Apr 10, 2009

More than just coincidences

Posted by: Marian Salzman In: news coverage

It’s no coincidence that the fifth and final season of the HBO cult hit The Wire—one of the smartest and toughest dramas to hit the small screen in decades—focused on the floundering of the city newspaper in the struggling city of Baltimore.

Newspapers are in big trouble in many countries, but they are in especially dire straits in the United States. Debt burdens have swelled as corporate ownership has increased. Declining sales, subscriptions and advertising revenues are ravaging newspapers’ basic economic model. And as money and readers flock to the Internet, the very role newspapers play in our society is being questioned.

This worries me—a lot. And it worries a lot of people whose opinions I value. Without tough, well-funded independent journalism, we are flying blind in a world of spin and punditry. Judging from the well-crafted, deftly paced tension of that final season, it was a concern as well to former journalist David Simon and former cop Ed Burn—the writers of The Wire.

The show, which grew from contender to sleeper hit to cult favorite, ran from June 2002 thru March 2008. Less than a year later, in December 2008, the Tribune Group–owners of The Baltimore Sun, The Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times—filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

And barely a month before that, Barack Obama—Chicago’s most high profile resident and a self-declared fan of The Wire—was elected president of the United States. Like The Wire, Obama showed a keen and subtle understanding of the complex problems dragging America down. He didn’t resort to crowd-pleasing sound bites; he trusted people to have the patience and intelligence to hear more complex thinking.

So we have a highly principled journalist who has created a new form of dramatic expression with roots in uncompromising journalism. We have a President who’s one of a small minority of Americans to have followed the grimly authentic shades-of-gray complexity of The Wire through 60 episodes. And we have a cable channel willing to commission ambitious, difficult programming that’s respected round the world.

That’s more than unrelated coincidence. It doesn’t add up to an instant fix of anything. But maybe it does show the beginnings of a grown-up reboot.

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