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Issue Date:  March 7, 2008

-- Photos by HBO/Paul Schiraldi

Detective Lester Freamon (Clark Peters), left, and Officer James McNulty (Dominic West) walk through the makeshift cardboard-box housing in a homeless Hooverville under the Hanover Street Bridge.
'The Wire' depicts a community on the brink


The story of HBO’s sensation “The Wire” -- not extremely popular but acclaimed by the media as “The best show on TV” -- goes back to 2000, to a TV semi-documentary, “The Corner,” based on the 1997 book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. Written by journalist David Simon and retired policeman Edward Burns, the book was about the beatings, shootings, drug dens and family failures in one wretched Baltimore neighborhood in 1993.

Mr. Simon followed up with the TV series “Homicide” and with five seasons of “The Wire,” focusing each year on another corrupt Baltimore institution -- the docks, politicians, schools, etc. -- and now, in its swan song, the press. He weaves the interaction of the four community bloodstreams -- the street gangs, city hall, the police and the once venerable Baltimore Sun -- into a deadly blood clot, a community on the brink of a fatal stroke.

The participants in “The Corner,” I wrote in NCR in August 2000, “are not nice people. Nearly all have messed up their lives. They are drug addicts. They steal, lie to one another and themselves, fight, kill, lack the discipline to hold a job, conceive children they cannot care for with women they will never marry.” That sentence described the black characters. Today much of the corruption attributed to blacks in “The Corner” applies, with few exceptions, to both blacks and whites in “The Wire.”

The Byzantine plot defies facile summary, except that each class depicted is overwhelmed by poverty in one of its many faces and is forced into desperate behavior that eats away at individual and community souls.

Deprived of overtime pay by budget cuts, the police force degenerates into a sullen mob, literally brawling in their own parking lot and cursing at their superiors like street bums. Officer James McNulty (Dominic West), an alcoholic unfaithful to two wives and despised by his sons, abuses the corpses of homeless vagrants to simulate strangulation by a sex-crazed serial killer who does not exist so that news coverage of these sensational “crimes” will force city hall to beef up the police budget.

Previously, the Sun had declined to cover the deaths of 20 men in vacant houses because they lived in “the wrong zip code,” but a “serial killer” gives this story new legs. Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy), a spineless, ambitious young reporter who habitually writes heart-tugging stories based on interviews with people he makes up, fakes phone calls from the “killer” to both the police and himself. Drama rises, and the other media and city hall take notice.

Mayor Thomas Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) at a police department news conference

The pragmatic young mayor, Thomas Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) has his eye on his future and sees an issue -- “homelessness” -- he can ride into the governor’s mansion. He calls a news conference where, with the sincerity of Richard Nixon and the rhetoric of John Edwards, he declares that a civilization is judged by its care for its weakest members and pledges the full resources of the city to catch the fiend who preys upon these helpless men. All lies.

Meanwhile the black street thugs kill one another over control of the drug trade on the corners.

This season’s “Wire” has prompted feature coverage in newspapers, newsmagazines, Columbia Journalism Review and The Atlantic, not for the show’s social commentary as much as for its insider’s portrayal of the Baltimore Sun. The producers use the newspaper’s name and its newsroom as the setting for “The Wire.” Managing editor Thomas Klebanow (David Costabile) and executive editor James C. Whiting III (Sam Freed) are based on real, highly respected national journalists Bill Marimow and John Carroll, who had both been at The Philadelphia Inquirer before coming to the Sun, which they have since left. To put it mildly, Mr. Simon dislikes both, is convinced that their news policy of focusing on one aspect of an issue -- for example, a story on reading scores rather than a broader exposure of a corrupt educational system -- is irresponsible journalism, even though it may eventually help some pupils read better and may win the paper a Pulitzer prize.

The owners of the Sun, like profit-hungry publishers across the country, have decimated their newsrooms -- closed foreign bureaus, left education, religion and culture uncovered -- and told men and women who once loved journalism with a passion to “do more with less.” To Mr. Simon, this is capitalism at its most raw, and he hates it. Though Mr. Marimow and Mr. Carroll have stood up to their bosses at other papers, he holds them responsible for the setting of the Sun, and he is getting even.

Indeed, one of “The Wire’s” most chilling scenes is when Whiting interrupts the city editor, Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson), one of the show’s few pillars of integrity, when he is pinning down young Templeton, who has been fuzzy in documenting a sentimental story about a kid in a wheelchair, and praises the phony reporter for his alleged real-life account. He later sends Templeton out to interview the homeless on their supposed fears of the “serial killer,” to go for what he calls the “Dickensian aspect,” as if Bleak House were the best model for the contemporary investigative journalist.

But the saddest little episode is about the skinny teenage black boy who loses a street fight and goes to a gym for boxing lessons, where a smaller boy pounds him in the ring. Another teen gives him a gun and tries to teach him to shoot to kill, but he can’t hit a tree. He sees himself as a failure on “the street.” The boxing coach tells him the rules of the street are not those of the rest of the world. The boy asks, “How do I get from here to the rest of the world?” He gets no answer.

I wrote in 2000, in the midst of a presidential campaign, that America’s greatest shame was “the destruction, largely self-destruction, of inner-city blacks, by drugs, lousy education, bad housing and no jobs,” but that these persons had been “the invisible men and women of this campaign.” That is true again today. To my knowledge, only Barack Obama, in a speech in Chicago, has called our attention to the aimless boys hanging out, looking to do no good on the street corners of America. I read in Newsweek that “The Wire” is his favorite show.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth’s book, The American Jesuits: A History, has just been published by NYU Press. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2008

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