Omar’s right: A man got to have a code. It’s what I think has Simon mad as hell about the state of our brethren in the press. We got no code. Used to be, you got in this game to tear apart myths, to keep in check the folks with power, to get a handle on the human condition. But with some notable exceptions, it’s not about that anymore. You have journalism gurus talking about things like focus groups and civic journalism and the balance sheet. It’s not why I got into this business. I watch The Wire, and I’m thinking to myself, “Why aren’t we reading about this world in our city newspapers?” I’m not on the streets like I used to be, but every time I go out, I stumble across some great story, some great shame. Not long ago, a young guy whom I knew as a toddler was shot and killed. In broad daylight. Just outside one of the few remaining public housing buildings. When he was a kid, everyone called him “Snuggles.” As a young adult, they refined it to “Snugs.” Everyone in the neighborhood seems to know who killed him, someone his brother had had a dispute with. Why hasn’t he been caught? I suspect the answer to that is a complicated one, but no one’s asking it. If I’m working for a newspaper, I’m on the street asking those questions.
All this is by way of saying, man, I’m glad someone of Simon’s ilk is going to take on journalism. We need a good stiff kick in the butt. Without meaning to sound too high-minded about this stuff, an aggressive, rigorous, independent Fourth Estate is essential for a democracy—which is something we rightfully take such pride in that we’re trying to import it to others. Look, I may be critical of the press, but I’m its biggest booster. I love what journalism can do. I rely on it. Newspapers are my nourishment. I practice it. It’s in my blood. But we’re losing our way. We blew it during the lead-up to the Iraq war. We weren’t posing the questions that needed asking. It’s clear where we failed there—and we’re making up for it now with tough-minded, courageous reporting. Look, though, at what’s going on in our cities and small towns. Is the press posing the questions that need to be asked? Are we making people squirm? Are we agitating folks? Are we spending time with the new immigrant; with the street-corner drug dealer; with the beleaguered public defender or the troubled prosecutor; with the laid-off steelworker; with the beat cop or homicide dick; with the single mom holding down two jobs; with the principal at an underfunded, overcrowded school; with the crack addict just out of prison; or with the guard at the packed county jail?
Look, this isn’t to ignore what has all of us scared: the fact that newspapers are hurting financially. Just last week the publisher at the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a memo to the paper’s staff telling them that it looks like cash flow will be half of what it was two years ago. As a recent article in Fast Company suggested: “Papers consequently have been laying off employees, offering buyouts, shuttering foreign bureaus, and cutting costs with a vigor they once reserved for exploring meaty stories.”
But here’s the thing: If we’re worried about the newspaper’s very survival, we can’t run away from what we do best and what we must do, which is keeping an eye on things. Being a watchdog. Crawling into corners and crevices where we otherwise might not venture. Putting us in places we don’t belong. Helping us figure out what holds us together and keeps us apart. Helping us, as Simon says, see why for some of us our lives have been devalued. (In my city, just take a walk on the tired West Side or among the abandoned steel mills on the South Side to see what Simon’s talking about.) If we move away from that mission, newspapers are bound to lose readers. Newspapers will no longer be necessary. And so if we want to ensure the future of the Fourth Estate, we’ve got to make sure that we never—and I mean never—become anything less than essential. If that happens, it will not only be the end of the American press, it will emasculate our democracy.
I know I’ve wandered a bit far afield here, but I feel so passionate about my profession and so anxious about where it’s headed—and, hey, Steve, you brought it up. I couldn’t help myself. I’m barely halfway through the fourth season of The Wire, and I’m already pining for what next year will bring.