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Monday, December 31, 2007
Walk the straight and narrow track:
Tom recently worried that season five of The Wire would prove reactionary in its portrayal of the dying newspaper. The miracle of OnDemand has provided me with Episode One. Without spoilers -- really! -- I'm happy to report, preliminarily, that his fear might be misplaced.
I didn't see the promo that worried him, but his worry is understandable. For the uninitiated, each season of the show tries to answer the question of why urban America is irreparably damaged. The answers, appropriately, have to do with intersecting dysfunctional systems. Season one showed the drug trade and the degradation of the police force; season two showed economic collapse and its consequences for the working class; season three showed political corruption; season four showed the nightmare of the schools. Season five takes on the press. The promo that made Tommy uneasy posited (judging from his post) a simple dichotomy between Real Newspapermen and Internet Phonies. Sound the alarm: creator David Simon's background as a Sun newspaperman, mixed with his palpable frustration at progress's broken promises, could infuse the season with a treacly nostalgia for a dying newspaper industry. Treacly nostalgia -- Tommy, with characteristic wit called the current threat "inkstained hagiography" -- is the enemy of The Wire.
Episode One, happily, treats it as such. The Sun newsroom of The Wire appropriately mirrors the broken environments of the existing settings. Financial mismanagement, invidious editors, casual corruption, ingrained laziness, disincentives to excellence -- This Game Is Rigged. But under the freight of the collapsing system is the real journalist: rigorous, knowledgeable, fearless, euphemism-free, intolerant of all the bullshit, relentless. The distinction that matters is rigor/apathy, not internet/newsprint: Who's going to get in the car and drive to the fire, and who's going to watch the fire burn. (Sally, nothing could have made me prouder, and more wistful, than that one scene.) The Natural Police is now the Natural Reporter. His/her enemies are just as plain -- at least until season five surprises us.
Now, I'm talking past Tom a little. Episode One doesn't give us the opportunity to see how the show will treat an internet/newsprint distinction. So I could easily be hoping against hope that Simon won't take the easy way out. Maybe he'll portray the blogosphere as the repository of cheap and defiled and lazy journalism, the highest stage of journalistic decadence. If he's setting us up for that, he's going to be right in most cases, but crucially wrong in others. But if that's what Simon's up to, he wouldn't have given us the complicated portrayal of the newsroom that Episode One presents. He still could, as the season develops. Lord knows consistency has no policing power. But the episode gives reason for hope.
More importantly, here's the challenge for us internet journalists. Don't live up to the cheap stereotype. Watch that episode and ask yourself which character you want to be. And then live up to that. It won't do to whine about the MSM's laziness and then prove just as complacent. That means you're playing your part in a rigged game. Maybe we can't ever change the game. But can you live with yourself if you don't try?
This post is dedicated to Sally Goldenberg, Andrey Slivka, John B. Judis, Josh Marshall, Laura McGann and, now, Colin Asher.
In the first four years, there hasn't been even so much as a hint of "Treacly nostalgia". I see his fears as overly defensive.