Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Wire as Muckraker?

I've touched on the feelings of Nostalgia in some of my other posts, but here I'm thinking about an older style of journalism for which which David Simon yearns. Much of his critique of The Media revolves around its ambivalence toward "the stories that matter" (as highlighted in Simon's interview here). The subplots of plagiarism, capitalization, buyouts, etc. are not the main story as articulated by Simon. Rather the biggest journalistic crimes are:
"the corrupt mayor asking for cooked crime stats, the elementary school test scores spawned from students being taught the tests, the deaths of Prop Joe and Omar -- all indicators of the city's real problems that never appeared in the Sun's pages"
I would hasten to add the failures and successes of hamsterdam, social services, and witness protection to the list. In fact, in almost every character there is a story missed by Sun in some way. If the institutions of Baltimore run the characters' lives, why doesn't the Sun report on these issues/institutions in a substantive way?

This style of reporting, muckraking, has actually been around for a hundred of years. For Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, it's the meat-packing industry as a metaphor on the failure of capitalism's promises. In Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives, the reader gets an expose of the New York City slums through a photoessay (an experiment in new media of its day). The muckrakers were related to the Progressive movement, whose figurehead was Teddy Roosevelt. Busting trusts, fighting for those without a voice, and being masculine, Roosevelt and the Progressives were determined to halt capitalism's largest crimes against humanity (and participate in a few of their own). Although their targets were powerful people in powerful places, the muckrakers were very much a part of mainstream journalism.
One can trace a similar vein of journalism to the 1930s (well, sorta). The consumer movement, symbolized by Stuart Chase and F.J. Schlink's Consumer Research group also critiqued capitalism. Though outside mainstream journalism, CR's newsletter and later Consumer Union's newsletter, Consumer Reports (which broke off of CR after a strike and personality issues, just read this to learn more). One of the more famous books to come out of this movement was F.J. Schlink and Arthur Kallet's 10,000 Guinea Pigs.

In the 1960s, Consumer Reports became famous from a different writer, current Presidential candidate Ralph Nader. His work on automobile safety, and what became Unsafe at Any Speed also critiqued the institution of capitalism. Another journalist/writer of this period included Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring, which described the dangers of pesticides and lead to the outlaw of DDT. Carson also contributed articles to the Baltimore Sun.

Though my examples may be a little ahistorical, (and all you Media Studies and Mass Comm. experts out there can right my wrongs on the history of the media) I do think Simon sees this style of investigative journalism disappearing as a result of "doing more with less." I also think one could place The Wire in the same category as fictional versions of muckraking (like Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt). In fact, I think one of the reasons why The Wire is so popular with those of a more academic persuasion (even though it pokes fun at academics in season 3&4), is because of its muckraker roots. There are many strains of social science but many of us try to examine the lives of those who do not have a voice (or who's voice has not been heard). It's a goal the muckrakers would recognize.

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