Whose Bastard Sun: If The Wire Is Wrong, Why Is Baltimore's Paper So Bad?

If David Simon is Captain Ahab, then call me Ishmael. Mr. Simon, the newspaper-reporter-turned-television-producer, stands accused of unhealthy obsession because

If David Simon is Captain Ahab, then call me Ishmael. Mr. Simon, the newspaper-reporter-turned-television-producer, stands accused of unhealthy obsession because he is using the current season of The Wire to revisit his old workplace, The Baltimore Sun.

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In the HBO program, in profiles and interviews, and in an Esquire essay, Mr. Simon has revived an old feud with the paper’s former editor and managing editor, John Carroll and William Marimow. Mr. Simon has described a newspaper that was gutted of purpose and integrity by editors bent only on cutting costs and winning prizes.

Mr. Carroll and Mr. Marimow—decorated and illustrious journalists—have fought back, calling Mr. Simon an egomaniac driven by envy and spite. Mr. Carroll has taunted Mr. Simon for never having won a Pulitzer. Mr. Marimow, who had already seen a mean and bungling police lieutenant named after him in the previous season of The Wire, has used the Ahab allusion multiple times. Why can’t Mr. Simon let the past go?

It’s easy to forget, as the pungent quotes fly, that Mr. Simon’s complaints refer to something other than newsroom politics. They refer to a newspaper—the newspaper I grew up reading, and the newspaper I wrote about, as a media columnist, in my first job. I’m still writing about it. Like Mr. Simon, I have a fixation on the subject.

The Sun that I covered for Baltimore’s City Paper in the ’90s was the Sun of Mr. Carroll and Mr. Marimow. It was redesigned and ambitious and on its way to Pulitzer glory. It was also a damaged and declining newspaper.

How can both those things be true? It comes down to a disagreement about the purpose of a newspaper. Mr. Carroll and Mr. Marimow’s Sun was a place for young, talented reporters to do ambitious stories. It was not particularly dedicated to covering the news in the city of Baltimore.

That’s because the Sun of the ’90s was not a Baltimore newspaper. It was a colonial holding of The Los Angeles Times, which had bought it in 1986. Actually, The Times had bought two papers, The Sun and The Evening Sun—in a sense, it had even acquired a share of a third, as the Sunpapers absorbed staff and features from the collapse of the Baltimore News American. But by 1995, The Evening Sun had been folded into The Sun, and Baltimore was down to one daily-paper newsroom. Buyouts, ordered from the other side of the country, were clearing out the veteran employees.

Whether this was a necessary adjustment or an act of vandalism depends on your point of view. Like Mr. Simon, I take the parochial and nostalgic side. Parochialism means you think there’s something worth reading in your local paper. Nostalgia means you plan on renewing your old subscription.

The tragedy of The Sun is that Mr. Carroll and Mr. Marimow probably did mean well. But they were brought in from Philadelphia by bosses in Los Angeles to run a Baltimore newspaper. Their idea of journalistic excellence was an institutional abstraction.

Long before The Wire‘s plotline ever ventured into the newsroom (and before Lt. Marimow ever appeared), the show was arguing that what makes good police work is institutional memory and engagement with the streets—and that bureaucrats and managers, chasing institutional goals, were bound to ignore the difference between good work and bad. It was not hard to see what Mr. Simon was getting at.

Now The Wire has a reporter fabricating news stories. The argument in the press between Mr. Simon and his ex-bosses gets foggy at this point. Presumably, this has to do with Mr. Simon’s legal obligations as the creator of a work of fiction.

But there was a reporting scandal at The Sun under Mr. Carroll and Mr. Marimow. City Paper covered it, and Mr. Simon talked to Brill’s Content about it on the record in 2000. The reporter in question was named Jim Haner. He was one of the out-of-towners’ hires, with the sort of bombastic writing tone that broadsheet editors often mistake for voice. In the thick of a Sun campaign against lead poisoning, he wrote about an emergency visit by the governor in response to the lead crisis—which, a correction later explained, had not been an emergency visit and had not been about lead paint, and during which a reported conversation between the governor and a minister had not happened. And he wrote yards of gritty-sounding copy about the travails of a neighborhood whose residents called it "Zombieland," a nickname that other reporters could never recall encountering.

By the time all that happened, though, The Sun was already dead to me. It had died on May 20, 1996. "For the uninitiated," Mr. Haner wrote in a front-page feature that day, "a lacrosse ball is about the size of a pool ball, and about as hard." He was describing, as a wacky cultural oddity, the NCAA lacrosse quarterfinals (lead: "Thwack! Crack! Thud!").

In Maryland, lacrosse is played in the public high schools. This was not just an outsider’s piece, but a piece that was hopelessly useless to anyone on the inside. And that was what colonialism meant.

The badness of the story was almost beside the point. Other writers under Mr. Carroll and Mr. Marimow wrote excellent stories. Once you’ve been colonized, you don’t care whether the colonial authorities are benevolent or tyrannical. Either way, your opinion doesn’t matter.

The Sun‘s editors never understood this. Mr. Simon was the temperamental artist, but his bosses were the ones with the ego problem. They wanted to make a better newspaper through a great-leader theory of newspapering. They were high-handed in the name of Excellence, and the bosses who came after them were high-handed in the name of Thrift.

Mr. Carroll ended up in another colonial posting—at The Los Angeles Times, which had fallen under the control of the Chicago Tribune. There, the out-of-towners put the screws to his budget till he cracked and left in protest. Then they repeated the performance with each of the next two editors.

The white whale, in the end, plunges out of sight, leaving the wreckage of the Pequod. The talent Mr. Carroll imported to Baltimore got up and out, as talent does. Why stay? Tribune has closed The Sun‘s foreign bureaus. The paper is chopped down to a wisp. If you want to see Baltimore, you can look on cable TV.

Whose Bastard Sun: If The Wire Is Wrong, Why Is Baltimore's Paper So Bad?