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.”
Simon believes that approach is reductive, giving complex problems the illusion of simplicity. Just six months after returning from book leave, Simon packed his bags, having absorbed what he calls his “rule for the new millennium”: any institution will eventually betray those who serve it and those it is meant to serve. He definitely included Carroll and Marimow’s prize-winning Sun. He used the word “venal.”
One Layer Down
I highly advise that you never get between David Simon and John Carroll or Bill Marimow. Rafael Alvarez, a friend of Simon’s who wrote for The Wire and worked with him at the Sun, told me that exploring this difference—separating “the business end from the personal end,” as he said—would be exceedingly hard because the two are intertwined. “It’s like asking people about a divorce,” he said. “It’s very complicated.”
Carroll and Marimow are two of the most highly regarded journalists in the country. The Sun’s bold reporting and lively storytelling won praise from this very magazine in the late 1990s. Marimow won a Pulitzer as a reporter in Philly and his reporting led to another for the paper, and the Los Angeles Times won thirteen under Carroll’s leadership. If the possession of a Pulitzer means that one exemplifies the ideals of the profession, Simon is basically criticizing the entire world of newspapering.