“David Simon Responds to Mike Rowe’s Attempt to “Save” Baltimore’s Reputation After “The Wire.”
By Baynard Woods
11:10 a.m. EST, November 9, 2014
Hi there, Baynard. Mike Rowe here, Dirty Jobs, etc. Just reading your piece and feeling all nostalgic for my hometown. Thought I’d respond as I peruse. Hope you don’t mind.
BW: Last week Mike Rowe, the Ford pitchman and television host, released a piece of prose on his Facebook page called “Rewiring the Wire.” Rowe, famous for his former Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs” and its CNN-based successor “Somebody’s Got to Do It,” began his piece with a complaint about David Simon’s “gritty crime dramas” “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Wire,” by saying “Both shows were very popular. And both shows convinced millions of Americans that Baltimore is a fantastic place to buy drugs, find a whore, or get murdered. Better yet…all three at once!”
MR: True enough. But I wasn’t really complaining. I was just using a bit of humor to point out the obvious fact that Baltimore has a serious PR problem. Regarding The Ford Motor Company, we parted ways two years ago. And while it’s true that CNN has picked up my new show, (Wednesdays at 9!) I’m not sure how famous it’s made me. (It keeps getting preempted.)
BW: It’s a rather insulting description of the complicated world that Simon’s shows present.
MR: Sorry. I meant no offense to you, Simon, or any of the drug dealers and crack-whores that might read our respective blogs. Personally, I think The Wire is one of the best pieces of narrative fiction ever conceived. But you gotta admit, the “world” that Simon presented is only one representation of a large American city. Now, after two decades of popularity, Simon’s version of Baltimore has impacted the perception of millions of people who have never seen the town for themselves. That’s a problem.
BW: Sure, people ask Baltimoreans all the time, “Is it really like ‘The Wire’?” But what does that mean? Sure, there are gangs and cops in the show. But there are also teachers, dock workers, politicians, guys who work in the gym, and journalists. This is why it is initially surprising that this response comes from the “Dirty Jobs” guy. More than anything else “The Wire” is a show about work.
MR: Respectfully, that’s a bit like saying The Wizard of Oz is a movie about midgets. In my view, The Wire was an operatic, epic, ambitious, and challenging look at a very specific part of Baltimore as experienced through characters as complicated as they were flawed. It was about a lot more than work.
BW: So maybe we should ask: Is work in Baltimore like “The Wire”? In many ways, the show accurately portrays the extremely complicated ecosystem of work in the American city. Whether a drug dealer, a cop, or a dock worker, you are controlled by forces that you cannot even see, much less control.
MR: Personally, I wouldn’t describe Baltimore’s drug dealers as part of the city’s “ecosystem of work.” Nor would I compare the challenges that face pimps and pushers with the daily struggles of cops, teachers, journalists, and dock workers. I guess you could argue that some drug-dealers have a better work-ethic than others, but I’m not inclined to identify criminals by their virtue, or suggest that people are being controlled by unseen forces. Influenced, definitely. But not controlled. Ultimately, we are still the products of the choices we make, no matter how bleak our surroundings.
BW: And this is precisely what Rowe’s show avoids, focusing on the individual workers and the mechanics of their jobs, without contextualizing them.
MR: True. Dirty Jobs didn’t dwell on the “contextualizing of unseen forces.” My show was not a polemic, or a typical reality format that delved onto the personal lives of the people I met. I just spent one day with a real person doing real work. That’s it. Dirty Jobs touched on some powerful themes, but I had no agenda beyond introducing America to some honest, good-humored, hard-working people.
BW: Simon has referred to these institutions as the inscrutable gods of his tragedy. Rowe takes the tragedy out of contemporary work, creating a world of noble, godless laborers.
MR: Godless laborers? Seriously? Look, if you want to compare Dirty Jobs to The Wire, I’m flattered. But let’s first acknowledge a few key differences. The Wire is a brilliant piece of complicated fiction. Dirty Jobs is a travelogue with no actors, no rehearsals, no scripts, no preproduction, no direction, and no second takes. David Simon controlled every single thing that happened on screen. I controlled nothing. On Dirty Jobs, I presented real people precisely as I found them. On The Wire, Simon showed us exactly what he wanted us to see.
Now, if you want to discuss the tragedy of contemporary work, I’ll play along. Let’s start with a trillion dollars we’ve loaned to college students who can’t pay it back, in order to educated them for jobs that no longer exist. Or perhaps the three million available jobs that remain unfulfilled today, even as millions remain unemployed, untrained, and disconnected from the opportunities that currently exist. Those realities are also tragic, but they are not the work of “inscrutable gods.” They are the consequences of a myriad of many bad choices.
BW: Rowe then notes that he has just joined “a modest PR campaign called ‘My Baltimore,’ a straight-forward attempt to remind the masses that there’s more to my hometown than heroin and gonorrhea.” He explains that “My Baltimore” will run print and radio ads but not television spots. So, he decides to do an episode of his show as part of this PR campaign.
