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.
Carroll has a face that belongs on a coin and a genteel, yet casual manner. I met him in late September at his Lexington, Kentucky, home. When I arrived, we chatted over coffee about a book he’s writing and his joy at returning to reporting after decades of editing. Then we went out to the back patio, where we spent several hours talking in nearly perfect weather about his career and his approach to journalism. A couple hours in, Carroll said, “I got from the Sun that humorous broadcast about how bad Bill and I were.” The Creative Alliance had been streaming an audio version of Simon’s story online for months, but Carroll only discovered it in the twenty-four hours since I had flown out of Baltimore after an interview with the Sun’s editors. In that small window of time, a flurry of activity had started. “I forwarded that to Marimow, by the way,” Carroll said. After the audio started floating around the newspaper world, e-mails to Carroll followed. A Los Angeles Times colleague wrote, “I’ve heard through the grapevine that there is a possibility of your being subjected to unjust criticism.” One of Marimow’s editors at The Philadelphia Inquirer sent a passionate two-pager: “There are legions of journalists—legions—who will stand up, speak the truth, and take this guy on .It’s as Martin Luther King put it, the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”