Baltimore Paper Gets a Turn on 'The Wire'

In its fifth season, The Wire takes an intimate look at the Baltimore Sun. NPR's David Folkenflik talks about his time working there.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

There are two opinions about the HBO show "The Wire." Do you watch it, Rache?

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

We had this discussion yesterday. I do not own a television, I will say it for now. I'm going to buy one in 2008, that's my resolution. But I've been told that I should go rent the whole…

PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: …thing at my local blockbuster, which I'm going to do.

PESCA: And you got to experience it from start to finish like a novel. But two types of people - you're the extreme of one of them.

MARTIN: Extreme.

PESCA: Which is people either say I don't watch it. Perhaps sometimes they say I try to get into it and I couldn't. So that's one extreme - I don't watch it. On the other extreme is, I love it; it's my favorite show. No one is on the sense about "The Wire."

MARTIN: Totally. Yeah.

PESCA: It takes a lot to get into. It's the HBO series created by David Simon about Baltimore's dark corners and backroom dealings, corrupt cops, corrupt city officials, corrupt school officials. See the motif there?

MARTIN: Yeah.

PESCA: So David - there's David Simon, the creator, is the guy who's shining the light on the corruption, and it makes sense. Because for years, he was a Baltimore Sun's reporter and a crime reporter and he broke a lot of stories and had a flair for writing. And as I was thinking about this, I said to myself, hey, you know, who else was this once this great Baltimore Sun reporter? David Folkenflik, who's NPR's media reporter.

MARTIN: And then you conjured him up, and he appears.

PESCA: How are you doing, Dave?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: I'm doing great. With an intro like that, how great can I not be doing?

PESCA: I think the, like, second time we - first time we ever spoke, the second thing I said to you after, Folkenflik, is that's real name, was I knew you were from the Baltimore Sun and I think I said, David Simon, did you know him? And you said…

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, you bet. He was one of the first people to welcome me to The Sun when I joined as a sort of cub reporter in '94.

PESCA: And what was his reputation then?

FOLKENFLIK: He's already pretty well established. I mean, he had already taken a leave and written the book "Homicide: Life on the Streets" - leer(ph) on the streets, I was turned into a TV show NBC and Tom Fontana, if you remember, Barry Levinson. He had taken another leave shortly - after to write the book, "The Corner" with his collaborator Ed Burns, a former Baltimore city cop and schoolteacher, and that was then turned in an HBO miniseries. He was seen as a chronicler more than reporter in some ways. I mean, he served an immersion reporter who understood the way in which people fought and spoke and lived their lives particularly in the worlds of crime and law enforcement.

PESCA: So his stories, you would read them and you would say I kind of felt like I was there. You might not say, oh, that was the police captain who bribed the police lieutenant. You might not know everything about what's going on in the hierarchy, but he really got into the in-depth nitty-gritty of the street.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I mean, he did both. He was a police beat reporter before he was general of police (unintelligible), right? I mean, he really was reporting a lot about the issues affecting the homicide division. Baltimore murders were a terrible issue and there was, for example, I think in around '94, there was a lot of tension between the homicide division and this new reformist police commissioner who'd come from San Jose and was shaking things up there. So he was able to do things like that as well.

PESCA: So what do you think he, in his series up to this year - and then we'll get to the show - what do you think he gets right when he think he gets wrong?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I mean, David's approach really is about the notion about how the leaders in the institutions of Baltimore have repeatedly failed the city. I mean, this is a decaying, you know, sort of post-industrial northeastern-ish city…

PESCA: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: …that had been for, you know, decades depended on the port, you know. He showed how the working-class economy was collapsing, how often it was being replaced by the drug trade, how there was sort of this seeming sham war on drugs, you know, enabled cops to get budgets, enabled politicians to get elected. Meanwhile, you know, developers, other people, were doing the deals they were doing. The schools weren't producing people equipped to function in a new economy really.

PESCA: But if you haven't seen "The Wire" everything that Dave Folkenflik is saying right now, that's the plot. That's not just a background. Every - the schools, the ports, this is exactly what the series is about.

FOLKENFLIK: Astonishingly sophisticated. If you think

PESCA: Yes.

FOLKENFLIK: It's like over the last 25 years of police-based or law-and-order-based shows whether "Law and Order" itself…

PESCA: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: …or "Hill Street Blues," even the…

PESCA: Police procedurals.

FOLKENFLIK: Exactly. Even the best of them…

PESCA: Yes.

FOLKENFLIK: …never got into things like these.

PESCA: Yeah, and this…

FOLKENFLIK: And we're almost fearful of these. These are sort of audience killers.

PESCA: Yeah, the concept was, you know what? If you - there's no way we're really going to tell how to get a warrant or how to tap a phone. You just call a judge and it happens. On "The Wire" they take, you know, six episodes to show how to tap - get a warrant or to tap. You want to play a clip or two?

FOLKENFLIK: Or before we do that, I do want to say one thing. You asked to also what did he get wrong.

PESCA: Yes.

FOLKENFLIK: And having lived in Baltimore on and off for, you know, a decade, you know, a stint down in Washington among that…

PESCA: Right.

FOLKENFLIK: …but…

PESCA: And you selling crack for a while…

FOLKENFLIK: Well, relatively briefly.

PESCA: Okay.

FOLKENFLIK: But…

PESCA: Joke.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. But, you know, one of the things he gets wrong is that you only get glimpses of life as it's lived by the majority - the vast majority of people in Baltimore through things like - one of his series is a detective Jimmy Nolte and he's an avid energetic, aerobic cop but he is also kind of a screw up.

