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.”
The crucible moment for Simon was a disagreement over “The Metal Men,” a story that followed two addicts as they scavenged the city for piping, roofing—anything, really—to sell to scrap-metal yards that were all too willing to look the other way. It was exactly where Simon was going: tying an intimate portrait of desperate people in a blighted neighborhood to the same economic system that propels the rest of us along so smoothly. Here’s how the story ends:
Grant them, at least, some small due for creating wealth by destroying wealth, for going beyond the stereotype that says a dope fiend stands on a corner all day, scratching and nodding. Hard work doesn’t scare a metal man. “Sometimes,” says Gary, “getting high is the toughest job there is.”
Simon claims that Carroll spiked the story. Jan Winburn, an editor Carroll had recruited to improve the paper’s narrative journalism, says she convinced Carroll to print the piece, and it ran on the front of the Sunday magazine. But Simon had reached a breaking point. Since returning from book leave, Simon had grown increasingly alienated. At the wine-and-dine “salons” management had convened to discuss how to “make the Sun great,” Simon says he was appalled to hear reporters trashed by name. He had been rejected when he proposed a series on race. He also thought his book reporting made him more valuable to the paper, and that he deserved a higher raise than what Marimow was offering (he insists it was not about the money but recognition). There was a buyout on the table, and he had a standing offer for work on the television adaptation of Homicide. He took the buyout.
John Carroll remembers things differently, though not as clearly—he hasn’t been thinking about David Simon as much as David Simon has been thinking about him. First, regarding the SSI story, Carroll says fraud is fraud. He didn’t want to see every pathology in American society squeezed into one story, and he thinks a newspaper should write about fraud upon learning of it. “In my mind,” he said, “if you want to have public support for government social programs, those programs have to do what they say they’re for .You’ll end up with fewer social-service programs if you take the attitude that they’re just there to be ripped off for a higher purpose.”
“The Metal Men” was symptomatic to Carroll, too, but in a different way than for Simon. Carroll had found it to be too similar to the reporting Simon was doing for The Corner at a time when he felt too many Sun reporters were using the newspaper as a base for their book-writing careers. “When you’re in a downsizing business,” Carroll said, “you have to make some pretty tough decisions in favor of people there everyday knocking themselves out for the paper.” (Simon vehemently protested this, saying he did original reporting with mostly newfound sources.) Carroll also doesn’t remember spiking “The Metal Men.” “If I did,” he said, “maybe I provided the antidote by hiring Jan Winburn.” Landing on the front of the Sunday magazine, he said, must have been a vote of confidence.
But Bill Marimow thought “The Metal Men” ennobled the thieves who were stripping the city of its infrastructure, regardless of whether the subjects recognized the truth of their lives on the page. And when I went to see him in his glass-walled office at the Inquirer, he gave me a stack of stories that demonstrated his passion for urban issues. All had resulted in reforms, he said, that bettered the lives of the very people David Simon reported on with such zeal: a deeply reported chronicle of cops indiscriminately unleashing poorly trained K-9 dogs on unarmed blacks; an exposé of a judge moonlighting as a slumlord; coverage of fifty-two children dying “needlessly” because of the failure of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services.