‘The Wire’ examines Baltimore through prism of the press

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

For its fifth and final season, the critically acclaimed (but criminally underviewed) HBO series “The Wire” examines the problems of Baltimore through the lens of the newspaper industry in all its failures, foibles, flaws and occasional triumphs.

In previous seasons, the program explored the war on street drug trafficking (Season 1), the economic downturn of the port (Season 2), political corruption (Season 3) and the failure of inner-city education and No Child Left Behind (Season 4).

“The Wire” creator David Simon — who worked for The (Baltimore) Sun for 13 years — depicts the well-documented economic plight of a newspaper facing declining advertising dollars, a shrinking newsroom staff, increasing competition from 24-hour television and online news outlets, and an infuriating management style imposed by annoying corporate hacks masquerading as executive and managing editors.

The show also features the problems caused by overly ambitious reporters who fabricate characters, quotes and other material to advance their own agendas. One episode discusses the news media’s asserted First Amendment right to conceal its confidential sources from the police — to avoid what U.S. Supreme Justice Potter Stewart described in his dissent in the confidential-source decision Branzburg v. Hayes (1972) as law enforcement attempting to “annex the journalistic profession as an investigative arm of government.”

On the surface, the show gives a very negative view of the press and contrasts the modern news media with the glory days of newspapers that fulfilled the function of the Fourth Estate — what Justice Hugo Black described in his opinion in the Pentagon Papers decision New York Times Co. v. United States (1971) as a “free and unrestrained press” that exposes deception in government.

But the show probes deeper and expresses the humanity of the press, of those journalists still dedicated to their craft. City editor Augustus “Gus” Johnson — played by the talented Clark Johnson — represents the soul of the newspaper, the type of journalist who exposes wrongdoing in government, develops young talent and questions out-of-town corporate decisionmaking. Jay Spry — aka “The Rewrite Man” — finds just the right words as the witty wordsmith with a touch of sardonic humor. Young reporter Alma Gutierrez displays the eagerness that leads to the types of breakthrough stories that can inform and uplift the community.

More than any other show on television, “The Wire” presents social realities from multiple angles — educating, informing and captivating its viewers and anyone interested in the press, the First Amendment and the state of modern journalism.

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