Bill Moyers Talks Drugs, Crime, Journalism and Democracy with Creator of 'The Wire'
Editor's Note: The following is the transcript from Bill Moyers' recent interview with newspaper beat reporter turned television writer and producer David Simon. You can watch the interview here.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.
"When television history is written," one critic says, "Little else will rival 'The Wire.'"And when historians come to tell the story of America in our time, I'll wager they will not be able to ignore this remarkable and compelling portrayal of life in our cities.
Take a look at this scene:
DETECTIVE JIMMY MCNULTY: Let me understand you, every Friday night you and your boys will shoot crap right? And every Friday night your pal Snot Boogie he'd wait 'till there was cash on the ground and then he'd grab the money and run away? You let him do that?
WITNESS: If we'd catch him we'd beat his ass but ain't nobody let it go past that.
DETECTIVE JIMMY MCNULTY: I gotta ask you, if every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away why'd you even let him in the game?
DETECTIVE JIMMY MCNULTY: Snot Boogie always stole the money, why'd you let him play?
WITNESS: Got to. This America, man.
BILL MOYERS: For five seasons on HBO, this critically acclaimed series held up a mirror to the other America — the America we couldn't see anywhere else on television. It reveals a lot about what's happened to us in recent years, and it comes from a surprising source — a newspaper beat reporter turned television writer and producer.
David Simon and his creative team, including Ed Burns, a cop turned teacher, used the City of Baltimore and the drug wars there as a metaphor for America's urban underbelly.
Through storytelling brutally honest and dramatic, Simon and crew created a tale of corruption, despair and betrayal as devastating as any Greek tragedy.
David Simon comes by his knowledge of gritty urban reality from twelve years as a crime reporter with THE BALTIMORE SUN.
From his reporting on the streets came the book and NBC television series HOMICIDE, and on HBO, THE CORNER. At the moment he's producing the pilot for a series about musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans, called TREME.
Remember, you heard it here — what Edward Gibbon was to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, or Charles Dickens to the smoky mean streets of Victorian London, David Simon is to America today.
He's with me now. Welcome to the Journal.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.
DAVID SIMON: Thank you very much for having me.
BILL MOYERS: There is a fellow in city government, here in New York, who's a policy wonk and a die-hard WIRE fan. And he's hoping I will ask you the one question on his mind, and the mind of many other fans. Here it is. "David Simon has painted the most vivid and compelling portrait of the modern American city. Has he walked away from that story? And if he has, will he come back to it?"
DAVID SIMON: I've walked away from the WIRE universe. It's had its five years. Stories that have a beginning, middle, and end-- sort of stand-as stories-- if you keep stuff open ended, and if you keep trying to stretch character and plot, they eventually break or they bend.
BILL MOYERS: What is it about the crime scene that gives you a keyhole, the best keyhole perhaps, into how American society really works?
DAVID SIMON: Right. You see the equivocations. You see the stuff that doesn't make it into the civics books. And also you see how interconnected things are. How connected the performance of the school system is to the culture of a corner. Or where parenting comes in. And where the lack of meaningful work in all these things, you know, the decline of industry suddenly interacts with the paucity and sort of fraud of public education in the inner city. Because THE WIRE is not a story about the America, it's about the America that got left behind.
BILL MOYERS: I was struck by something, I forget where I read it, that you said. You were wrestling with this one big existential question. And you talked about drug addicts who would come out of detox and then try to steel jaw themselves through their neighborhood. And then they'd come face to face with the question, which is?
DAVID SIMON: "What am I doing here? What am I doing here?" You know, all the same problems that a guy coming out of addiction at 30, 35, because it often takes to that age, he often got into addiction with a string of problems, some of which were interpersonal and personal, and some of which were systemic. The fact that these really are the excess people in America, we-- our economy doesn't need them. We don't need ten or 15 percent of our population. And certainly the ones that are undereducated, that have been ill served by the inner city school system, that have been unprepared for the technocracy of the modern economy. We pretend to need them. We pretend to educate the kids. We pretend that we're actually including them in the American ideal, but we're not. And they're not foolish. They get it.
BILL MOYERS: In this clip from your fourth season, that's what one of the main characters tries to explain to the school superintendent, that what they call the "corner kids" are outside the education system altogether. Take a look.
HOWARD "BUNNY" COLVIN: You put a textbook in front of these kids, put a problem on a blackboard, or teach them every problem on a statewide test and it won't matter, none of it. 'Cause they're not learning for our world, they're learning for theirs. And they know exactly what it is they're training for, and what it is everyone expects them to be.
SUPERINTENDENT: I expect them to be students.
HOWARD "BUNNY" COLVIN: But it's not about you or us, or the tests or the system, it's what they expect of themselves. I mean, every single one of them know they headed back to the corners. Their brothers and sisters, [deleted], the parents, they came through these same classrooms, didn't they? We pretended to teach them, they pretended to learn, where'd they end up? Same damn corners. They're not fools, these kids. They don't know our world, but they know their own. I mean, Jesus, they see right through us.
DAVID SIMON: They understand that the only viable economic base in their neighborhoods is this multi-billion drug trade.
BILL MOYERS: I've done several documentaries over the last 40 years. The first one I did was about the South Bronx, called "The Fire Next Door." And what I learned very early is that the drug trade is an inverted form of capitalism.
