Simon and Wilson speak at symposium Thursday night. (Photo by WSU Photo Services)
Impact of storytelling: Speaker
applies newsman savvy to TV drama
By Linda Weiford, WSU News
PULLMAN, Wash. – David Simon, creator of the critically acclaimed HBO series “The Wire,” told a press gathering at the Washington State University Alumni Center Thursday that he’s a veteran newsman who feels betrayed by newspapers themselves.
“The people who run them – especially the chains – became more focused on profit and their shareholders than on their own people and their product,” he said.
Simon, 51, should know. He was a seasoned crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun when he felt pressured to take a buyout in 1995, he told the group of reporters and students prior to his appearance at the William Julius Wilson Award Symposium in the CUB auditorium. Simon is recipient of WSU’s William Julius Wilson Award for the Advancement of Social Justice.
Simon went on to do what most reporters only dream of. He applied his observations of work in the newsroom and on the streets to five seasons of an intricately woven drama about drugs, politics, social injustice and the downsizing of a newspaper – all in the very city where he lived and worked.
“The Wire” depicted how “human beings – all of us – are worth less every day, despite the fact that some of us are achieving more. Capitalism is a wonderful tool for generating wealth but it’s also when human beings matter less,” said Simon, a big-featured man who spoke bluntly and passionately.
Seated next to him and nodding in agreement was the man whom the social justice award is named after: William Julius Wilson, a Harvard sociologist who earned his Ph.D. from WSU in 1966.
Wilson, who was named one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential people of 1996, uses material from “The Wire” in his classes at Harvard, he told the group, for the way it sharply and accurately portrays urban inequality.  This is proof that Simon’s storytelling made an impact on the challenges of urban life, he said.
After producing 60 episodes of “The Wire,” Simon went on to create another HBO series, “Treme,” about New Orleans residents struggling to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina.
“I’m a storyteller,” said Simon. “There is something about drama that leads us to use our imaginations. Even the Greeks knew this.”
PULLMAN, Wash. – In a healthy republic, said “The Wire” co-creator David Simon, no one gets everything they want, but everyone gets what they need.

The United States isn’t healthy and the prognosis isn’t good, he said.

Simon spoke for nearly an hour Thursday night before a full auditorium at the Compton Union Building. He answered questions for another hour after receiving the William Julius Wilson Award for Social Justice.
Simon, co-creator of the HBO series “The Wire,” was honored for his efforts to portray what he sees as the decay of American society in all of its complexity. In presenting the award to Simon, Wilson said “The Wire” has enhanced both popular and academic understandings of poverty and the urban poor.
“The central and straightforward goal of ‘The Wire’ is to show that the system is broken,” Wilson said.
End of empire
Speaking without notes in a low-key, conversational tone, Simon kept the audience rapt, even while painting a fairly negative picture of America in the 21st century.
“’The Wire’ is about the end of empire,” he said. As a police reporter in Baltimore in the 1980s and early 1990s, he said, he watched a second-tier industrial city become de-industrialized. More than half of black males in West Baltimore are unemployed, he said. Manufacturing jobs have left and the only people hiring are the drug dealers.
“I got a schooling in our capacity for reform and self-governance,” he said. “None of that gives me cause for optimism.”
Television criticized
While much of Simon’s talk centered on the failed “War on Drugs” – which has turned the U.S. into “the most incarcerated country on the face of the earth” at tremendous loss of human life, dignity and treasure – he also had strong criticism for television.
Ralph Waldo Emerson talked about men living lives of quiet desperation, he said. A century later, a significant share of Americans are still living lives of quiet desperation, while others are living “lives of quiet masturbation, and their tool of choice is television.”
Simon, who has become wealthy writing for television, said most of what fills the airwaves is sex and violence with no point.
“I say this in the alma mater of Edward R. Murrow,” he said. “His argument was never more true, and he made it half a century ago.”
Film has the potential to make a difference, he said, but it hasn’t.
“Why is it that television has accomplished so little of importance when it is beamed into so many homes?” he said.
The problem, he said, is advertising. While there are rare exceptions, for the vast majority of people working in television, the only goal is to stay on television by bringing in as many viewers as possible. That means programs cannot be dark, provocative, uncomfortable or challenging.
At HBO, he said, he didn’t feel that pressure: “We were basically left alone to say the things we wanted to say.”
People or profits?
What Simon wants to say is that capitalism is an effective tool for creating wealth, but left unfettered it creates a society where some lives matter and others don’t.
“Every day in this country people are worth less,” he said. In 1980 President Ronald Reagan told the country, “We fought a war on poverty and poverty won,” he said, but that wasn’t true. Thirty years ago, he said, we had fought poverty to a draw, at best.
Programs implemented in the 1930s and 40s as part of the New Deal moved people out of the underclass and created a middle class, he said. In the 1960s, he said, the problems of the urban poor got some attention because people were rising up in protest.
But, he said, for the last 30 years, that middle class has taken a beating. Poverty hadn’t won when Reagan made his pronouncement, Simon said, “but it’s winning now.”
Americans will have to decide which side they are on, he said – people or profits at all costs?
Don’t convict; throw a brick
Simon said his responsibility is to be a storyteller, not a reformer, but he did have one suggestion for people who see the war on drugs as a war on the underclass.
If you are called to serve on a jury trial that concerns a non-violent drug offender, he said, you might consider voting not to convict.
“It’s called nullifying the jury and it’s a legitimate form of political dissent,” he said.
Part of the reason prohibition failed is because people didn’t want to send their neighbors to jail for making gin in the bathtub, he said.
If drugs are decriminalized, he said, there is an increased danger that more people will become addicted. But at that point we all share risks equally, instead of consigning all of the cost to the underclass.
“If you care about the underclass,” he said, “the best advice I have for you is throw a brick.”
Throwing a brick can’t right a wrong, he said, but waiting for the system to change on its own isn’t going to work either.
“When people have had enough and they pick up that brick,” he said, “sometimes something happens.”