The Sun's David Zurawik talks to Rowe here). But, if it is inherently a PR campaign, there is something inauthentic. It is possible to do great profiles that are not about "cleaning up an image." Our City Folk section offers profiles of people who could be on Rowe’s show. But our purpose is to depict the person as accurately as possible with the best writing and photography we can muster, regardless of how they make the city look.
But part of what makes the "The Wire" so valuable is the way that it shows how all of these different, extremely complicated worlds interact and overlap in order to create a modern American city, such as Baltimore. Simon's new project, "Show Me a Hero," continues to reflect on the city and he recently said that "the city to me is the only possible vehicle we have to measure human acheivement." So we figured we'd see what he thought of all this. He responded with the following, which is unedited:
“Speaking for the collective that worked on the narratives in question, we undertook to tell those stories as best we could in the hope that they would be honest and relevant to the whole of our city, to our divided American society and to the fundamental necessity that is our shared future. We even operated with some hope that such storytelling might help lead to redress and reconsideration of certain policies and priorities.
“On a personal level, that's simply my job. It was my job as a reporter and as an author. It is my job still and I take it seriously.
"Certainly, there are other meaningful uses for narrative and imagery, and civic boosterism is one such laudable purpose. That is the job of others and I understand that they, too, take their labors seriously.
“As a Baltimorean fully vested in the city's future, I can respect and support such efforts and purposes, even should others demonstrate less understanding and respect for the role of storytelling as a means of offering dissent and opening civic and societal debate."