“The Wire” as a Prelude to the State of Journalism

November 15, 2009

The Wire

“The Wire” is not only ridiculously entertaining, amazingly acted, wonderfully produced, beautifully shot and worked through, tied up and completed without a wasted moment or a with a question left unanswered, it is also immensely important. The thing that sets this show over the top as quite possibly one of the top five American pop-culture artifacts of our time and makes it something that will present future generations with authentic information about people and problems is that it, as many critics have hailed, holds a “mirror up to a broken America.”

The final season of the show did it’s best to answer the question of “why is no one paying attention to what is going on?” For after all, the first 4 seasons laid out in gripping detail and without hyperbole the state of the inner city in regards to the drug trade, poverty, the economy, political structures, the police force, schools, harbors, unions, public housing and city hall. No stone was left unturned and the absurdity of what occurs and what is not done to rectify and address the problems is left out in the open. The last season turns it’s scope on the media, and by proxy the average American who ends up being responsible for what the media does in fact cover.

The fact that the writers, producers and sources for “The Wire” have worked extensively as professionals in the media, city government, the police force, the school system and in street gangs gives it that finalizing touch of “realness.” The show did it’s best to wake the country up through entertainment, something that is done at moments few and far between.

Which leads me to stop with the praises for this show, as much as I could continue. I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, just know that if you commit to the first part of the first season and stay with it, it will hook you and after viewing the last episode you will feel as if you’ve been entertained, learned new things and been exposed to authentic voices that aren’t always heard.

What this delves into for me is the state of journalism today. Why should art be more apt at opening a window to a world right outside of our window? Why aren’t the weighty issues and real things in need of coverage not shown to us on the TV news and in our newspapers?

A featurette on the last disc of the last season of “The Wire” focuses on several journalists associated with the show and all of them point to the myriad of problems facing journalism today. The primary problem is that journalism has become a commodity in which focus groups are tested on the reactions they have to styles and presentations of journalism in the same way that movies are tested for market value. So really, journalism today is formed for the people’s taste, preference and expectations. We are given what we want to see, not what we need to see. This is contrary to the entire purpose of news reporting. Journalists should function as a public servants by exposing truth, reporting facts and leading us to reconsider what we think and alert us to things we were in the dark on. This is what it has historically done, despite problems and lapses. Yet over the past ten years this has become less and less true; now we see on TV what we want to see rather than what we need to see, because it’s marketed as a product and for the ratings to stay up we have to see things we agree with, whether they are true or not. Americans expect news to be free, instant and entertaining. We’ve stopped buying papers, so papers force the folks who’ve spent years building contacts, researching and investigating into retirement. Newspapers then are forced to do “less with more,” which leads to an inferior product, which leads to less sales, which leads to more staff trimming until the death of the print news medium occurs. We want news instant, so we have 24 hour news networks that report and compete for ratings, thus producing news that is biased and non-factual (Fox News), openly opinionated (MSNBC) and sensationalistic (CNN). We’ve flooded the internet and turned it into a breeding ground where everyone is a reporter and information is constantly being pushed onto the world without research or fact-checking and people are free to choose what to believe without attention to what is really true.

The days of a shared news source in which we can all gather around is gone. Where people used to watch Primetime news and read the paper gathering the same facts for which they could garnish their own opinions from, conservatives tune to Fox News to rile and support their anger and prejudices, liberals tune to MSNBC to join in the process of laughing at conservatives and opinions are handed out to both groups so that no opinion is left unformed. The one valid source of ethical, unbiased journalism in America today can be found on NPR yet huge portions of Americans find it’s unfiltered coverage dull or liberally biased. I guess we’ve grown so used to having pre-packaged opinions doled out to us that when real, unfiltered news is reported we still accuse it of “bias.”

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