In its portrayal of the Baltimore Sun, The Wire focuses on how the press feels this imperative to chase scandals and look for conflict. Why do you think the press thrives so much on conflict? Is it the business model? Is it something deeper in human psychology, that we need good guys and bad guys?
I don’t take any issue with the press attending to conflict. That’s Job One, actually. But the simplicity of the narrative — particularly with regard to the most intractable problems that society faces — is incredibly debilitating. Look at any area of sustained human conflict in the news today — unencumbered capitalism vs. social health and growing inequity; security vs. privacy, open speech vs. campus activism, Israeli statehood vs. Palestinian aspiration — and the complexity of the conflict ought to be apparent. Yet news organizations, including the one that I labored with, do not measure gravitas and impact on how well they convey the middle ground in any of that, or how well they surround the totality of the problem. They chase simpler narrative, and if they are prize-hunting, they look for an evil actor. Such folks can be found, to be sure. But they are hardly an explanation for why our problems can’t be addressed, much less solved.
Do you think the press manufactures conflict and scandal when they’re not readily on display?
Yes, in terms of the clickbait internet sites, less so among more traditional media, which is indeed focusing on very real conflicts. My criticism does not go to the fact that people are writing about conflict but that, to a great extent, they are doing it so simplistically.
Is that thirst for scandal still such a central problem in the press?
Again, a scandal is a scandal. You chase that because it is relevant and it is news. But it can’t be all that you chase — and worse, it is mortifying to realize that much of the press thinks exposing the overt scandal is the equivalent of examining, assessing, and arguing for systemic solutions to systemic problems. Our press is less effective at that essential task with every buyout and layoff of veteran reporters. Those fresh to the job can answer who, what, when, where, with the same fealty as generations of reporters past. But the how and the why — and the why especially — these are the questions that elevate journalism into a career for thinking grown-ups. And to ask and answer those questions, you’ve got to cover the same beat for years, until the harder questions and even harder answers begin to make themselves known to you.
Do you think accepted master narratives affect the way daily news is covered? Did you feel that kind of a pull as a beat reporter?
Not sure what a master narrative is. Honestly. First time I’ve heard the term.
Well, let me ask this another way. How does storytelling differ between newspapers and TV?
I’m not even going to begin to go down any road that confuses what I do now with journalism. There is no legitimate point of comparison between drama and reportage. None. I make things up. I shape my dramatic text to maximize the effect not only on the argument but on the human heart. Journalism, when it’s honest, is allowed no such conceits. These are different tasks. The only thing that is consistent between the two in my work is that I am as interested in arguing issues as a dramatist, as I was interested in arguing issues as a reporter. The target and general purpose of what I film as drama and what I used to report remain the same. But the product is entirely different and it does not operate on the same ethos. Journalism should not get its nose out of joint trying to evaluate drama as empirical truth; nor should drama in any way resent the greater value on accuracy and impartiality that is supposed to apply to journalism.
What makes a narrative work? If it’s conventional wisdom that every story needs conflict, does that hold up even in the expansive medium you work in now?
Absolutely. You can’t have drama without conflict. And you can’t have melodrama without good guys and bad guys. The problem for journalism is: Our actual problems are bigger, more complicated, more sprawling and complex than good guys and bad guys. And the solutions, such as they are, are often to be found somewhere in the middle, in the quiet space between the most angry and hyperbolic opinions. It’s not exciting. But it’s true.
And then, switching subjects partially, do you think the press fell down on the job of covering Trump? Did it overestimate or underestimate him (or neither) early on in his campaign?
We all underestimated him at first. He was, by every analysis, a ridiculous premise as a presidential candidate. He remains so. But Trump has been caught out on any number of idiocies, offenses, and affronts, and it just doesn’t matter. Like Huey Long or Father Coughlin, his outrages — even when carefully reported — serve only to excite some of those who are having their deep anger at the status quo fingered by Trump. The press has been fine at holding Trump to his shit-headedness, and while there is some criticism that can be directed at the media for overreporting him in the run-up to New Hampshire, since then he has been the leader in the GOP field. He gets legitimate attention for being such. I think the press has been exceptionally unimportant at assessing the American status quo for the last 20 years, for losing sight of the trends that were producing the anger that has led to Trump and, in a healthier sense, to Sanders. The marginalization of labor, the purchase of government, the rampant drug war, mass incarceration, the demeaning of the working class, and the brutalities of globalization — we told those stories too late or not at all. That was our complacency. This is just one more election cycle.