Simon was careful not to hold up one or two examples as a model for his vision of journalism, saying more generally that he’d like to see “problems and people portrayed in all of their complexity and contrariness.” He feels reporters who want to understand the context of urban stories should read books that capture the complexity of social forces, such as Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land and William Julius Wilson’s When Work Disappears. Wilson’s tract, in fact, surveys the last forty years of media coverage of the underclass and convincingly laments its increasing focus on the “culture of poverty” at the expense of structural explanations.
At a 2006 Columbia Journalism School panel on “the crisis of boys,” economist Marcellus Andrews painted a picture similar to Simon’s: social forces that are too strong for individuals to push back against; a lack of skills and education that renders the underclass “redundant” as laborers; the only available jobs offering wages too low to support a family; schools providing an education too shoddy to enable the type of collective social mobility that could raise up a community; an illegitimate economy as the only solution for the underclass and an all-out war in response. “The ‘surplus male’ crisis shows up in the form of violence in streets,” Andrews said, and journalism fails to “show folks how they are pushed by unintentional forces.” He advised journalists to “give a sense of the hardness of this thing, a sense of the blood on the floor so that when someone finishes reading the story they will not succumb to simple-minded answers.” (At one point, I read a quote from Andrews to Simon—“the end of the American segregation system a half century ago put black people onto the blue-collar road to the middle class just when the on-ramp shut down”—and Simon perked up. “That’s it,” he said.)
Steve Luxenberg, who went on book leave from The Washington Post in February 2006 after ten years as the editor of the paper’s Outlook section, knows something about deep inner-city reporting: he hired David Simon in 1983, and he edited “Rosa Lee’s Story,” Leon Dash’s immersion-reporting classic in The Washington Post in 1994. Luxenberg’s three decades as an editor—especially the generation that has passed since Dash’s epic story on the intergenerational transmission of poverty—have not made him sanguine about that type of reporting getting any more column inches.
Luxenberg said that newsroom priorities go through cycles. For instance, after Watergate and CIA abuses came to light, he said, “we talked with too much chest pounding about the public’s ‘right to know.’ That’s not a phrase you hear a heck of lot in newsrooms these days. I’m not saying newsrooms are bankrupt morally, but poverty is just not a discussion they’re having right now. Now it’s self-preservation.”
It is a bit of a false dichotomy to portray Simon’s vision of capturing complexity and Marimow’s and Carroll’s record of effecting change as competing philosophies. Ideally we would do both. But in an era of “self-preservation,” it’s getting harder to do either.
The real Baltimore Sun—on Calvert Street, not a soundstage—insists it is still trying to do both. In the downstairs lobby, pictures of H. L. Mencken and Sun founder A. S. Abell hang high on a wall with accompanying quotes. Abell chides visitors about partiality and the “common good,” while Mencken muses wistfully on what a lark reporting can be: “It is really the life of kings.” On a visit in September to see Sun editor Tim Franklin, his assistant, Rosie, found me in the lobby and cheerfully accompanied me up to the Sun’s buzzing newsroom. Franklin has an endearing midwestern affability and projects confidence straight across the room. He insisted his paper can do “quality” work with fewer resources.