Breaking Down The Wire

The Wire and the New Journalism
Talking television.
Oct. 9 2006 3:41 PM

Breaking Down The Wire

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David, .

You've got me wanting more. So, does David Simon just have all those voices in his head? Or are he and the other writers still out on the streets, devouring more material and more of the street language? I get you on the difference between storytelling on cable and storytelling on commercial TV, but what influence do you think the former has had on the latter? And if you were to do a season on the new wave of Hispanic immigrants (I say go for it) would you be true to your characters and have them speak Spanish and use subtitles? All this is by way of saying I hope maybe you'll stay with us for another week.

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Your response to the first question, though, is what really got me thinking. It's clear that The Wire comes out of deep reporting and personal experience. It's what gives it its authenticity. Just the other day, I was giving a talk and I found myself telling the audience that if they want to understand what's going on in our urban core, they should watch The Wire. Not read a newspaper or a book, but watch television.

Forty years ago in the late '60s, Tom Wolfe, in explaining the rise of what he called new journalism (it really wasn't all that new, but it was more vital and more spirited than ever before)—which included the likes of Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, and Joan Didion—suggested that the novelists of the day had abandoned the hard stuff. They were no longer tackling the tough issues, no longer capturing the fissures in the landscape, at least not in the way folks like Steinbeck or Faulkner or Dreiser had. And so, Wolfe said, if we wanted to understand this country, we had to turn to nonfiction storytellers, the new journalists. I wonder, though, if that's changed some. Novelists—some, not all—are writing about the world with such sharpness, such heart, such verisimilitude. If I want to learn about the new immigrant experience, for instance, I turn to Jhumpa Lahiri or Aleksandar  Hemon. If I want to read about war and civil conflict, and the aftermath, I read the likes of Tim O'Brien or Philip Caputo. Then there's film and television. I think of Maria Full of Grace, which captured better than anything I'd ever read the human cost of the international drug trade. And then, of course, there's The Wire. I'm not declaring narrative journalism dead. Far from it. It's probably as alive as it's ever been—and as essential. But it's not the only game in town anymore. If I want to try to make sense of the world, I still turn to Tracy Kidder or Katherine Boo or Steven Coll or Jon Krakauer. But I'll also pick up Lahari or Hemon or watch The Wire. I just realize that we (I count myself among the practitioners of narrative journalism) have more competition out there now than we did, say, 10 or 15 years ago. And that's a good thing. God knows, we need stories—fiction or nonfiction—to help us make sense of these times. To put it another way, as you wrote, we need stories grounded in the raw materials of real-world reporting.

Alex

Alex Kotlowitz is author of There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River.