This is a little like day-old bread (if not canned bread–ew), but I finally finished watching the fifth and final season of the HBO series The Wire on DVD. Like many people who don’t much care for television, I think it’s the best show ever to have been on television: a perfect cast, multi-layered storytelling, a rich perspective on urban life, actual moral ambiguity: you’ve heard it all before. One thing’s for sure: if you haven’t dedicated yourself to watching the series from beginning to end, you’re missing out.
Anyway, I wasn’t ready to let the show go, so I watched one of the special companion features. Season Five had dealt with (among other things) the newsroom. In the companion feature, David Simon (the show’s executive producer) addresses the issue of sensationalism vs. complexity in daily journalism:
The ultimate act of reportage would be to really surround something that is endemic and complex, and to make it understandable so that more people could address themselves to solving that problem than ever before. And that never happens.
The feature then cuts to a scene from Season 5, where staff members in the Baltimore Sun newsroom are discussing how to cover the city schools.
Scott (smarmy reporter): You don’t need a lot of context to examine what goes on…
Gus (beleaguered metro editor): Really? I think you need a lot of context to examine anything.
Context! What more could a historian ask for? Historians often scoff at journalists’ notion that they’re writing the “first draft of history.” “Is that so?” we think. “Well no wonder it seems so badly in need of revision.” The immediacy of journalism and its failure to address issues in their full context sometimes strike us as inadequate. (Then again, they probably think most historians are turgid and hesitant writers, and they probably have a point.)
In the end, the two endeavors of journalism and history scholarship aren’t too far apart in their goals. Unfortunately, the two endeavors also share some of the same problems: How can journalists and historians attract attention-deficient readers to our stories in an electronic age with so many other distractions? How do we support good journalism and good history—both essential to a healthy democracy—when good journalism and good scholarship aren’t always responsive to market demands? There aren’t easy answers to those questions, but then again, the problems portrayed in The Wire also resist easy answers.