PESCA: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: And you see it as he looks at his ex-wife. She lives in a nice neighborhood. She's got two kids from whom he's estranged.

PESCA: So the nice normal person, the everyday person, that's not who Simon's going to be fascinated with.

FOLKENFLIK: And understandably so. But at the same time, people - and I've talked to people applying to the Sun among other places, they think that's all Baltimore is. And Baltimore is a violent city, it's, in many ways, a dysfunctional city, but it's also a city that works for…

PESCA: Right.

FOLKENFLIK: …the vast majority of people who live there.

PESCA: Right. Then, you know, but then again, the argument is you're going to do a story about the old West, there'll probably going to be a gunslinger that you concentrate on and not to milk maid.

FOLKENFLIK: I think it's totally fair for Simon to take his take, but in terms of actual - if that's Baltimore, it's not all of Baltimore.

PESCA: Right. You want to - okay. So let's do a clip. This is a character named Lester Freamon. He's a character that Simon likes. He's got a lot of integrity. Is this we're going to hear?

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, it's Lester Freamon.

PESCA: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: He's a detective. He's talking with a younger detective about a case that's really animating him.

PESCA: Okay. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Wire")

Unidentified Man #1: I don't know, man. I like street work more.

Mr. CLARKE PETERS (Actor): (As Det. Lester Freamon): You'd rather sit in a surveillance van days on end waiting to catch Peter(ph) hand-in Peewee(ph) a buyout? This detective is what you're telling me? A case like this here, when you show who gets paid behind all the tragedy in the floor, when you show how the money routes itself, how will all of us vested, all of us complicit?

Unidentified Man #1: Career case, huh?

Mr. PETERS: (As Det. Lester Freamon): Baby, I could die happier.

PESCA: What's that tell us about David Simon?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there are two things about this that I think are great. First off, it's sort of, I mean, I said three, I guess. It's magic. It was magic to see it in an early episode of this fifth and final season. I would say two things. One of which is it reflects Simon's notion that institutions are feeling that we're all complicit, we're all vested. I think those phrases are very key to his feelings about the city of Baltimore and how it works and doesn't work.

And the second thing is, I feel as though this is really a reflection of how David operated as a reporter. He's putting it in the mouth of a detective and at this point, none of the writers can remember who wrote it. He's got a great stable of writers, including the novelist George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, and, you know, these other names that you know. But at the same time, it really reflects my impression of what David was like as a reporter when he and I wrote some together.

PESCA: And we're going to get a lot of impression of what he was like as a reporter because the new season, the institution is about the media specifically. They don't even change the name, it's about the Baltimore Sun, right?

FOLKENFLIK: You're absolutely right. There they sort of wrangle with the current Baltimore Sun executives and editors to do it and…

PESCA: Well, the Sun could have said no, right?

FOLKENFLIK: Sun could not have been. To its credit, it said, okay, we were supportive of it reporting on or portraying the real city police…

PESCA: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: …department, the real City Hall with often only thinly disguised the characters based on real-life counterparts. They allowed this to go forward.

PESCA: And so what does he say is his motivation in talking about the newspapers, one of these important institutions? Why is Simon doing it?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there are two things going on. One of which is he has a very serious critique of the way in which news organizations are run. First off is he looks at the financial pressures on newsrooms across the country, and The Sun was not only not immune from it, it was hit very hard. Losses of page circulation and losses of advertising meant that it has been forced to get rid of over a quarter of its staff, newsroom staff, in just the last seven years of being owned by the Tribune Company. This is a major component of David Simon's critique.

He also has a very stinging critique of what he considers to be the prized culture of American journalism, that is, you go for the biggest package - a five-day series. The Sun has learned, and he feels that there's a sensationalizing and a trivializing of the news. And that this was, in particular - and here gets a little personal - fostered by two of The Sun's leaders who guided the newspaper in the '90s. John Carroll, who's the editor in chief of the Sun, and then in 2000, became editor-in-chief of the L.A. Times. Bill Marimow, managing editor, then-editor in chief of The Sun in 2000.

PESCA: I know that guy.

FOLKENFLIK: And then a former senior news executive here at National Public Radio.

PESCA: Let's just hear a little bit of David Simon himself talking about his own motivations.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. DAVID SIMON (Baltimore Sun Journalist; Novelist and TV Writer): The best grudge - these guys were great, they were fuel for 10 years in my life. I - on some level I hate him as much as the day I met him.

PESCA: Well, you know, there's so much to ask and we only have, you know, 30 seconds left. Do you think that the way the lens he puts on the newspaper from what you've seen, is as fair and as good as what he does with the ports, what he does with the cops and the crack dealers? Is he doing a good job this season with the newspaper?

FOLKENFLIK: Well that quote, to be fair, was sort of the - part of the performance art he did at a fundraiser. He'd say it's hyperbolic. But there is sort of a personal animus he disagreed with the way those two guys lead the paper and those characters are not necessarily, to my mind, is fully formed - they're a bit more cartoonish as some of the characters that you came to know love or despised in their earlier seasons.

PESCA: All right. Well then, it must be fair, maybe it's us. That's - it's they're skewering us, you know, instead of a port guy. Thanks, Folkenflik.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

That is the BPP today. The show's directed by Jacob Ganz, edited by Trisha McKinney. Laura Conaway edits the blog.

I'm Mike Pesca. That's Rachel Martin. Thanks for joining us.

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