“The things they valued in journalism—management, not my colleagues—I do not value,” Simon says. “The things I valued in journalism, they did not have regard for.”

Two Layers Down

For Simon, this dispute basically comes down to the complexity of urban problems. As he sees it, the “Philly model,” imported to the Sun by Carroll and Marimow, ignored the decades of economic, racial, political, and social disconnects underlying that complexity. When it spurred reform, it was reform that could not match the intransigence of the underlying patterns. The reporting itself was formidable, Simon says, but to him, homelessness, addiction, and violence aren’t the central problems. “Those are all the symptoms of the problem,” he says. “You can carve off a symptom and talk about how bad drugs are, and you can blame the police department for fucking up the drug war, but that’s kind of like coming up to a house hit by a hurricane and making a lot of voluminous notes about the fact that some roof tiles are off.”

As an example, he cited a 1994 Sun story about an alcoholic whose “enthrallment with dope and booze…brought him Social Security disability checks for ‘chronic alcoholism.’” The article noted that Social Security was doling out over $1 billion a year to 200,000 addicts and alcoholics, and it was published during the push for reform that eventually spurred President Clinton to “end welfare as we know it” in 1996 with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Simon said the Sun story was simplistic; it had a villain, fraud, and the possibility of reform. “A lot of people were getting SSI [Supplemental Security Income] checks and maybe weren’t truly disabled,” he said. “That’s a nice, tasty little thing you can bite off and win a prize with.”

Social Security eventually proposed a $300 million plan to purge the Supplemental Security Income rolls of those using their checks, as the Sun put it in a follow-up article, to “drink and drug themselves to death at taxpayers’ expense.” That article did note the irony that the plan’s funding could have bought a year of residential treatment for 15,000 addicts. But Simon still felt it lacked enough context of mid-1990s welfare reform. He pointed out that as state social workers watched traditional welfare being pared down in those days, they began deliberately pushing welfare recipients onto the disability rolls out of concern for their…well, their welfare. Simon said that without an SSI check, many people would have been starving, disability or not. He wanted to see the Sun address the wider context of welfare reform, to capture how it was “landing in the street,” to show who was falling between the cracks as the safety net was redesigned. The Sun, Simon believed, had written a simplistic story: “Nobody’s minding the store at SSI.”

“One story is small, self-contained, and has good guys and bad guys,” Simon said. “The other one is about where we are and where we’re going as an urban society and who’s being left behind, and it’s harder to report.”

Part of the problem with stories like this, Simon says, is the Sun had killed off its poverty beat in the early 1990s. (Several former Sun reporters brought this up independent of Simon.) To write intelligently about the complexity of urban society, Simon said, reporters need to know not only their beat inside and out, but possess an awareness of social and economic trends “over years, if not decades.” When new reporters take on a story like this, Simon said, they are not “constrained by history.”

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.