DAVID SIMON: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: To pacify these people who don't have any economic-
DAVID SIMON: Absolutely. In some ways it's the most destructive form of welfare that we've established, which is the illegal drug trade in these neighborhoods. It's basically like opening up a Beth Steel in the middle of the South Bronx or in West Baltimore and saying, "And you guys are all steel workers." To just say no? That's our answer to that? You know, the economic model does not work. And by the way, if it was chewing up white folk, it wouldn't have gone on for as long as it did.
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.
BILL MOYERS: And you say that's driving the war on drugs, though, right? The stats, not the-
DAVID SIMON: Dope on the table. Stats, you know, "We've made so many arrests." I mean, they used to ride around Baltimore under one administration, and say, "If we can make 54 arrests a day, we'll break the-- we'll have an all-time record for drug arrests."
DAVID SIMON: Some of the arrests, well, it was people sitting on their stoops and, you know, loitering in a drug free zone, meaning you were sitting on your own steps on a summer day. Anything that is a stat can be cheated, right down to journalism. And I was sort of party to that.
So, I would be-- I would be watching what the police department was doing, what the school system was, you know, you would look outward. But if you looked inward you'd see that the same game is played everywhere. That nobody's actually in the business of doing what the institution's supposed to do.
BILL MOYERS: And there's a wonderful scene in which this kid, himself, talks to the teacher about the hypocrisy of the very system that you've just described. Take a look.
NAMOND BRICE: Like y'all say, don't lie, don't bump, don't cheat, don't steal or whatever. But what about y'all? What, the government, Enron, steroids? Yeah, liquor business, booze-- the real killer out there? And cigarettes, oh [deleted]. You got some smokes in there?
FEMALE TEACHER: I'm trying to quit.
SOT: STUDENT 2: Drugs paid your salary, right?
HOWARD "BUNNY" COLVIN: Not exactly, but I get your point.
NAMOND BRICE: We do the same thing as y'all, except when we do it, it's like, "Oh my God, these kids is animals!" It's like, it's the end of the world coming. Man, that's bull [deleted]. 'Cause this is like, what, hypocrite? Hypocritical.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, they see the system, don't they?
DAVID SIMON: Yes. Listen, the drug war lands in their neighborhood. They see the absurdity of it. They see the corruption. They see that it's less about protecting their neighborhood than making stats.
BILL MOYERS: But how is it, given what-- so many people could see what you saw if they simply, if we opened our eyes. And yet, the drug war keeps getting crazier and crazier. From selling guns to Mexico's drug cartel, to cramming more people into prison, even though they haven't committed violent crimes. Why don't the policies change?
DAVID SIMON: Because there's no political capital in it. There really isn't. The fear of being called soft on crime, soft on drugs. The paranoia that's been induced.
Listen, if you could be Draconian and reduce drug use by locking people up, you might have an argument. But we are the jailing-est country on the planet right now. Two million people in prison. When I started as a police reporter, 33, 34 percent of the federal inmate population was violent offenders. Now it's like, seven to eight percent. So, we're locking up less violent people. More of them. The drugs are purer. They've not-- they haven't closed down a single drug corner that I know of in Baltimore for any length of time. It's not working. And by the way this is not a Republican/Democrat thing. Because a lot of the most Draconian stuff came out of the Clinton Administration. This guy trying to maneuver to the center, in order not to be perceived as Leftist by a Republican Congress.
BILL MOYERS: So, he did what?
DAVID SIMON: Oh, I mean, you look at all the stuff that got added to the Federal Omnibus Crime Bill. All the new categories of crime and the Draconian nature. There's all of this preceded him by a little bit. He reinforced it, which was the federal sentencing guidelines, which are just appalling. You know, he had-
BILL MOYERS: Mandatory sentences, three strikes--
DAVID SIMON: Loss of parole. And again, not merely for violent offenders, because again, the rate of violent offenders is going down. Federal prisons are full of people who got caught muling drugs, and got tarred with the whole amount of the drugs. It's not what you were involved in or what you profited from. It's what they can tar you with. You know, a federal prosecutor, basically, when he decides what to charge you with and how much, he's basically the sentencing judge at that point. What they charge. And that's, of course, corrupting. It's, again, a stat.
BILL MOYERS: It's also clear from your work that you think the drug war has destroyed the policemen.
DAVID SIMON: Absolutely. That's the saddest thing in a way, is that, again, because the stats mean nothing. Because a drug arrest in Baltimore means nothing. Nothing. Real police work isn't being done. In my city, the arrest rates for all major felonies have declined, precipitously, over the last 20 years. From murder to rape to robbery to assault.
BILL MOYERS: Because?
DAVID SIMON: Because to solve those crimes requires retroactive investigation. They have to be able to do a lot of things, in terms of gathering evidence that is substantive and meaningful police work. All you have to do to make a drug arrest is go in a guy's pocket. You know? You don't even need probable cause anymore in Baltimore. The guy who solves a rape or a robbery or a murder, he has one arrest stat. He's going to court one day. The guy who has 40, 50, 60 drug arrests, even though they're meaningless arrests, even though there's no place to put them in the Maryland prison system, he's going go to court 40 or 50 or 60 times. Ultimately, when it comes time to promote somebody, they look at the police computer. They'll look and they'll say, "This guy's made 40 arrests last month. You only made one. He's the Sergeant." You know, or, "That's the Lieutenant." So the guys who basically play the stat game, they get promoted.
