Saturday, March 27, 2010
Newsroom Managers: Beware of Disgruntled, but Talented Ex-Employees
You gotta watch your back
Well I beg your pardon
Walk the straight and narrow track...
(Tom Waits, Down In The Hole)
I'm into a relentless and long overdue viewing of the brilliant, compelling HBO series, The Wire.
Written, directed and produced by an unimaginably broad and deep range of talent, the series was conceived and overseen by David Simon, a former cop reporter for the Baltimore Sun for 12 years. His knowledge of that city, its complexities and its still living history made for a five year run on HBO which tells the stories of police, politicians, teachers, journalists and the drug culture in a city that feels in terminal decline, but always manages to persist as a damaged, deranged, urban energizer bunny.
The fifth and final season is about the interplay among the cops, the drug dealers and the Baltimore Sun as all three go through a largely self-inflicted and utterly American decline and fall.
David Simon has used his deep knowledge of newsroom dynamics and police procedurals to dramatize the Baltimore Sun as it stares into the oncoming economic train wreck. By episode two, The Sun has been bought by the unnamed group referred to as "Chicago" (as in, "Chicago has ordered more cuts." The Sun was bought by the Tribune Group which in turn was bought by Sam Zell). As happened at all Tribune newspapers, longtime reporters are let go or bought out and younger (aka, cheaper, still eager but much less experienced) reporters try to step up to replace them. David Simon chronicles these and other losses with great power and subtlety.
In one instance, Simon extracts his double revenge on the Sun's managing editor when he was there, Bill Marimow. Bill and I worked together for a time at NPR. I heard that Simon and he butted heads at the Sun, but I was shocked at how Simon has extracted his revenge on Bill in The Wire.
He does this in two ways: first, he creates a character called Charles Marimow, a lieutenant in the Baltimore police department. He is installed as the commander of the major crimes unit His caustic command style drives away the unit's best two detectives. He is one of the most unanimously disliked commanders of the Baltimore PD as he has a reputation for being a "Trojan Horse", "Virus", and a "Unit Killer." One character says that "Marimow does not cast off talent lightly. He heaves it away with great force."
Second, inside Simon's depiction of the Sun, the managing editor (who goes by another name) has some of the same verbal quirks as Bill. He is not a sympathetic character.
This is unfortunate, but not surprising. I've never met an effective manager in a news organization who pleases everyone. In fact, to be an effective manager, you can't.
Simon seems to have used his great talent and his creative license to go after someone who is one of the finest journalists I have ever met. I don't know what went on between Simon and Marimow at the Sun. But it can't have been pleasant for either of them, nor for the journalists who were forced to watch it.
If it is true that we are also judged by the quality of our enemies, then both David Simon and Bill Marimow must be among the most excellent practitioners in their respective fields.
"The Wire" has restored my faith in American television, but it also reminds me of how harsh the newsroom culture can be.