David Simon: life on the mean streets of Baltimore and the fading power of journalism

June 12, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: fiction, journalism, reporters, reporting, writers, writing.

In 1983, David Simon had finished at the University of Maryland and was trying to make it onto the metro staff of a big city newspaper. He was stringing—writing as a freelancer—for the Baltimore Sun, covering stories around College Park and the UM campus.

Simon had cut his teeth as a student journalist on The Diamondback, an independent student newspaper at Maryland, and then he got a break.

Maryland’s high-profile basketball coach, Lefty Driesell, got upset that one of his players was disciplined by the campus judicial board for sexual impropriety. Driesell called the young woman who had made the complaint repeatedly, screamed at her, and threatened to ruin her reputation if she didn’t withdraw the complaint. A university administrator listened to the call on an extension in the student’s dorm room.

Simon wrote a story about the incident for The Diamondback, a story that today would have gotten the coach fired immediately. Back in 1983, however, after a low-key investigation, Driesell was given a five-year extension to his contract, a raise, and was later inducted into the Atlantic Coast Conference Hall of Fame.

The story netted Simon a job offer from the Baltimore Sun, but he got something else from it—a belief about the value of journalism and honest storytelling:

The world will be the world. Corruptions may abide. Deceits may prevail. Reform may descend to farce. And the response to the best journalism might be for someone to rush into the breach and pass the worst law. All of that may be true, but in the end, I still get to come to the campfire and tell you a story. And if the story is true, if I know most of what I need to know and if I write it well enough, then, OK, the rest of you motherfuckers can never say you didn’t know. I’ll take that much and run with it. Source: David Simon: It might not have mattered, but at least we had fun – The Diamondback

Simon went on to become high-profile in his own right.

Simon worked for the Baltimore Sun until 1995. He had mostly worked covering police and crime in the city, and in 1990, he took a year’s leave of absence and embedded himself with the homicide unit of the Baltimore police department. That resulted in the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which was published in 1991.

That book became the basis for a popular NBC series, Homicide: Life on the Street, which ran from 1993 to 1999. Simon was a chief writer and producer for the series.

During that same time, he co-wrote with Ed Burns another book chronicling street life in Baltimore. The book was titled The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood and was published in 1997.

All of those experiences led Simon into developing a long-running series for HBO that many critics and viewers believe is one of the best things that has ever been on television. That series, of course, is The Wire, which began its five seasons in 2002. Simon was creator, executive producer, and head writer of The Wire

During its development and production, Simon worked with a number of famous writers including George Pelecanos, whose novel The Sweet Forever was recommended to him by his mystery-writing wife, Laura Lippman, and Dennis Lehane, another best-selling novelist.

The Wire has won numerous awards for its writing and production. The success of the series has since led Simon into many other television writing projects, including Generation Kill, Treme, Show Me a Hero, and The Plot Against America.

Throughout his writing career, Simon has maintained that journalism “matters very little. The world now is almost inured to the power of journalism. The best journalism would manage to outrage people. And people are less and less inclined to outrage.”

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