BILL MOYERS: There's a scene in the third season of WIRE where the Baltimore Police Major Bunny Colvin, favorite character, gives some rare straight talk on the futility of this drug war. Take a look.
WOMAN: I come home from work, I can't even get up my front steps 'cause they occupied by the drug dealers. Is that in the picture you got up there?
POLICE MAJOR COLVIN: I'm Major Colvin. I apologize for giving you the wrong impression tonight, we mean no disrespect. I know what's going on in your neighborhoods, I see it everyday. Ma'am, it pains me that you cannot enter your own front door in safety and with dignity. But truth is, I can't promise you it's gonna get any better. We can't lock up the thousands that are out on those corners. There'd be no place to put them even if we could. We show you charts and statistics like they mean something, but you going back to your home tonight, we gonna be in our patrol cars, and the boys still gonna be out there on them corners. Deep in the game. This here is the world we've got, people. And it's about time that all of us had the good sense to at least admit that much.
MAN: So what's the answer?
POLICE MAJOR COLVIN: I'm not sure. But whatever it is, it can't be a lie.
BILL MOYERS: But it still is a lie, isn't it?
DAVID SIMON: And it always will be. I don't think we have the stomach to actually evaluate this. And--
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
DAVID SIMON: Well--
BILL MOYERS: We don't have the stomach?
DAVID SIMON: Again, we would have to ask ourselves a lot of hard questions. The people most affected by this are black and brown and poor. It's the abandoned inner cores of our urban areas. And we don't, as we said before, economically, we don't need those people. The American economy doesn't need them. So, as long as they stay in their ghettos, and they only kill each other, we're willing to pay a police presence to keep them out of our America. And to let them fight over scraps, which is what the drug war, effectively, is. I don't think-- since we basically have become a market-based culture and it's what we know, and it's what's led us to this sad d'nouement, I think we're going to follow market-based logic, right to the bitter end.
BILL MOYERS: Which says?
DAVID SIMON: If you don't need 'em, why extend yourself? Why seriously assess what you're doing to your poorest and most vulnerable citizens? There's no profit to be had in doing anything other than marginalizing them and discarding them.
BILL MOYERS: But here's the problem for journalism. When we write about inequality, we use numbers that are profound, but are numbing. I mean, here's an excerpt I read just this morning: "Over the past 20 years, the elite one percent of Americans saw their share of the nation's income double, from 11.3 percent to 22.1 percent. But their tax burden shrank by about one-third." Now those facts tell us something very important. That the rich got richer as their tax rates shrunk. But it doesn't seem to start people's blood rushing, you know?
DAVID SIMON: No. By the way, if you start citing that too much you'll be called a socialist.
BILL MOYERS: I have been.
DAVID SIMON: Right. And, you know, listen, I've been called that same thing. You know, you start talking about a social compact between the people at the bottom of the pyramid and the people at the top, and that's how you ground a society, and people look at you and say, "Are you talking about sharing wealth?" You know? "Yeah." I want to-- Listen, capitalism is the only engine credible enough to generate mass wealth. I think it's imperfect, but we're stuck with it. And thank God we have that in the toolbox. But if you don't manage it in some way that you incorporate all of society, maybe not to the same degree, but if everybody's not benefiting on some level and if you don't have a sense of shared purpose, national purpose, then all it is a pyramid scheme. All it is, is-- who's standing on top of whose throat?
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think, David, that we tolerate such gaps in between rich and poor?
DAVID SIMON: You know, I'm fascinated by it. Because a lot of the people who end up voting for that kind of laissez-faire market policy are people who get creamed by it. And I think it's almost like a casino. You're looking at the guy winning, you're looking at the guy who pulled the lever and all the bells go off, when a guy wins, and all the coins are coming out of a one-armed bandit. You're thinking, "That could be me. I'll play by those rules." But actually, those are house rules. And you're going to lose. Most of you are going to lose.
BILL MOYERS: The character in that excerpt we just saw says, "What's the answer?" Do you have the answer after all these years?
DAVID SIMON: Oh, I would decriminalize drugs in a heartbeat. I would put all the interdiction money, all the incarceration money, all the enforcement money, all of the pretrial, all the prep, all of that cash, I would hurl it, as fast as I could, into drug treatment and job training and jobs programs. I would rather turn these neighborhoods inward with jobs programs. Even if it was the equivalent of the urban CCC, if it was New Deal-type logic, it would be doing less damage than creating a war syndrome, where we're basically treating our underclass. The drug war's war on the underclass now. That's all it is. It has no other meaning.
BILL MOYERS: There's another scene in the third season that I like very much. Major Colvin, who we saw earlier, has created a legalized drug zone in Baltimore. And he's defending his decision to a church community leader, who's called the Deacon.
POLICE MAJOR COLVIN: Look, I'm just trying to make my district liveable. I write off a few blocks in a few places, but I save the rest.
DEACON: No offense, but you're like the blind man and the elephant. It's a lot bigger than what you've got your hands on, you just can't see it.
