STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The landmark HBO series "The Wire" dramatizes how real world institutions and leaders have repeated failed the people of Baltimore. The police department and city hall and the school system have all come under the show's glare. And the show's final season begins early next month. In it, the creator David Simon is turning his critical eye on journalism, and settling a score or two along the way. We have more this morning from NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Back in 1995, the former crime reporter left the Baltimore Sun to write books and create television shows about his adoptive city. But he's chosen to return to the scene of the crime.
Mr. DAVID SIMON (Creator and Writer, "The Wire"): It's David Simon, and I'm standing in the newsroom, such as they will allow me to stand in the newsroom anymore.
FOLKENFLIK: Simon walks around like he owns the place, which he pretty much does. It's an HBO soundstage.
Unidentified Man: Sound, speed.
FOLKENFLIK: The set is about 20 miles southwest of the actual Baltimore Sun, but you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference. Right down the framed journalism awards, the stacks of yellowing government reports, and the inscription by a fake elevator bank.
Mr. SIMON: This quote is in the Baltimore Sun lobby, from H.L. Mencken: As I look back over a misspent life, I found myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It really is the life of kings.
FOLKENFLIK: It's a breath-taking recreation, and I can vouch for that because I worked at Baltimore Sun for more than 10 years. Simon was a brash, subversive presence there when I arrived. Former Sun reporter Eric Segal says the show rings true for a good reason.
Mr. ERIC SEGAL (Former Reporter, Baltimore Sun): David Simon was a terrific reporter, I think for a lot of the same reasons that "The Wire" so good. David grasped the big picture, but he also never neglected the small detail.
FOLKENFLIK: And now Simon's impressions of the paper have become fodder for his lightly fictionalized account of Baltimore's urban ills.
Mr. SIMON: This was the last best hope, in some ways, in our minds, of addressing problems, is to actually have them exposed in some fundamental way by a knowledgeable cadre of truth tellers. And we showed you what happened to that knowledgeable cadre of truth tellers.
FOLKENFLIK: A TV show built around the struggles of the news business? Really?
Mr. SIMON: Maybe not a first, but I think some of viewers had gotten to the point where they actually believe that the show is not simply designed as an entertainment. We're actually trying to address ourselves almost on a journalistic impulse to the idea of what those problems are and why we can't solve them.
FOLKENFLIK: On the show, as in real life, the paper's corporate owners in Chicago are slashing costs.
(Soundbite of TV show, "The Wire")
Unidentified Man #1: Doing more with less. That's what we have to contemplate going forward.
FOLKENFLIK: Early in the season, the Sun's fictional editors announce job cuts.
(Soundbite of TV show, "The Wire")
Unidentified Man #2: Everyone in this room has done excellent work and should be proud of their contributions.
Unidentified Man #3: How come there's cuts in the newsroom when the company's still profitable?
FOLKENFLIK: That question confronts the Chicago-based Tribune company, which since buying the real Sun in 2000, has forced the paper to shed more than a quarter of its staff. Still, Tim Franklin, the real editor-in-chief, says the Sun has nothing to be defensive about.
Mr. TIM FRANKLIN (Editor-in-Chief, The Baltimore Sun): This is one of the best regional newspapers in the country, a newspaper that's tackled virtually all the vexing issues facing the city, whether it's crime, AIDS, education - you name it, we have devoted many resources to covering those issues and covering them in depth, in a nuanced and sophisticated way.
FOLKENFLIK: Yet as former Sun reporter Eric Segal notes, the paper has dropped all foreign bureaus, cut back Washington staff significantly, and forced out its editorial page editor simply to save her salary.
Mr. SEGAL: Well, I think these have been seven really difficult and terrible years for the Sun.
FOLKENFLIK: Segal took a buyout last summer after 30 years. He covered city politics, urban development, the schools and poverty, part of the paper's institutional memory that David Simon says is easy to lose and hard to replace.
Mr. SIMON: And so what you end up with is, instead of watchdog, is a toothless mutt at points.
FOLKENFLIK: The Sun's not alone. Many regional papers have also faced deep cuts, and Simon says a lot of reporters are fighting to do good work.
Mr. SIMON: As with all things in "The Wire," our heroes tend to be middle management or labor.
FOLKENFLIK: Executives, however, come in for rougher treatment. Simon says the Sun pursued journalism prizes, often at the expense of journalism ethics under two former editors, John Carroll and Bill Marimow, who together led the Sun in the 1990s. While the show's writers say the writers "The Wire's" fictional editors aren't meant to represent their real-life counterparts, on the surface, the similarities seem inescapable. "The Wire's" Tom Clubaneau(ph), for example, rolls up his shirtsleeves just so, precisely how former Sun editor Bill Marimow does, and repeatedly praises reporters for excellent work, a favored Marimow superlative. But don't take my word for it.
Mr. SIMON: The best grudge - the guys were great. They were fuel for 10 years of my life. And on some level, I hate them as much as the day I met them.
FOLKENFLIK: Simon gave this talk earlier this year at a fund raiser. Sure, he said the grudge ultimately left him feeling empty, but he boasted he devised the final season as payback against his old bosses.
Mr. SIMON: I mean, my fantasy for revenge is now like, you know, art departments are working on it, you know? I mean, think about it.
FOLKENFLIK: And in our interview, Simon acknowledges writing scripts along with former Sun reporter Bill Zorzi, taking aim at…
Mr. SIMON: …that culture (unintelligible) that says, you know, that I can only breath air and be a star if I have a Pulitzer in my back pocket.
Mr. BILL MARIMOW (Former Editor, Baltimore Sun; Editor, Philadelphia Enquirer): Simon is dead wrong that the motivation was prize winning. The motivation was public service.
FOLKENFLIK: That last voice belongs to Bill Marimow, now the editor of Philadelphia Enquirer, who also briefly served as a top editor at NPR. He says Simon is a brilliant reporter who is now trying to rewrite history.
Mr. MARIMOW: It's been 13 or 14 years, I believe, since David left the Sun. And in my mind, he seems obsessed with the notion of proving that John Carroll and I destroyed the newspaper and failed to recognize his inherent gifts.
FOLKENFLIK: Under Carroll and Marimow, the Sun did win three Pulitzers, and the Columbia Journalism Review named the Sun one of the best papers in the country. Former Sun reporter Eric Segal says good journalism generated the recognition.
Mr. SEGAL: Does "The Wire" deserve not to be considered for an Emmy? I think it does, but I don't think it's because David is pursuing prize. I think it's because David is doing good work.
FOLKENFLIK: Simon hasn't yet won an Emmy for "The Wire," but he has won near-unanimous praise for taking an unflinching look at the failings of the city.
Mr. SIMON: That ambition is not the ambition of people who make television in America. It's the ambition of schmucks who work at the Baltimore Sun and, you know, somehow stumble into getting an HBO show.
FOLKENFLIK: Like one of his own creations, David Simon has raged against the machine, and he cultivated that rage as fuel for the creative fire. David Folkenflik, NPR news.
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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee's back on Monday, and she'll take you into the new year. I'm Steve Inskeep.