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Bill Moyers Talks Drugs, Crime, Journalism and Democracy with Creator of 'The Wire'

HBO's critically-acclaimed "The Wire" creator David Simon talks about inner-city crime and politics, storytelling and the future of journalism.

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BILL MOYERS: Can fiction tell us something about inequality that journalism can't?

DAVID SIMON: I've wondered about that, because I did a lot of journalism. I did a lot of journalism I thought was pretty good. I was very careful as a reporter. And for me, I was trying to explain, for example, as a reporter, I was trying to explain how the drug war doesn't work. And I would write these very careful and very well-researched pieces. And they would go into the ether and be gone. And whatever editorial writer was coming behind me would then write, "Let's get tough on drugs." As if I hadn't said anything. Even my own newspaper. And I would think, "Man, it's just such an uphill struggle to do this with facts." When you somehow tell a story with characters, people jump out of their seats. And part of that's the delivery system of television. One of the problems with journalism that I've found that THE WIRE obviously didn't have, because we got to tell the story we wanted to tell, but one of the problems with journalism was, they really-- even the highest ambition of the people at my newspaper, was to bite off a small morsel of the actual problem. Surround one little thing. You know, lead paint poisoning. We're going to do a series of articles about lead paint poisoning and show you how bad lead paint poisoning is. And maybe we'll get a law passed. And we'll write the react to our stories. And then we'll submit it for a prize. And that was the highest ambition of people who were regarded as very good journalists.

BILL MOYERS: Is it because we can't go where the imagination can take us? We are tethered to the facts?

DAVID SIMON: Well, and facts-- one of the themes of THE WIRE really was that statistics will always lie. That I mean statistics can be made to say anything.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, one of my favorite scenes, in Season Four, we get to see the struggling public school system in Baltimore, through the eyes of a former cop who's become a schoolteacher. In this telling scene, he realizes that state testing in the schools is little more than a trick he learned on the police force. It's called "juking the stats." Take a look.

[...]

ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL: So for the time being, all teachers will devote class time to teaching language arts sample questions. Now if you turn to page eleven, please, I have some things I want to go over with you.

ROLAND "PREZ" PRYZBYLEWSKI: I don't get it, all this so we score higher on the state tests? If we're teaching the kids the test questions, what is it assessing in them?

TEACHER: Nothing, it assesses us. The test scores go up, they can say the schools are improving. The scores stay down, they can't.

PREZ: Juking the stats.

TEACHER: Excuse me?

PREZ: Making robberies into larcenies, making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and major become colonels. I've been here before.

TEACHER: Wherever you go, there you are.

[...]

DAVID SIMON: You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America, school test scores, crime stats, arrest reports, arrest stats, anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on. And as soon as you invent that statistical category, 50 people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is. And this comes down to Wall Street. I mean, our entire economic structure fell behind the idea that these mortgage-based securities were actually valuable. And they had absolutely no value. They were toxic. And yet, they were being traded and being hurled about, because somebody could make some short-term profit. In the same way that a police commissioner or a deputy commissioner can get promoted, and a major can become a colonel, and an assistant school superintendent can become a school superintendent, if they make it look like the kids are learning, and that they're solving crime. And that was a front row seat for me as a reporter. Getting to figure out how the crime stats actually didn't represent anything, once they got done with them.