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.

He doesn’t always deliver that criticism with a light touch. In April, a friend of mine was scheduled to participate in a storytelling series called “The Stoop” at a Baltimore arts organization called Creative Alliance, and it turned out that Simon was on the bill, too, so I went. The theme was “My Nemesis,” and after six fantastic tales, Simon stepped to the stage in an untucked black shirt and jeans. “My nemesis,” Simon said graciously, “is whoever asked me to follow that up.” Simon then set up his own story. He described himself as a grudge-holder nonpareil, motivated only by an egotistical need to prove to people that they were wrong and he was right. “So naturally,” he said, “the place I needed to be was in journalism.” He was happy at the Sun, he told the full house, but then Marimow and Carroll came along.

Simon slammed their vision of journalism. He trashed the work they were most proud of, mocked their social graces, and dropped on them a generous payload of f-bombs. “Whenever they hear the word ‘Pulitzer,’ they become tumescent,” he said. Naming a nasty fourth season Wire character “Marimow” wasn’t enough, so Simon cast one-dimensional caricatures of Carroll and Marimow for the fifth season just to put a finger in their eyes.

The twist in the story, in Simon’s telling, is that when he heard about Carroll’s heroic stand at the Los Angeles Times and about Marimow’s recent bout with prostate cancer, he felt bad. And then, when his actors started filling out the characters as real, complex human beings, he realized his own smallness and pettiness. Good storytelling dictated that the season would have to fully develop the characters and confront the bigger issues currently facing journalism, not just irritate his old “asshole bosses.”

When I brought up this Creative Alliance tale with Simon, he distanced himself from it, taking pains to insist that The Wire is not a roman à clef. The Stoop story was full of hyperbole, he said; he had wanted to spin an outlandish story to help raise money for the nonprofit. “You caught me at a point at which I was really trying to be entertaining, and I hope that story came across as genuinely self-effacing,” he said. “It’s not as personal as I made it.”

After I interviewed Simon, I called John Carroll, hoping to get past any simplistic animosity and discover the more complex roots of their disagreement. Carroll was reluctant, but finally agreed to meet and requested that I send him stories Simon had used as examples of their differing journalistic approaches before we met. Marimow also agreed to talk as long as I read several Sun stories from the late 1990s.

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.