POLICE MAJOR COLVIN: See what?
DEACON: A great village of pain, and you're the mayor. Where's your dirnking water? Where's your toilets? Your heat, your electricity? Where's the needle truck? The condom distribution? The drug treatment intake? Half these people are dyin' on their feet, and the other half's gonna catch what's killin' them.
POLICE MAJOR COLVIN: Look, they no worse off when they's all over the map. Now they just in one place, is all.
DEACON: And that place is hell.
POLICE MAJOR COLVIN: Look, I'm a police, so I can lock a man up or I can move his ass off the corner. If you want more than that, you're in the wrong shop.
BILL MOYERS: He's saying there's very little the police can do. You just move 'em.
DAVID SIMON: Do you know what? You talk honestly with some of the veteran and smarter detectives in Baltimore, the guys that have given their career to the drug war, including, for example, Ed Burns, who was a drug warrior for 20 years, and they'll tell you, this war's lost. This is all over but the shouting and the tragedy and the waste. And yet, there isn't a political leader with the stomach to really assess it for what it is. The two actors in that scene, Robert Wisdom, playing Colvin, is a professional actor. But the gentlemen he was talking to, that's Little Melvin Williams, who was one of the, if not the most, significant drug trafficker in the history of heroine in the State of Maryland.
BILL MOYERS: The guy playing Deacon?
DAVID SIMON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Now straight?
DAVID SIMON: Well, he's retired now. I hope. But my understanding is he's retired now. He was locked up by Ed Burns. By my co-creator of THE WIRE.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
DAVID SIMON: And on wiretap case in 1984, went away for about 20 years to prison. And--
BILL MOYERS: But see, some people would say, "Hey, David. It works. You lock 'em up, and they come out, and become actors in 'The Wire.'"
DAVID SIMON: Yes, but-- I guess that was our plan all along. You know we locked him up and, you know 12 different guys took his place. I mean, it had absolutely no effect on the price or purity of heroine or cocaine in West Baltimore.
BILL MOYERS: One of your classic scenes-- you talk about this going on perpetually. One of your classic scenes came early in the first season and in the third episode. One of the up and coming players in the drug business is teaching his underlings about staying alive in the deadly game of chess.
D'ANGELO BARKSDALE: These right here, these are the pawns, they like the soldiers. They move like this, once space forward only, except when they fight, then it's like this. And they're like the front lines, they be out in the field.
WALLACE: So how do you get to be the king?
D'ANGELO BARKSDALE: It ain't like that. See, the king stays the king, all right. Everything stays who he is, except for the pawns. If the pawn make it all the way down to the other dude's side, he get to be queen. Like I said, the queen ain't no bitch, she got all the moves.
PRESTON "BODIE" BROADUS: Alright, so, if I make it to the other end, I win. D'ANGELO BARKSDALE: If you catch the other dude's king and trap it, then you win.
PRESTON "BODIE" BROADUS: Alright, but if I make it to the end, I'm top dog.
D'ANGELO BARKSDALE: No, yo, it ain't like that. Look, the pawns man, in the game, they get capped quick, they be out of the game early.
PRESTON "BODIE" BROADUS: Unless they some smart-ass pawns.
DAVID SIMON: It's almost -- he's describing a capitalist pyramid. Where nobody moves. Where there is no improvement in anyone's station. And we were basically setting out a preamble for what the next five seasons would show, with regard to the city. You know, in second season there was a character who said, almost prescient of the of the Wall Street debacle. He said, "We used to make stuff in this country. Build stuff." He didn't say 'stuff' but it's HBO.
But he said, "Now, we just put our hands in the next guy's pocket." And ultimately, some things are serendipitous and you find themes and, you react and the story changes. And, you know, I'm not suggesting we have everything planned to the nth degree. But we knew, for example when we wrote that scene in the beginning of the first season, that by the end of the run those three characters would have been treated as pawns in a chess game.
And we knew that character that cited what was ailing post-industrial America, he happened to be a union captain and one of the longshoreman. That he would be speaking to, at the time, what we were reacting to with Enron and things like-- and WorldCom and the first sort of-- first shots across our bow, economically. That people were trading crap and calling it gold. And that's what THE WIRE was about. It was about that which is-- has no value, being emphasized as being meaningful. And that which is-- has genuine meaning, being given low regard.
BILL MOYERS: I haven't forgotten that moment in Season Two when the F.B.I. comes to the longshoreman, whose union is suspected of illegal activity and tries to make a deal with him. The answer he gives goes right to the heart of what you are saying about our economic system. Watch this.
FBI AGENT 1: Racketeering, wire fraud, conspiracy to import heroin, conspiracy to violate federal customs statutes, white slavery.
FBI AGENT 2: Today we're only charging the customs violations, Mr. Sobotka. But eventually a grand jury indictment will expose you to a lot more.
FBI AGENT 1: Name names and come clean. You help yourself and your union.
FRANK SOBOTKA: Help my union? Twenty-five years we been dyin' slow down there. Dry-docks rustin', piers standin' empty. My friends and their kids like we got the cancer. No lifeline got throwed, all that time. Nuthin' from nobody... And now you wanna help us. Help me?
BILL MOYERS: So, whose lives are less and less necessary in America today?
