Journalism v. Literature in The Wire

11 Nov

“I believe more strongly than ever that thinking about narrative literature does have the potential to make a contribution to the law in particular, to public reasoning generally.”
– Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life

“You do have to believe that writing, in a more discreet and slow way, changes the way that people are able to conceive of their world. Not one novel, for sure, but hundreds of novels and hundreds of writers in a communicative, metaphorical way.”
– Zadie Smith

Though the above quotes refer to literature in particular, I do think that the underlying sentiment of both can help us to situate the intent and influence of David Simon and The Wire. The Wire is certainly fictional, though rooted in realism, and signals a departure from Simon’s background as a journalist for The Baltimore Sun. How is The Wire impacted by its fictional status, especially as compared to The Corner‘s nonfictional basis?

One benefit of a fictional narrative is that it is not obliged to tell the full and objective truth of a situation. As per the extensive ethics code of The New York Times, “Whatever the medium, we tell our audiences the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it.” The code goes on: “it is essential that we preserve professional detachment, free of any hint of bias.” (Though not nearly as exhaustive, the editorial ethics code of The Baltimore Sun and the Tribune Company generally can be found here). Given Simon’s background in journalism, his decision to create a fictional show inspired by his own knowledge of Baltimore life and politics seems deliberately different from his foundational beliefs, and his desire to hone in on a very particular aspect of urban Baltimore life, in addition to fictionalizing his narrative, seems to be a very careful choice.

Simon’s article in The Guardian (“The escalating breakdown of urban society in the US”) which Vaesna brought up, shows the The Wire to be quite polemical. As Simon says, “And at all points, when filming our drama, we understood that we were arguing the case of one America to the other.” They “argued the fraud of the drug war and offered an elegy for the death of union labour and the working class.” Simon also acknowledges that they did not include everything, and so did not provide as complete an image of Baltimore as possible. “And lastly,” Simon writes, “we suggested that in the end, no one in our media culture is paying attention or asking hard questions.” He seems to be suggesting that journalism has failed (assuming he considers journalism to be a part of “media culture”), and that television must pick up where it has left off, while leaving its ethics behind and more objective truth behind. Was Simon’s decision to pursue fictionalized television narrative indicative of a desire to move away from the journalistic form and its limitations, or simply to reach a larger audience? Or was Simon’s decision influenced by The Corner and its reception, which was much more firmly rooted in nonfiction and the lives of real characters? Though similar in many ways, the dramatic arc of The Wire is admittedly much more engaging than the flat, drawn-out nature of The Corner’s focused storyline.

Is the impact of The Wire necessarily lessened by its removal from the nonfictional realm? Does the show have greater freedom to achieve its goals when it doesn’t have to be tied to facts, specific circumstances, and less dramatic narratives? As Nussbaum and Smith argue above, fiction can have a nuanced and political impact beyond the obvious “message” of a particular text, and the characters created by fictional texts have the power to inspire empathy and compassion more easily than a dry and straightforward piece of journalism might be able to. So where does this leave the tenuous relationship between journalism and dramatic fiction? Does journalism have the power to instill compassion and awareness in its readers? If not, what is the responsibility of television? Will there ever be a stronger, more rigorous middle ground between journalistic reporting and engaging, dramatic depictions?

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