Baltimore cannot be replicated: the liberating weirdness, the lunch-pail ethic of the Colts and Cal Ripken, the peculiar conversations of hundreds of barfly-savants, the seafood, the accents .It’s a lovable city. It really is. Nonetheless, it is two cities. More than one former Sun reporter gave me the same spiel: You can live in Roland Park, drive down St. Paul Street to your office at Legg Mason or T. Rowe Price, and life is sweet. But go several blocks to the east or west, and the “Land of Pleasant Living” quickly becomes “Bodymore, Murdaland.”
It’s not quite fair, however, to lump all of blighted east and west Baltimore together. It is still a city of neighborhoods, and there are nuances. Many people still love the place. The corner of Baltimore and Calverton, for instance, where mayoral candidate Keiffer Mitchell spoke of decay, was recently a symbol of renewal. The neighborhood, Boyd-Booth, was typical of Baltimore’s early 1990s heroin-and-murder-driven nadir. But using a new law against “nuisance properties” and a plan implemented by a coalition of police and community groups, this neighborhood achieved a 52 percent reduction in violent crime and an 80 percent decrease in drug arrests from 1993 to 1995.
The complex Baltimore of Boyd-Booth is the Baltimore that Simon has chosen to document, and his reporting on the streets revealed to him the “wire” that eventually informed The Wire: it threads through both “our” lives and “their” lives. Simon believes that we’ve agreed as a country that our economy can thrive without 8 to 10 percent of the population. Thus, in his view, those without the education and skills to get by are inevitably going to turn to the only viable economy in their neighborhoods—the drug trade. To contain that problem and its attendant violence, he believes, the war on drugs has morphed into a war on the underclass. In both the viable and unviable America, Simon argues, capital is more valued than human lives, whether you’re an expendable tout in a drug organization, a cop trying to put good police work over statistics, a stevedore trying to pull in a full week of union wages, a teacher trying to educate rather than teach to the test, or, as the new season of The Wire argues, a reporter trying to capture the complexity of urban life rather than haul in sound bites.
In March 1995, Simon finished his work on The Corner and returned to the Sun. He began writing narratives from the point of view of his subjects, judging his own work on whether a subject would recognize the truth of his life on the page. “I admire journalism where I actually see a nuanced world with complex human beings captured,” Simon says. Journalism, he thinks, should bring “real life and real issues through the keyhole” in a way that leads to “meaningful thought, if not action.”
But Simon wouldn’t achieve his ideal at the Sun. In May 1995, Times Mirror installed former General Mills executive Mark Willes as CEO. When Times Mirror bought the Sun in 1986, the chain was regarded as fairly benign, but when the “Cereal Killer,” as Willes came to be known, gave a speech to reporters on Calvert Street “about product and product share,” Simon lost hope. “We sat there listening, thinking, ‘Is this guy going to mention the elemental public trust?’”
To Simon, the indifferent logic of Wall Street has poisoned the relationship between newspapers and their cities. Simon says he only sees two fixes: some kind of quasi-public business model, and some new way for newspapers to charge for all the content they deliver free on the Internet. But then he adds one more: “Third would be that nobody thinks about winning a prize until December 1. Because if that thought is in your head prior to the end of the year, about what you need to do to win a prize, you’re an asshole, and you’re part of the problem.”
What he sees as a prize mentality is what ultimately drove Simon from the Sun. To him, the institution was being corrupted from within as well as without. Although Simon considers John Carroll’s 2005 stand against corporate cutbacks at the Los Angeles Times to have been noble, the Carroll-Marimow reign at the Sun had increasingly enraged him. Simon saw their approach as a formula for winning Pulitzer Prizes: “Surround a simple outrage, overreport it, claim credit for breaking it, make sure you find a villain, then claim you effected change as a result of your coverage. Do it in a five-part series, and make sure you get ‘the Baltimore Sun has learned’ in the second graph.”