MR: Not quite, Baynard. The episode in question is not part of the campaign – the campaign is part of the episode. And the distinction is important. “My Baltimore” is a PR initiative that invites participants to share what they like about the city. I’ve invited my crew to come along and film whatever I wind up doing for My Baltimore, and in the process, meet the people responsible for maintaining the City’s national image. Then – since I’m here with my crew anyway – I thought it would be nice to feature a few local people who “gotta do it,” and wrap the whole thing into a single episode that takes place in Baltimore. In spite of your headline, I am not coming to “save” Baltimore. I’m coming to shoot a TV show.
BW: He says he wants to make an “authentic hour” that celebrates his city. (The Sun’s David Zurawik talks to Rowe here). But, if it is inherently a PR campaign, there is something inauthentic.
MR: I think you might be confusing authenticity with objectivity. To be clear, I am not objective. Somebody’s Gotta Do It (Wednesday’s at 9 on CNN!) is not a documentary, or a love letter to the people who appear in it. It’s a light-hearted show that allows me to share my personal point of view, while featuring real people doing things they’re deeply passionate about. If I’m transparent about what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it, the show will be authentic. Obviously, I’ve been plenty transparent. If I was trying to hide something, I wouldn’t have written about all this in the first place.
BW: It is possible to do great profiles that are not about “cleaning up an image.” Our City Folk section offers profiles of people who could be on Rowe’s show. But our purpose is to depict the person as accurately as possible with the best writing and photography we can muster, regardless of how they make the city look.
MR: Well then, maybe your purpose is more noble than mine? I can live with that. Maybe one day, your profiles of real people will win a Pulitzer for their unbiased journalism and photojournalistic verisimilitude? That would be great, and I wish you every success. For now though, I think you’re still comparing apples and oranges. David Simon produces world-class fiction. I host an unscripted reality show. You write for a publication of unimpeachable integrity. None of that changes the fact that Baltimore has an image problem, and the people charged with correcting it are faced with a Quixotic mission.
BW: But part of what makes the “The Wire” so valuable is the way that it shows how all of these different, extremely complicated worlds interact and overlap in order to create a modern American city, such as Baltimore. Simon’s new project, “Show Me a Hero,” continues to reflect on the city and he recently said that “the city to me is the only possible vehicle we have to measure human achievement.”
MR: That’s great. But how does a more positive portrayal of Baltimore diminish or threaten the way Simon continues to reflect on the City? Is there really no room for another perspective? An alternative “world” for people to consider? Are you worried that a more optimistic representation of Baltimore will shift the national attention from that which needs to be fixed?
BW: So we figured we’d see what he thought of all this. He responded with the following, which is unedited:
David Simon: Speaking for the collective that worked on the narratives in question, we undertook to tell those stories as best we could in the hope that they would be honest and relevant to the whole of our city, to our divided American society, and to the fundamental necessity that is our shared future.
MR: Hi David. Please thank “the collective” on my behalf, and tell them I’m humbled by their work. Sincerely. I’ve always been a fan of what you’ve accomplished artistically, and look forward to whatever you do next.
David Simon: We even operated with some hope that such storytelling might help lead to redress and reconsideration of certain policies and priorities.
MR: Well then, perhaps Baynard was right? Maybe we have something in common after all. In spite of the light-hearted nature of Dirty Jobs, I quietly hoped the show might challenge the prevailing definition of a “good job,” and lead to something truly useful. After a few hundred episodes, I finally got The mikeroweWORKS Foundation off the ground. The endeavor grew out of Dirty Jobs, and now awards Work Ethic Scholarships every year. So far, we’ve awarded close to three million dollars. I hope to do more next year, and hopefully, serve some people from Baltimore.
David Simon: On a personal level, that’s simply my job. It was my job as a reporter and as an author. It is my job still and I take it seriously.
MR: I’ve no doubt you are a serious person who cares deeply about the impact of your work. Baynard too, strikes me as a serious fellow, which means I’m probably the least serious of the three of us.
David Simon: Certainly, there are other meaningful uses for narrative and imagery, and civic boosterism is one such laudable purpose. That is the job of others and I understand that they, too, take their labors seriously.
MR: “Boosterism.” See? That’s what makes you a great writer! I would have probably gone with “promotion.”
David Simon: As a Baltimorean fully vested in the city’s future, I can respect and support such efforts and purposes, even should others demonstrate less understanding and respect for the role of storytelling as a means of offering dissent and opening civic and societal debate.
MR: Ah, shit. I’ve offended you. Honestly, that’s the last thing I intended. I have great respect for what you’ve done as a storyteller, and I applaud your attempts to foster a civic and social debate about the issues that matter to you. I may not be as “fully vested” as you or Baynard, but my heart is still with the City, along with my best hopes and wishes for a prosperous future. If my comments were insensitive, I apologize. In fact, I’m headed to Netflix right now to atone in the only way that matters – I’m going to purchase Season 1 of The Wire, and start over from the beginning.
PS. If you’re bored next week, (or feeling less than serious,) I’d love to buy you a beer, in whatever part of town you prefer. You too, Baynard.
Read Mike’s initial blog on the subject “Rewiring The Wire”.
Mike responds to David Simon’s article in his blog – Baltimore “Blog Fight”