Urban Policy Through Urban Fiction
Fiction has its advantages over reality. Fiction, writes Mark Bowden in the Atlantic Monthly, "...frees you from the infuriating unfinishedness of the real world. For this reason, the very clarity of well-wrought fiction can sometimes make it feel more real than reality." David Simon, the producer and creator of the HBO series The Wire, has created this kind of larger-than-life fiction in this television show about the urban realities of the city of Baltimore. By delving into the gritty details of the city's characters, institutions, government, and culture, Simon paints what several have called a Dickensian portrait of the urban narratives of the city. Simon, by creating his own fictional urban vision, has illuminated many of the problems facing reality.
Throughout its five seasons, The Wire has explored a variety of urban issues, many through the lenses of the newsroom and the Baltimore police department. As Lawrence Lanahan writes in the Columbia Journalism Review, Simon has built a city, season by season, detail by detail. The first season focused on an investigation of a drug gang, and the second season added the criminal justice system and the Baltimore port. The third season included churches, the public health sector, and city hall, and by the fourth season Simon added nonprofits, the school system, and inner-city family life. The fifth season focuses on the tensions and conflicts within the Baltimore Sun. Although the show is set in Baltimore, Simon said that it's allegorical, meant to represent all of urban America and the journalism industry of the country.
With the construction of Simon's fictional-yet-real city came constructions of theories about journalism, and the role of journalism within the city. For Simon, the role of the journalist is to create a narrative of the complexity of the city, and not just effect change on a small sector of society. Lanahan writes, "It [results-driven investigative journalism] certainly improves the lives of some people, but reforms are often short-lived, the underlying patterns unyielding." Simon has criticized the newspaper industry for writing "results-driven" journalism that follows a simplistic archetypal plot -- good guys, bad guys, a problem, and a possible reform. The real world, he says, is more complex because of the various sociological and historical factors that have created the problems of the cities that we live in today.
One example, writes Lanahan, was a 1994 story in the Baltimore Sun -- Simon's former employer -- about an alcoholic who got Social Security checks for "chronic alcoholism."
"The article noted that Social Security was doling out over $1 billion a year to 200,000 addicts and alcoholics, and it was published during the push for reform that eventually spurred President Clinton to 'end welfare as we know it' in 1996 with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act... 'A lot of people were getting SSI [Supplemental Security Income] checks and maybe weren’t truly disabled,' he said. 'That’s a nice, tasty little thing you can bite off and win a prize with.'”
The prize that Simon mentions is the Pulitzer, which he views as an incentive for reporters to practice narrow-minded, reform-oriented journalism while ignoring the larger, often urban, realities of public policy and history. Lanahan continues,
"Social Security eventually proposed a $300 million plan to purge the Supplemental Security Income rolls of those using their checks, as the Sun put it in a follow-up article, to “drink and drug themselves to death at taxpayers’ expense.” That article did note the irony that the plan’s funding could have bought a year of residential treatment for 15,000 addicts. But Simon still felt it lacked enough context of mid-1990s welfare reform. He pointed out that as state social workers watched traditional welfare being pared down in those days, they began deliberately pushing welfare recipients onto the disability rolls out of concern for their…well, their welfare. Simon said that without an SSI check, many people would have been starving, disability or not. He wanted to see the Sun address the wider context of welfare reform, to capture how it was “landing in the street,” to show who was falling between the cracks as the safety net was redesigned. The Sun, Simon believed, had written a simplistic story: “Nobody’s minding the store at SSI.”'
Simon said, according to Lanahan, “One story is small, self-contained, and has good guys and bad guys...The other one is about where we are and where we’re going as an urban society and who’s being left behind, and it’s harder to report.” In a lecture at the Columbia School of Journalism, Simon discussed how the "who, what, when, where and how" are easy and said that the "why" question was what was "epic." Throughout The Wire, Simon grapples with this "why" question.
Although much of The Wire is a critique of journalism, Simon's criticism certainly applies to public policy as well. In public policy, "why" is also the epic question, the question that allows public officials and policy experts to, like Simon, tell the story that encompasses not only a slice of a problem, but the larger reality. And largely, these large-scale problems of cities have been ignored on a national scale. On MayorTV, a project of DMI and The Nation that interviewed mayors across the country, many of the mayors interviewed lamented the fact that cities, and the overarching issues of the urban agenda, have been largely ignored by the presidential candidates this election season. Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was one of these mayors. “Poverty, work and opportunity, bolstering the middle class and working families, the investments that need to be made with respect to housing, infrastructure," he said in this video interview. "It is absolutely criminal that the federal government has failed to address these issues.”
Like Simon, DMI believes that in an approach to public policy that examines the problem at large, and doesn't just work for individual patchwork fixes.This May 20, at the 2008 Annual Benefit, DMI will be awarding Simon its annual Drum Major for Justice Award "for deftly exploring the realities of America's neglected cities." The Benefit will be held at Cipriani 23rd Street in New York City. Click here for more information on the Benefit or to purchase tickets.
* For more on why the 1996 welfare reform was destructive to poor people working their way out of poverty check out the following pieces:
"The Squeeze is On" from the Village Voice
"Poor Students, Fast Learners," from the Village Voice
DMI Fellow's Maureen Lane's work on welfare