DAVID SIMON: Certainly the underclass. There's a reason they are the underclass. But in an area-- in an era when you don't need as much mass labor. When we are not a manufacturing base those people that built stuff, that made stuff-- that were-- that their lives had some meaning and value because the factories were open. You don't need them anymore.
But also unions and working people are completely abandoned by this economic culture and that's what Season Two was about. It was about one of the forces, one of the walls that basically make the corner culture. And, you know, that's heartbreaking to me. I've been a union member my whole life and I guess its a little gilded union now. Gilded guild.
BILL MOYERS: The Writer's Guild.
DAVID SIMON: The Writer's Guild, yes, but I was a newspaper-- a member of the newspaper guild before that and I thank them for letting me earn an honest living. 'Cause, you know, without them, God knows what we would have been paid in Baltimore. But I look at what's happened with unions and I think-- Ed Burns says all the time that he wants to do a piece on the Haymarket.
BILL MOYERS: The Haymarket strike.
DAVID SIMON: Yes. That-- the bombing, and that critical moment when American labor was pushed so much to the starving point that they were willing to fight. And I actually think that's the only time when change is possible. When people are actually threatened to the core, and enough people are threatened to the core that they just won't take it anymore. And that's-- those are the pivotal moments in American history, I think, when actually something does happen.
You know, they were-- in Haymarket, they were fighting for the 40-hour work week. You know? So, it wasn't-- it sounds radical at the time, but it's basically a dignity of life issue. And you look at things like that. You look at the anti-Vietnam War effort, in this country which, you know, you had to threaten middle class kids with a draft and with military service in an unpopular war for people to rise up and demand the end to an unpopular war. I mean, it didn't happen without that. So, on some level, as long as they placate enough people. As long as they throw enough scraps from the table that enough people get a little bit to eat, I just don't see a change coming.
BILL MOYERS: So, did this great collapse we have been experiencing since last year confirm the reporting you had done about what happens when an economic system creates two separate realities? One that-
DAVID SIMON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: -manufactures millionaires by the day. And the other that consigns people-
DAVID SIMON: I am as shocked as anybody that we got as much right as we did. Because the truth is we, as I said, we wrote the first season in the midst of Enron and WorldCom. Those were the institutional motifs that we were graphing into "The Wire." The idea that if you-- there was an institution that is supposed to serve you or that you are supposed to serve. And it's supposed to care for you, and, and be a societal positive-- it will find a way to betray you. That was the story that we were writing.
I couldn't have conceived of something as grandiose as the mortgage bubble. When you finally look at what caused that. And the sheer greed and the stupidity of that pyramid scheme. You know, no. We didn't know it was as corrosive as it was. We didn't know it was rotted out that much. But we knew there was something rotten in the core. And we knew it from what we were looking at, in terms of Baltimore, and how Baltimore addressed itself to its problems.
BILL MOYERS: And over the next five years, the next five seasons, your vision of those kids playing out into this giant Ponzi scheme intersected in the streets, the police-
DAVID SIMON: Right.
BILL MOYERS: -and then politics. And all they what they all have in common, as I see it, is juking the stats. I mean-
DAVID SIMON: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: -politics is supposed to be about solving the situations you describe. But it's constantly creating its own reality, right?
DAVID SIMON: It's about money and it's about advancement. And everything that I've actually seen institutionally, from everything America has offered me a glimpse into. You know, as a reporter I got to see some politics. I wasn't a political reporter per se, but I got to see enough of city politics to absorb it. And Ed Burns taught in the Baltimore City School system and pulled all that through the keyhole for season four. I got to see the war on drugs. I got to see policing, as a concept. And I got to see journalism.
And when it came between explaining complicated and sophisticated systems and trying to say, "This is what's going on and if we change this or do that. Or if we actually implement this policy, we can, you know..." But actually doing the hard work of looking at it systemically, nobody had-- there was no incentive to do it, and nobody did it. And that's true in Baltimore today as when I started as a reporter and I think it's true in America.
BILL MOYERS: I remain indebted to those reporters who go where I can't go. Who talk to people I can't reach. Whether it's in the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. And come back and help me, help my perceptions of the war. I'm still indebted to them. And as you say, you were spit out by the forces that work in the journalistic world. And now journalism is spitting out reporters like teeth.
DAVID SIMON: Left and right. You know, listen, I was not the last. That's true. And it's heartbreaking. And I say this with no schadenfreude just 'cause I got a TV gig. It's heartbreaking what's happening. And I feel that the republic is actually in danger.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
DAVID SIMON: There is not guard now on assessing anything qualitatively. Of pulling back the veil behind what an official will tell you is progress, or is valid, or is legitimate as policy. And-- absent that, no good can come from anything. Because there is an absolutely disincentive to tell the truth.
BILL MOYERS: Nobody's de-juking the stats, right?
DAVID SIMON: Exactly. And ultimately I have the utmost confidence in the ability of any ambitious soul anywhere to take what is not progress and what is not valid and to gloss it up and to say, "We're doing a great job."
BILL MOYERS: I read something you recently told "The Guardian," in London: "Oh, to be a state or local official in America..." without newspapers. "It's got to be one of the great dreams in the history of American corruption."
