While The Wire was a damn fun show to watch simply from a good story point of view, it also examines various themes and ideas season to season.
The last season, Season 5, explored the role of Journalism in Baltimore society. Keeping in mind Season 5 aired a good three years ago, most things David Simon, creator of The Wire, put on screen still hold true today. And he should know, he was a reporter for thirteen years.
Simon once wrote as a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun, a newspaper which he used in the television show no holds barred. We even got to see the downright filthy practices of the journalism business.
To introduce us to the world of The Baltimore Sun in season 5, a new set of characters is introduced to us for the first time:
Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson) — a editor at the city desk who stays true to the moral code of journalism.
Alma Gutierrez (Michelle Paress) – a young journalist looking to get a legitimate taste of the spotlight.
Scott Templeton (Tom McCarthy) – a journalist who is suspected of fudging the truth.
The Death Of The Newspaper
It’s 2008. The world wide web has changed media as we know it. Newspaper sales are at an all time low. Layoffs are imminent.
White men are at the top of the ladder, seeing The Baltimore Sun as a stop-gap, a platform from which to jump ship to a more revered paper such as The Washington Post or The New York Post.
Which leads to…
Front Page Story Sensationalism
Newspapers need to make money more than ever. And one way for papers to achieve this is to dramatise stories, making them appeal more to readers. Gus is furious when he learns of a burned doll being placed among the debris of a fire, by one of the Baltimore Sun’s photographers.
Alma covers a homicide case of a family murdered in their own home. She wakes up early the next day and visits the printing factory to get an early copy of the paper expecting a front page story only to find “several inches” on page three.
Long-running character Omar, the fear of drug dealers everywhere, is killed in a store shooting, and the story is left entirely off the newspaper’s pages.
“If it bleeds it leads” only applies here if it’s people of a certain class or colour getting knocked off. Or unless there’s something special about the crimes.
McNolty finds this out for himself when his staged homeless killings get pushed to the wayside. He gives the imaginary serial killer a sexual fetish — leaving bite marks on the victims thanks to Lester Freamon’s pair of dentures. And that is the one thing that elevates the story from invisible through to a grand slam of coverage.
Unfortunately for The Baltimore Sun, they don’t know the case is completely fake. One journalist sees the homeless killings as his chance to get noticed regardless of…
Gus starts to get suspicious of Scott as the season progresses. Gus, the angel of ethics, wants to follow The Baltimore Sun’s policy, which is to get a full name of every source. Scott submits a story about a wheelchair-bound boy trying to get into a baseball game. As viewers we’re not shown these “sources”, but like Gus we have a feeling Scott is playing us like a fiddle.
The homeless killings case is where it all starts to go downhill for Scott. He makes a call from a payphone to his cell phone and invents a story that the serial killer called him. McNolty uses him to his advantage pretending to be the serial killer.
McNolty finally confesses to Scott, knowing that he won’t speak out. The two had strikingly similar character plots, each one telling greater and greater lies. As McNolty pointed out, he knew what he was doing it for — more funds and resources for the police department. What was Scott’s reason?
We then see the season close with Gus and Alma being demoted for questioning Scott’s ethics, while Scott is awarded his Pulitzer.
It sums up the entire season really. Baltimore is corrupt and people can get away with anything.
If you want to know more about The Wire’s take on media, watch The Last Word — a feature found on the DVDs. David Simon and the cast members tell it better than I ever could.