“I want people to look at the Sun in ten years,” he said, “and say it did capture that snapshot of that time in the city’s history, that it chronicled lives in inner-city neighborhoods, and told stories through the eyes of people living it.” Franklin would consider the Sun a success if that happens. Sun reporters such as Julie Bykowicz, Annie Linskey, Stephen Kiehl, and Gus Sentementes have done vivid street-level reporting. Fred Schulte and June Arney exposed a colonial-era ground rent law that was being used to take homes away from thousands of city homeowners. Eric Siegel captured the complexity of urban blight in a brilliant series called “A Neighborhood Abandoned.” An affecting narrative by reporter Liz Bowie and photojournalist Andre Chung followed two homeless teens through their entire senior year of high school and received a passionate reaction from all levels of Baltimore society. “Let me first start off by saying I don’t read the newspaper,” wrote a nineteen-year-old student to the Sun in an e-mail. “Reading this story…made me look at life different.”

But as dedicated as the Sun’s reporters are, walls are falling down around them. Since Tribune Company took over in 2000, the Sun’s newsroom staff has declined from approximately four hundred to three hundred. (The Poynter Institute estimates that 3,500 newsroom jobs have been cut across the country during that time.) The Sun’s local newshole has shrunk.

In Simon’s eyes, “You do less with less and more with more,” he said. “That’s why they call it more.” When I brought up “A Neighborhood Abandoned,” Simon agreed that it was exemplary work, but then pointed out that writer Eric Siegel—a thirty-year Sun veteran and precisely the kind of reporter Simon believes newspapers need to hold on to—took the last buyout.

Simon is highly amused by an irony he perceives in the press’s reaction to corporations’ slashing of newsrooms: that newspaper editors are now making speeches about the same economic forces—the triumph of capital over labor—that the press has been ignoring in their own cities for years. “What they should have been covering is now biting them in the ass,” Simon said. “We’ll see it in season five: Guys, you’re a little late. It happened to you, and it happened to the entire working class.”

Simon, like Franklin, wants his portrayal of Baltimore to be judged against the future, but his idea of the future is darker. The Wire, he says, is about the decline of the American empire. It might have sprung from a journalistic impulse, but he says he has moved beyond simple reportage. “Consider it a big op-ed piece,” said Simon, “and consider it to be dissent. What I saw happen with the drug war, a series of political elections, and vague attempts at reform in Baltimore….What I saw happen to the Port of Baltimore, and what I saw happen to the Baltimore Sun—I think it’s all of a piece.” Should his premonition of the American empire’s future—more gated communities and more of a police state—come to pass and were someone to say he didn’t know it was coming, Simon said, it will at least be possible to pull The Wire off the shelf and say, “‘Don’t say you didn’t know this was coming. Because they made a fucking TV show out of it.’” 

 

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Lawrence Lanahan is formerly an analyst with American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C. He lived in Baltimore for five years and is now a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. The fifth season of The Wire premiered January 6, 2008 on HBO.