DAVID SIMON: Well, I was being a little hyperbolic. But-
BILL MOYERS: But it's happening. I mean, it's becoming true.
DAVID SIMON: Yes. It absolutely is, it absolutely is. To find out what's going on in my own city I often find myself at a bar somewhere taking, writing stuff down on a cocktail napkin that a police lieutenant or some school teacher tells me. Because these institutions are no longer being covered by beat reporters who are looking for the systemic. It doesn't exist anymore.
And this is not all the Internet. This was a-- you know, there's a lot of the general tone in journalism right now is that of martyrology. Of-
BILL MOYERS: Being martyrs, right.
DAVID SIMON: Yes, we were doing our job. Making the world safe for democracy. And all of a sudden, terra firma shifted, new technology. Who knew that the Internet was going to overwhelm us? I would buy that if I wasn't in journalism for the years that immediately preceded the Internet because I took the third buyout from the "Baltimore Sun." I was about reporter number 80 or 90 who left, in 1995. Long before the Internet had had its impact. I left at a time-- those buyouts happened when the "Baltimore Sun" was earning 37 percent profits.
You know, we now know this because it's in bankruptcy and the books are open. 37 percent profits. All that R&D money that was supposed to go in to make newspapers more essential, more viable, more able to explain the complexities of the world. It went to shareholders in the Tribune Company. Or the L.A. Times Mirror Company before that. And ultimately, when the Internet did hit, they had an inferior product-- that was not essential enough that they could charge online for it.
I mean, the guys who are running newspapers, over the last 20 or 30 years, have to be singular in the manner in which they destroyed their own industry. It-- it's even more profound than Detroit making Chevy Vegas and Pacers and Gremlins and believing that no self-respecting American would buy a Japanese car in 1973. That-- it's analogous up to a point, except it's not analogous in that a Nissan is a pretty good car, and a Toyota is a pretty good car. The Internet, while it's great for commentary and froth doesn't do very much first generation reporting at all. And it can't sustain that. The economic model can't sustain that kind of reporting. And to lose to that, because you didn't-- they had contempt for their own product, these people. I mean, how do-
BILL MOYERS: The publishers. The owners.
DAVID SIMON: Yes, how do you give it away for free? You know, but for 20 years, they looked upon the copy as being the stuff that went around the ads. The ads were the God. And then all of a sudden the ads were not there, and the copy, they had had contempt for. And they had-- they had actually marginalized themselves
By the time the Internet had its way, I mean, they're down to 180 now. You don't cover the City of Baltimore and a region like Central Maryland with 180 people. You don't cover it well.
And the institutional knowledge of the place disappears. And so that was-- I was being a little flippant with "The Guardian" but what I was saying was, you know, there's going to be a wave of corruption until they figure out the new model and reestablish-- the institutional memory of these places, there's going to be a wave of misbehavior.
BILL MOYERS: You know, because the only crime scene I ever covered was the state legislature in Texas. I'm serious about that. And I thought of that, there's a scene in the fourth season of THE WIRE when Tommy Carcetti is running for Mayor. And some hotshot political consultant comes over from the Democratic Party in Washington and gives him the dope on what he has to do to be elected. Watch this.
TOMMY CARCETTI: Thanks for coming up from Washington.
DEMOCRATIC PARTY OFFICIAL: The Party's happy for the opportunity, you've got some heat behind you at this point. But, down to business.
CARCETTI STAFFER 1: The way we see it, we gotta cobble together a city-wide turnaround, call it the Baltimore miracle.
DEMOCRATIC PARTY OFFICIAL: Which starts with a ten percent drop in crime, since that was your campaign cry. You want the double digits.
CARCETTI STAFFER 2: No doubt. Then he's gotta do a bricks-and-mortar project downtown, put his name on something.
CARCETTI STAFFER 1: But we flush, with stadiums. It's got hotel out of the ass.
DEMOCRATIC PARTY OFFICIAL: You guys got a good convention center?
TOMMY CARCETTI: And a convention center expansion.
CARCETTI STAFFER 2: Gotta put something up, get that sign on it that says, "Brought to you by Tommy Carcetti and the citizens of Baltimore."
DEMOCRATIC PARTY OFFICIAL: Well, think on it. But you don't have too much time to decide.
TOMMY CARCETTI: Anything else?
DEMOCRATIC PARTY OFFICIAL: Education always polls good.
CARCETTI STAFFER 1: No, we gotta stay away from the schools. Our last four administrations left us with an inner city system with inner city problems. We get involved, it becomes our mess. Gotta respect the depths.
DEMOCRATIC PARTY OFFICIAL: One: you get the drop in crime. Two: you build something downtown, and three: you stay away from schools. And four: you keep your boyish good looks. You do all that you might be running for governor in 2008, maybe take back that statehouse for us, hmm?
BILL MOYERS: Can you get more cynical than that?
DAVID SIMON: Well, we tried. I'm sure we tried at other points. But-
BILL MOYERS: Are you cynical?
DAVID SIMON: I am very cynical about institutions and their willingness to address themselves to reform. For their willingness to do what they're supposed to do in American life. I am not cynical when it comes to individuals and people. And I think the reason THE WIRE is watchable, even tolerable, to viewers is that it has great affection for individuals. It's not misanthropic in any way. It has great affection for those people. Particularly, when they stand upon their hind legs and say, "I will not lie anymore. I am actually going to fight for what I perceive to be some shard of truth."
