|David Simon. Photo by Adrià Guxens|
If you want to read the interview in another language, you can do it in Spanish (T) or in Catalan (T).
David Simon is, undoubtedly, one of the most respected figures within the audiovisual industry worldwide. He started as a young journalist at the homicide section for the Baltimore local newspaper. However, it didn’t take long for Simon to go up the ladder and arrive to the top with the creation of, if not the best, at least, one of the most acclaimed series ever: The Wire. Adria’s News interviews David Simon during the Celsius 232 Festival in Aviles (Spain) to get to know a man that, although having been through many different things in life, says he’s now more afraid than ever.
You can’t make a man like David Simon wait for you, so I get to the hotel where the interview will take place with a 30-minute margin. When I arrive, I find various journalists that are waiting outside the interview room. Some are sitting down and others walk up and down the corridor nervously. The common denominator: long faces. An older man looks at me and confirms my suspicion: the interviews are running forty minutes late. When I ask why, they tell me that Simon is still suffering from jetlag and it seems the night before he was writing until the wee hours of the morning. Having nothing else to do than wait, I sit down until it’s my turn.
Finally, the press coordinator invites me to a room that is extremely familiar to me. I quickly realize that it was there where I interviewed Game of Thrones author, George R.R. Martin, one year ago. But if Martin was sitting in one of the lavish armchairs that are facing a large window to enjoy the beautiful views of Avilés, David Simon prefers a couch in a corner, surrounded by shadows. In front of him, there is a small table with two coffee cups, already empty, and a soda bottle. He rapidly stands up to welcome me and we cross four words, no more, because we are both journalists so we know that in our profession time is gold, and fifteen minutes are fifteen minutes. Thus, David Simons sits again at the sofa, but he asks for a third cup of coffee before the press coordinator leaves the room. “Anything else?” she asks. “Just a yogurt with fruit”, replies David Simon. A bit of sweetness to talk about a world that is bitter than we would like.
What, When, Where, Who, Why and How. These are the six W’s in journalism. Which one do you find the most important?
Well, I’d argue the why is the one that matters.
Then I have to ask why
Because who, what, where, when and how are givens, they are assumptions that you will acquire. If you don’t, there’s a hole in the story, sure, but I’d say a smart teenager on the phone and a credential can call an institution or an authority and acquire who, what, where, when and how. The why is when journalism becomes an adult game. Explaining why something happens, what the forces are, what caused the event or the circumstance… it’s when the journalist becomes a more serious and discerning observer. Why is really hard, why is when journalism gets really interesting.
In Spain, journalism is one of the most impacted majors in terms of demand. At the same time, it is one with the least employment. How have we arrived to this point?
I can only speak of my own country, but I’m assuming some of the same forces have impacted here. In my country there were two mistakes the entire industry of journalism made. The first was we gave ourselves over to the market, purely. It’s not to say that newspapers and magazines weren’t market driven - of course they were - but when they were family owned, not corporations. When the families lived in the cities where they published the news, the families were civic entities, there was a pride to what they were doing that had less to do with how much money they made and more to do with their civic standing in the community. The original sin of journalism in the United States was the corporation, when the chains bought all the newspapers and then went to Wall Street and said “What do we have to do to make you like us?” So Wall Street started kissing our ass, because they are not interested in the warmth and health of the industry.
I guess it’s not only with the newspapers, but also with any industry.
Exactly. So what happened with newspapers also happened with car manufacturing in America. In the 70s they actually went to the American car manufacturers and told them “You should be making way more money. Make shittier cars, worse cars to make people buy more cars. What do you care? You own a monopoly!” Actually, they didn’t have a monopoly because Japanese and Germans were making better cars, so they were naïve. The same happened with newspapers. I was journalist number 150 or 200 leaving my newspaper in Baltimore and that was 1995. The Internet didn’t exist. It was not an issue. They were already downscaling and I wasn’t content with their own product.
They weren’t about publishing the news any more; they were about making money and Wall Street made a lot of money. Then the Internet comes, and now they are too insecure. And you should have heard the stupid shit that came out from their mouths… Part of the problem was that by the time the Internet happened, the people who’d come up in the news were the people who understood that the news was actually the product and assessing the news was the only senior thing that we ever did. The guy who was running the corporation when I left two years earlier was selling cereal for General Meals. He was selling breakfast cereal! So they put him in charge of the news chain and when he came to talk to the newsroom he never once mentioned news or information. It was all a product.
And what about the impact of the Internet?
The Internet in terms of blogging or non-professional journalism cannot replicate what a newsroom can give you. They can give you great-democratized commentary, and that’s wonderful. People can actually come up with tips, but we are not cutting down trees for any much longer…
I see you are very interested in newsrooms but aren’t we relying too much on them instead of doing journalism like before, walking the street to find stories?
