Ostrow: The audacity of David Simon

Photo by Krestine Havermann

Editor’s note: David Simon will be in town tonight, March 31, to receive the Denver Press Club’s Damon Runyon award.

His heart is still in the newsroom.

“If newspapers weren’t run into the ground, I’d probably still be at one,” David Simon said this week. The creator of “The Wire,” “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Treme” and “The Corner,” never had a master plan for jumping from the overnight cop beat at the Baltimore Sun to the heights of HBO prestige dramas.

And, despite the collapse of the newspaper industry, he would never advise young aspiring reporters not to get into the business.

“If you want to do it, it won’t be the same revenue stream it was… (they’re gonna have to figure it out because it is necessary). But get in now and maybe you’re there for the resurrection.”

The prize-winning journalist, author, screenwriter and producer will be honored with the Denver Press Club’s annual Damon Runyon award on March 31. The banquet event at the Denver Athletic Club is open to the public.

So how does the former Baltimore Sun cop reporter feel about being hailed alongside that former sportswriter for The Denver Post?

“I am a fan.” Simon read a lot of Runyon as a young man. “I wanted to make “The Snatching of Bookie Bob” into a movie,” he said, but no one’s been interested.

While Runyon’s stories were sentimental and stylized, Simon’s are grounded in realism and deadly serious. As a reporter embedded with Baltimore homicide police for a year, Simon chronicled the city’s hardened bureaucrats, sociopathic and/or business-minded drug dealers and desperate junkies. “It was hard enough to humanize people.” By contrast, in Runyon’s New York, the worst offenders were colorful bootleggers and whorehouse operators. “You can find them charming without the same psychic cost,” Simon said.

“When you read Runyon in the present day, he had such latitude. Everybody wanted to take a drink. There was so much more charm. He created his own world, it became art.”

Simon’s art is more disturbing. No less a cultural authority than Barack Obama called “The Wire” “one of the greatest … pieces of art in the last couple of decades.

“The Wire” revealed stark political, social and economic truths of the inner city, the war on drugs and the criminal justice system by carefully following indelible characters. Not Bookie Bob but Bunk, not Nicely-Nicely and Harry the Horse but McNulty and Stringer Bell.

Currently Simon is prepping two new HBO projects: a porn drama, “The Deuce,” starring James Franco as two identical twins who set up a porn business in seedy, late-70s Times Square (created with frequent collaborator George Pelecanos), and “Capitol Hill,” a collaboration with Carl Bernstein.

“The Deuce” is due to air the first week of Sept. “It’s either a very smart piece on the co-modification of sex and misogyny and a lot of other things we tried to think really hard about, or it’s ssomething we’ll be apologizing for for the rest of our lives. I don’t think we did anything gratuitous. I don’t think we’ve made porn.”

The producers hit the pause button on “Capitol Hill” when the election didn’t go the way they expected. The writing began with the anticipation of “a Hillary or Rubio-type presidency. I don’t think we took Trump seriously.” The script was based on an essential normalcy, center-right, center-left presidency, that has been eclipsed in this administration.

“We did good work in the (writer’s) room, we had a pilot we believed in, then I had to say to HBO, we have to throw it out if it doesn’t make sense.”

The series is being revised to reflect the current “post-party paradigm.” The plan is to focus less on the executive branch, more on the legislative. Shooting won’t begin until 2018.

Simon was once dubbed the angriest man in TV, a tone that isn’t apparent in his gentle demeanor these days. “That anger has been oversold by people, it’s a way of diminishing arguments… I can actually point to the origins of that, I know when I went from being a guy who made TV to when I became a son of a bitch.” (Look no further than this 2008 article in The Atlantic.)

“It hasn’t been bad for me, I’ve probably claimed a certain patch of the zeitgeist by being this angry bastard in the popular sense of things.”

He’s known for his love of a good argument. “I came from a family where arguing was sport.”

Similarly, he finds Twitter a great release. “Sarcasm is an athletic endeavor for me. I tend to tweet when I’m laughing at something or when I’m so disgusted.”

Recently he tweeted that Jeff Sessions is “making claims on weed to reignite drug war.” He also cited “Mencken’s Law: If A, in the hope of improving or reforming B, causes harm to C, then A is a scoundrel. Defending the drug war? Scoundrel.”

(Simon’s Twitter feed is @AoDespair. He writes The Audacity of Despair, random prose musings, at davidsimon.com)

He watches movies but is not a big TV consumer. He occasionally watches half-hours (he is slightly embarrassed to admit and his wife like “Archer”). An old TV favorite is the Canadian series “Slings & Arrows.”

“The last thing I want to do at the end of the day is hunt down drama.”

He’s reading Another Hill (about the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War), Season of the Witch (a cultural history of San Francisco), John Waters’ works (“really smart prose work”) and Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on the Road (“she really can write”).

“I like arguing. I find the most interesting arguments are with people on the left. If you think you’re in perfect ideological syncopation with Marx or MLK or Malcolm X, if you’re following a rigorous line of ideology, you’re probably about to say something stupid.”

Given the fact that the nation’s newspapers have been eviscerated and Donald Trump has declared war on the media, can Simon offer any optimism?

“It’s good to have a president who is this dysfunctional declare war on you. It solves a lot of existential crises.”

On the evolution of online journalism: “there was a lot sold to us about how the unvetted citizen journalism of internet was making the core values of journalism irrelevant, if not the actual product. Now were seeing how much horse shit can be launched on the internet…The guys 15 years ago who were mavens of the internet, talking about how journalism had been existentially flanked, they’re walking sideways now! It’s come full circle. Anyone can say anything, it doesn’t mean its true.”

He laments the passing of an age, the passing of a financial model.

“Some of the best moments of journalism were moments where somebody said, ‘we don’t know this for sure’ or ‘we need more sources’ or ‘this doesn’t make sense.’ Those moments don’t happen with the internet.

“Nobody agonizes the way we used to in the newsroom. That was part of good journalism, it doesn’t exist any more.

“These fucking idiots who ran the industry gave it away for free, now it’s hell to do a paywall. Particularly if you’re a regional paper. The New York Times can charge online, but it has to happen locally.

“People will pay online for what they used to have on their doorstep. Sure, it’s not department store or classified ad revenue, that’s gone and never coming back…” Then again, he suggests it’s not cutting down trees, using trucks, gas, teamsters…

He’s not worried about the spin coming out of the White House press briefings. “For me the real fear in journalism has not been, will the White House be covered, because minutes before they padlock the doors on news organizations there will still be a crowd of reporters at the White House. What won’t be attended to is the county council, the zoning board, the police department…. Covering institutional America requires a lot of beats that are boring until they’re not. And they are essential. I covered some of them. That’s the part that I miss.”

For now, he said, journalism is proving itself to be an essential arbiter. The challenge will be to stay ahead of the unsubstantiated, unverified curve:

“Getting back the first 24 hours of the news cycle, that’s the battle. Getting it back from the internet babble.”

Photo by Krestine Havemann