You know, over time, people are going to look at THE WIRE and think, "This was not quite as cynical as we thought it was. This was actually a little bit more journalistic than that. They were being blunt. But it was less mean than we thought it was." You know? I think in Baltimore, the initial response to seeing some of this on the air was, "These guys are not fair and they're mean. And they're just out to savage us." And it was written with a great-- it's a love letter to Baltimore.
BILL MOYERS: The reason I ask you if you're cynical is not because you wrote that, I'm going to link our viewers at PBS.org to a powerful, extemporaneous speech. I can tell it was extemporaneous, because it reads like that. It reads as if your words were just taken down. That you made at-- to the students at Loyola College in Baltimore some years ago. And you said to them, "I want you to go and look up the word 'oligarchy.'" Well, I did just that. I took your advice. I looked it up.
DAVID SIMON: Uh-oh.
BILL MOYERS: It means "Government by the few. Or a government in which a small group exercises control for corrupt and selfish purposes." Is that what you saw in Baltimore?
DAVID SIMON: I was speaking nationally. But I think that yes. We are a country of democratic ideas and impulses, but it is strained through some very oligarchical structures. You know, one of which could be, for example, the United States Senate. You know, you give me the high-- higher house of a bicameral legislature. And you tell me that 40 percent of the people are going to elect 60 percent of the representatives. And I look upon that as being decidedly undemocratic. Or I look at the Electoral College as being decidedly undemocratic. You know, I don't buy into the notion that one-- one man, one vote is not the most fundamental way of doing business. And ultimately, when I look at you know, for example, the drug war. There are places were the majority of people are now aware that the drug war has been a fraud for 30 years. And yet, because of the dynamics that are put in place that are I think, to an extent oligarchical, because money speaks so strongly in politics...
You know, listen, the only reason that alcohol and cigarettes, which do far more damage than heroine and cocaine, are legal is that white people and affluent white people at that, make money off that stuff. You know? Phillip Morris was-- you know, had-- if those guys had black and brown skin and were-- you know, in the Mexican State of Chihuahua, they'd be hunted. Or maybe not anymore. Maybe they'd be in control of the Mexican State of Chihuahua, that's another story.
But I look at that, and I say, you know, "Yes, this is about, you know, money talks." And the idea that what the most people what is best for the most people, and the utilitarian sense of democracy's supposed to be, that that's still applying in American life. I just don't see a lot of evidence for that.
BILL MOYERS: So, is this what you mean when you say THE WIRE is dissent?
DAVID SIMON: Yes. It is dissent. It is saying-
BILL MOYERS: Against what? From what?
DAVID SIMON: It is saying, "We no longer buy these false ideologies. And false motifs you have of American life." And so I look at this and I think to myself, if only you stand up and say "I'm not going to be lied to anymore." That's a victory on some level, that's a beginning of a dynamic. And, listen, I don't think-- can change happen? Yes. But things have to get a lot worse.
BILL MOYERS: Here's the lead I would put on the body of your work. Your journalism, your articles, your essays, your speeches, your books, your television series, it would be this. "David Simon says America's not working for everyday people who have no power. And that's the way the people with power have designed it to work."
DAVID SIMON: Right. I mean, it would be one thing with an oligarchy and they were doing a better job of it. I would be okay with that.
BILL MOYERS: Making the trains run on time.
DAVID SIMON: But everything-- right. Everything from Iraq to Wall Street to urban policy to the drug war. I look at it all and I say, "You know, these guys really couldn't do much worse." You know? I mean, New Orleans was such a beautiful metaphor for the hollowness at the core of American will, you know? To have seen the President of the United States take the planes down and look out his window and say, "Oh my God, it must be twice as bad on the ground." Twice as bad? Really? You know, it's not-- it's failure of will and imagination and I see it across the board and I just think-- in a way, THE WIRE is an editorial. It's an angry op-ed. It's, you know, as if Frank Rich was given, you know, 12 hours of rant-
BILL MOYERS: Are you, as someone said recently, "the angriest man in television"?
DAVID SIMON: Yes, I saw that. It doesn't really mean much. The second angriest guy is, you know, by a kidney shaped pool in L.A. screaming into his cell phone, because his DVD points aren't enough. I mean, what is the second angriest man in television, American television? But I don't mind being called that. I just don't think it means anything. How can you not have lived through the last ten years in American culture? In everything from-- how can you not look at what happened on Wall Street and that's still happening? At this gamesmanship that was the mortgage bubble, you know? That was just selling-- again, selling crap and calling it gold.
How can you not look at that? Or watch a city school system suffer for 20, 25-- how can you-- isn't anger the appropriate response? What is the appropriate response? Ennui? You know? Alienation? You know, buying into the notion that the "Great Man" theory of history? That if we only elect the right guy? This stuff is systemic. This is how an empire is eaten from within.
BILL MOYERS: But I don't think these good individuals you talk about, the individual who stands up and says, "I'm not going to lie anymore." I don't think individuals know how to crack that system. How to change that system. Because by you-- as you say, the system it self-perpetuating.
