‘Wire’ and ‘Treme’ creator David Simon on being the ‘angriest man in television’
It's been 17 years since he took a buyout from The Baltimore Sun and traded beat reporting for television, but David Simon still can't give up his newspaper dreams. He may write for print only rarely these days, his byline cropping up occasionally at his old stomping ground and in tonier precincts, but the 51-year-old creator of "The Wire" and "Treme" still has what he calls "the copy desk nightmare."
"The copy desk nightmare is when you wake up and you realize I made a mistake. You know, it's a fact, it's a figure, you did something wrong, you wrote a backward sentence. And you call the copy desk in your nightmare, and you realize the slot man has left. And usually, you see the presses rolling. I started having these in my twenties, and I still have them."
Simon was speaking on Tuesday night at a panel at New York University's Cantor Film Center sponsored by HBO and ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news organization and home to reporter A.C. Thompson, whose reporting on the post-Katrina murder of Henry Glover has been woven into the third season of "Treme," Simon's critically lauded but commercially dicey show about the rebuilding of New Orleans, the new season of which begins on Sunday night on the premium cable network. Thompson and Simon shared the stage with Eric Overmyer, a "Treme" executive producer and writer, and Joe Pichirallo, chair of N.Y.U.'s undergraduate film and television program.
In addition to using his reporting on the Glover case as a plotline, Simon and Overmyer wrote Thompson into the series in the form of L.P. Everett, an independent investigative reporter, played by "True Blood's" Chris Coy, who shares Thompson's doggedness and love of thrash metal. Thompson seemed genuinely humbled by being included in the series, but it's no surprise that Simon saw fit to include a reporter in his ever-widening semi-imagined city already chockablock with jazz stars, street musicians, civil rights lawyers, cops, teenagers, bar owners, orthodontists, Mardi Gras indians, celebrity chefs, D.J.s, developers, and vlogging academics. What's surprising is that it's taken until season 3 for Simon to return to what seems like an obsession of his: The noble, futile, but essential role journalism plays in the life of a city.
As in the fifth season of "The Wire" which prominently featured a fictionalized version of Simon's old Baltimore Sun newsroom and was viewed by some, like The Atlantic's Mark Bowden, as a chance to settle some old scores with his former employers and colleagues, the Everett character provides Simon with something of an onscreen stand-in, an archetype described not entirely favorably by Bowden as "the Hack, the veteran newsman, wise beyond his years, a man who’s seen it all, twice. He’s honest, knowing, cynical, his occasional bitterness leavened with humor."
Speaking to Capital New York at a reception before the panel, Simon displayed many of those traits, but was a far cry from the angry, shoulder-chipped tough guy caricature that's been drawn of him in the press since "The Wire" debuted in 2002 and went on to be described as "the best show ever broadcast in America," in the words of Slate's Jacob Weisberg, or, at the very least "a great show," according to some guy named President Barack Obama. Simon claims he can hardly recognize himself in his own press profiles, be it "Pugnacious D" (per New York magazine) or, again from Bowden, "The Angriest Man in Television."
"For a long time, I was like, Who is that guy?" he said as reporters, publicists, film students, and others milled about enjoying an HBO-catered spread that, like Simon's shows, was almost ludicrously diverse and included spring rolls, quesadillas, spanakopita, and pigs-in-a-blanket. (The absence of samosas and Gefilte fish should not be seen as a slight to Indian and Jewish brothers and sisters.) "At some point I realized that some dynamic of pseudocelebrity had landed on me a couple of years ago after The Wire had had its run and I realized that that parabolic arc of exalt, exalt, exalt—more than it deserved—and then teardown, teardown, teardown… That I was on that train."
As he saw it, negative press was just one way to play out the natural up-up-up, down-down-down trajectory of any person in American public life.
"Now I'm wary. There are certain interviews I won't do and there are certain things I won't say… I've gotten myself in trouble saying some things I didn't mean or in ways that I didn't mean them. And I've gotten myself in trouble for not saying things at all that I somehow said in print."
It's not just reporters who've contributed to Simon's image. Clarke Peters, who worked with Simon on The Corner, an HBO miniseries from 2000, and went on to star as the coolheaded detective Lester Freamon on "The Wire" and as Albert Lambreaux, a down-but-not-out Mardi Gras indian on "Treme," told New York's Emily Nussbaum in 2010, "[W]hen I first met David, his social skills left a lot to be desired… For whatever reason: Some people are nervous, regardless of their genius. I felt I could do nothing to please this cat.”
If anything, Simon's reputation as a pit bull seems to come from his lack of guardedness, both in what he says and what his face tells. For someone who spent decades as a reporter, Simon lacks even the most basic poker face, winces, head shakes, and eye bulges telegraphing his every thoughts. (At one point during the panel, when an audience member denounced the depiction of African Americans and crime in Baltimore, it seemed as though a steam whistle might blow from the top of Simon's closely cropped head Looney Tunes-style.)
Though he still has vivid dreams of printing presses, Simon is agnostic about the delivery mechanism for news—and hopeful about the future of his former profession. Asked about The New Orleans Times-Picayune cutting its print run to three days a week, Simon said, "I don't care about newsprint. I don't care about the physical product. If they wanted to go everyday online, I might be concerned in some ways about people who don't have access to a computer … but I would be less concerned in the long-term sense of that, than over the number of people who are ushered out of the newsroom. I don't care how the product is delivered. I care about the numbers of journalists working as professionals in any given metro area and contributing to its news report. When that number starts to diminish, when the news reports start to die, that's the important thing, not the delivery system."
Toward the end of the panel, he expressed his respect for ProPublica's reporting in New Orleans and elsewhere, but reiterated what he'd said earlier. Citing The New York Times' successful pay wall ("I think the good news is, we're at the end of the beginning"), Simon made one thing very clear: In order for it to serve its function, news must be paid for.
"Until you establish a revenue stream and pay for it, everything is sort of desperate and incremental. I don't believe a thousand points of blogger light is going to pick up the slack for what is a job. It's a profession," Simon said, panelists and audience members nodding in agreement.
"Until you pay people enough to pay their mortgages and send their kids to college and do it for their lives, something is going out of American civic life and that's very dangerous," he said. Somehow, he managed not to sound the least bit angry.