First of all, it matters who finds the story. If anyone is invested in a cause that’s fine; they may actually discover things that are really relevant and have to be pursued, but I need the newsroom to make it journalism. Some of the best journalism I saw happen in my career were stories that somebody looked at and said: “It’s not what you think it is. Look, there’s a reason for that”. I look upon this thing with Snowden. There is some fundamental news that The Guardian brought about how the NSA programs work but what they’re claiming for the story is not what actually is. They haven’t in any way damaged the legal underpinnings of what’s going on and they’ve claimed violations of the fourth amendment of the Constitution. They actually have improved it and they don’t exist! I covered communications for fifteen years. It’s all rooted, they are not relying on the patriot act, what they’re really relying on is on the third party consent of fourth amendment stuff that was decided when Jimmy Carter was president. And you only get this perspective from a newsroom! And now that is decentralized… Internet is gorgeous for people opinionating. I’m not against the idea of everybody having a say, but I really respect the news-gathering organization that has institutional members and standards.
Arriving to this, with the digital revolution pushing us, how should journalism be taught at university?
I think journalism is the same. Modern journalism has a very short window. You go back a hundred years and newspapers were all biased. It’s a very small window in terms of the time the old years of America newspapers were all: “this is the week’s newspaper”, “this is the federalist newspaper”. Fuck you! There was no professionalism at all. It was all about patriotic ideals. Vietnam or post-Watergate American journalism began to mature and within 30-40 years started to fall apart. It’s a very short window. You stood apart from the government, you were respectful, you constituted yourself as part of the process of self-governance but it’s your job as a journalist to dissent at times. So regarding the process of stepping onto the street and searching for news I don’t think it is any different in the Internet age. What needs to be preserved is the institutional aspect and the idea of “I’m doing this for a living, not because it’s my cause because I’m against this or that”. I do this because they pay me so that I am liberated from having to take anybody’s shit and sow it. They put me in Baltimore to cover cops so…
You wrote your book Homicide after your experience in the Baltimore Police Station. Yesterday you said you let them revise the book before it was published. Why didn’t you keep them away from your work to be more impartial?
I had written a contract that the only reason the police department could revise my book was if they had a particular fact in a pending case so I wrote it very constricted. If they started saying “We don’t like the way this detective was talking” I could say “This is not in the contract”, that was it. By the time the book came out it was 1991 and the cases were from 1988, so the vast majority had been adjudicated and there were not a lot of changes. But that was to protect the work on a specific case. If they didn’t like the way Terry McLarney was behaving on page 542 and they wanted me to take that out, there was no way.
You say that The Wire is like a Greek tragedy. Your work tends to depict reality with very dark nuances. Is there still room for light?
Yes. I think The Wire is not misanthropic at all, it’s talking of a Greek game. I mean, on the big issues I’m very scared, things like environment. My country can’t figure out how to get national health care. It’s astonishing! You look at something like global warming and you think: if we can’t figure out how to get people in and out the doctor in a plausible way without getting bankrupt ourselves how the fuck are we gonna deal with the global climate? And I look at the big stuff and I think the plane is going down the wrong way, way too fast. We don’t have enough speed to take off and we can’t stop and I get scared. There’s no choice but to fight and I still have faith in individuals for the most part to arrive at the right moment, and often individuals surprise me and sometimes they are able to seize the reins of a given institution and reform it.
So you are not completely pessimistic?
Well, some things are very macerate and I grow more pessimistic, you know? Everyone still believes in the great man of history, that if we elect the right guy, with the heart in the right place, he’ll figure it out. The Supreme Court said everyone criticized the fact that corporations were people under the decision, but corporations had always been people under the law. The lie there, the one that is destructive to reform and to people being to able to control their own destiny to self-governance is that money is speech. Money is not speech. You wanna spend money to make money, you wanna spend money on yourself… that’s an argument. Do you want to spend money to control government and address what priorities we have as a society? If money talks we are fucked. And money is screaming right now. Money is just everywhere, in America, in Europe… until there’s a revolt against that, until there’s public financing of elections and people put their ideas up there and you can’t buy your way and until an actual popular sentiment can exist, I’m very worried.
Celsius 232 Festival 2013 interview cycle
- Interview with David Simon, creator of The Wire (English, Spanish, Catalan).
- Interview with Cristina Fallarás, journalist and writer of A la Puta Calle (Spanish, Catalan).
- Interview with Christopher Priest, author of The Prestige (English, Spanish, Catalan).
- Interview with Elio Quiroga, filmmaker and writer of El Despertar (Spanish, Catalan).
- Interview with Ian Watson, Artificial Intelligence story creator (English, Spanish, Catalan).
- Interview with David Monteagudo, writer of Fin and Brañaganda (Catalan).
- Interview with Steven Erikson, writer of Malazan Book of the Fallen (English, Spanish, Catalan).
- Interview with Ana Campoy, writer of the Les Aventures de Alfred & Agatha series (Spanish, Catalan).
- Interview with Robert J. Sawyer, writer of FlashForward (English, Spanish, Catalan).
- Interview with Carlos García Miranda, author of the Enlazados and screenwriter (Spanish, Catalan).
- Interview with Joe Abercrombie, writer of The First Law series (English, Spanish, Catalan).