DAVID SIMON: And moneyed. And beautifully moneyed. I mean, you know-- and I don't think we can. And so, I don't think it's going to get better. Listen, I don't like talking this way. I would be happy to find out that THE WIRE was hyperbolic and ridiculous. And that the American Century is still to come. I don't believe it, but I'd love to believe it, because I live in Baltimore and I'm an American. You know? And I want to sit in my house and see the game on Saturday along with everybody else. But I just don't see a lot of evidence of it.
BILL MOYERS: Do you really believe, as you said to those students at Loyola, that we're not going to make it?
DAVID SIMON: We're not going to make it as a first rate empire. And I'm not sure that that's a bad thing in the end. I mean, you know, empires end. And that doesn't mean cultures end completely and it doesn't mean that even nation states... You know, I mean, if you looked at Britain in 1952 and what was being presided over by Anthony Eden and those guys. You'd have said, "Man, you know, what's going to be left?" But, you know, Britain's still there. And they've come to terms with what they can and can't do.
Americans are still sort of in an age of delusion, I think. And a lot of our foreign policy represents that. And a lot of our-- you know, this notion that the markets were always going to go up. And that once we had invested stocks to death, we could create some new equity, out of magic. Out of nothing. Out of-
BILL MOYERS: Derivatives and all-
DAVID SIMON: Out of bad mortgages. No, look, it's a new stock. Bring more money. I mean, the insanity of that is-- it was fun being compared to Gibbon, I'll take that. But-
BILL MOYERS: I must say you are a reporter, not a prophet. But sometimes-
DAVID SIMON: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: -what happens emerges from the way the facts were reported. That you need to know what reality is, as best you can, before you can choose which way to go. Who do you thinks going to now be telling us what the facts are that we can agree on? Is it going to be television? Is it going to be fiction? Is it going to be journalism?
DAVID SIMON: I don't know. I mean, I think ultimately a little of it's going to come from everywhere. You know, there have been books of-- there have been novels that I read, that I thought were genuine truth telling. And there have been journalistic endeavors that have really come close to being brilliant and blunt and honest, in a variety of formats. And there has been some film and some television. But it's not like everybody's rushing to make THE WIRE-- more WIREs. I mean, you know, we-- I've pretty much demonstrated how not to make a hit show, you know? I make a show that gets me on Bill Moyers. But-
BILL MOYERS: I know, but-
DAVID SIMON: But I don't--
BILL MOYERS: -critically acclaimed.
DAVID SIMON: -but I don't get a show that, you know, that makes a lot of money for a network. There are about 749 different shows, dramas and comedies on television right now that you can watch. You know, 748 of them are about the America that I inhabit, that you inhabit.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
DAVID SIMON: That most of the viewing public, I guess, inhabits. There was one about the other America. And it was arguing passionately about a place where, let's face it, the economic rules don't apply in the same way. Half of the adult black males in my city are unemployed. That's not an economic model that actually works.
BILL MOYERS: But I want to close with some poetry. Some poetry that I don't know whether you created or whether you discovered. But it's that unforgettable moment in THE WIRE when we hear "Goodnight Moon." Tell me about that before I play it for the audience.
DAVID SIMON: You know, I'm going to-- I'm going to tell you that that is straight from a book that I totally admire. CLOCKERS by Richard Price. And Price wrote that episode. And he recreated it right out of the novel. It's almost a benediction for the city. And it is the thing that, you didn't get it if you were a politician or a police commander or a school superintendent, and you were running on your rep. You didn't get that THE WIRE was actually a love letter to Baltimore. From your point of view, what it was, was just this nightmare that you had to like argue against.
But if you were a schoolteacher or a kid on a corner or a cop walking the beat. If you-- if you were, our sentiments were always with labor, it was always at the street level. If you were one of those people, you couldn't help but hear the affection. That this was-- it may have been a conflicted lover. But it was a love letter nonetheless. And I thought that scene really caught it.
BILL MOYERS: We'll hear it now, this love letter. Thank you, David Simon, for being with me on the Journal.
DAVID SIMON: Thank you.
DETECTIVE KIMA GREGGS: Let's say goodnight to everybody. Goodnight moon. You say it.
CHILD: Goodnight moon.
DETECTIVE KIMA GREGGS: There you go. Goodnight stars.
CHILD: Goodnight stars.
DETECTIVE KIMA GREGGS: Goodnight po-po's.
CHILD: Goodnight po-po's.
DETECTIVE KIMA GREGGS: Goodnight fiends.
CHILD: Goodnight fiends.
DETECTIVE KIMA GREGGS: Goodnight hoppers.
CHILD: Goodnight hoppers.
DETECTIVE KIMA GREGGS: Goodnight hustlers.
CHILD: Goodnight hustlers.
DETECTIVE KIMA GREGGS: Goodnight scammers.
CHILD: Goodnight scammers.
DETECTIVE KIMA GREGGS: Goodnight to everybody.
CHILD: Goodnight to everybody.
DETECTIVE KIMA GREGGS: Goodnight to one and all.
CHILD: Goodnight to one and all.
BILL MOYERS: That's it for the Journal.
For more about THE WIRE and David Simon, and for information on the state of America's inner cities as well as a tough look at what's happening to the newspaper business, log onto the Moyers website at PBS.org.
I'm Bill Moyers and I'll see you next week.