Show subplot ruffles feathers

“THE WIRE” poignantly charts the moral decay, bureaucracy and entrenched hopelessness of an American city, but the most personal thread in this final season has dealt with the Baltimore Sun, in what amounts to series creator and former Sun reporter David Simon’s requiem for the newspaper industry. Based on recent developments, that eulogy could hardly be timelier.

Various newspaper scribes have indignantly huffed about the Sun subplot. But even as they have done so, evidence of the profession’s beleaguered status keeps reappearing, like the killer in a slasher movie who won’t stay dead (which may be an especially appropriate analogy).

The coda to Simon’s opus has played out as more newspapers — including Tribune properties the Sun and Los Angeles Times, under maverick new owner Sam Zell — implement further layoffs. Meanwhile, the Times’ new editor, Russ Stanton, told the staff that “we need to walk away” from certain areas of coverage, but his laundry list of local issues that “we need to own” — without jeopardizing “hallmarks of our coverage, such as our foreign and national reports” — sounds suspiciously like the editors’ mantra in Simon’s fictional world, feebly trying to rally the troops by saying, “We need to do more with less.”

IN AN ESQUIRE PIECE and within the show, Simon has taken aim at the “awards culture,” in which newspapers pursue Pulitzers with a zeal that taxes limited resources, skews coverage decisions and inevitably encourages overreaching to “sell” a provocative premise.

John Carroll, former editor of the Sun and Los Angeles Times, and associates have chafed at this portrait. Yet as someone who worked at the Times during Carroll’s tenure, I witnessed (admittedly from some distance) the same perplexing preoccupation with awards — yearning for outside validation that, doggone it, people respected us just as much as they respect the guys in New York and D.C.

In an interview, Simon labeled the Sun’s awards emphasis “all-consuming” and noted that the pressure to craft such pieces can lead to bending the truth, if only through omission. “You have to shut down a lot of doors that might mitigate your conclusion,” he said.

If it wasn’t quite fiddling while Rome burned, the strategy was puzzling — showcasing exercises transparently conceived as prize bait, with little obvious consideration of whether they enhanced the paper’s value to readers, advanced its journalistic mission or yielded business benefits.

Moreover, awards hunger felt incongruous with journalists’ natural cynicism, which tends to mock others for their orgies of self-congratulation. (Because we spend so much time observing the Hollywood version of that ritual, Variety is mostly immune from prize mania, if not current market trends, given our corporate parent’s announced plans to sell its magazine group.)

NOR DID IT HELP that top Times editors imported from prestigious Eastern haunts approached Hollywood coverage as if it were an exotic, far-away place — think rural China, with better cars and more liberal politics — while simultaneously wanting to “own” it, whatever that means.

Simon sounded slightly bemused by the petulant response this season’s “The Wire” has elicited, with many journalists exhibiting thin skins and self-absorption. After all, there were no howls of protest when the show explored the spectacular failure of the drug war and public education.

In that context, he notes, the journalism thread is far from a vendetta but part of an intricate puzzle: The media’s economic woes — motivating its desperate obsession with the trivial — contributing to the deterioration of civic institutions by not holding them accountable.

As for the newspaper industry’s decline, Simon said it would probably be struggling today regardless because of the technological tide that has overwhelmed it, but misplaced priorities when print editions were “still fat” undoubtedly played a role.

“A lot of journalists want to feel as if the profession is not complicit in what’s happening,” he said; speaking as a citizen, not a recovering reporter, he called newspapers’ recent pains “heartbreaking.”

Because Simon’s creation is so beloved among TV critics, the program has perhaps generated more column inches per viewer than any in TV history. To the extent this adds to that pyre, I plead guilty, with an explanation.

In “The Wire’s” bureaucratic Baltimore, characters are chastised for caring about matters that don’t concern them, but it’s clear that Simon (who’ll address these topics next week at USC) still cares deeply about journalism. So when he titles the finale “30” — newspaper jargon to signal a story’s finished — it’s a sobering message that, like so much in the show, carries a multifaceted meaning.

Click here to read the Episode 8 recap on Littleton on the Air.

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