David Simon, creator of The Wire and Treme, had just finished filming the second season of The Deuce, his opus about the birth of the porn industry, when he got on the phone with Rolling Stone for a wide-ranging conversation. The former Baltimore Sun reporter is 58 and speaks in enviable and eloquent full paragraphs, but he hasn’t mellowed with age. If anything, he’s more fired up than ever before about where American culture and democracy are headed.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
I was a young reporter and a very smart journalist said to me, “Don’t be afraid to be a fool in the room.” As I got further into reporting, I understood what he meant more and more, which was there are no stupid questions. There is nothing that you shouldn’t be willing to do to convince people to talk to you and to explain their lives and the world to you. And if you’re the butt of the joke, that’s fine, as long as long as you get the story. This was a unique bit of advice because I worked with a lot of reporters who never wanted to ask a stupid question and never wanted to show that they didn’t know something before they asked it. If you think about what journalism is and the necessity of the acquisition of ideas, that’s a pretty disastrous way to be.
Were you ever in danger as a reporter?
Once, working on The Corner, I got robbed at gunpoint, but it was a fairly routine street robbery. I wasn’t happy about it. But I really used to resent the reporters who made a big show about what they thought they were risking by traveling to various neighborhoods in the city of Baltimore. I thought it was just horseshit. Like, “It’s not Beirut. It’s Baltimore, calm down.” Everyone you were encountering, they had to live in those neighborhoods every day. Whereas you were going back to the newsroom.
Speaking of newsrooms, the New York Daily News recently saw its staff gutted. Do you see any way for local newspapers to be saved?
It’s horrible. I’d say the last 20 years, we’ve had demonstrably bad leadership within the industry. The New York Times and the Washington Post, being at the top of the pyramid, have reacted well enough when their own unique sinecure was threatened by the change of revenue stream. There’s an overlay of international and national reporting that makes those news organizations essential. But they haven’t done anything to help local journalism with the coverage of city councils and police departments and school systems in any number of second-tier American cities. That gut-level reporting that used to be the fundamentals of journalism in every geographic outpost of American society, that’s fallen apart and been eviscerated. It’s kind of like the cancer was at your ankles and then at your knees and your thighs, but until it reached the Washington Post, they scarcely reacted, and then when they did react it’s only been to resolve their own problems. The top end of journalism has been able to at least sustain itself in the new model on a subscription basis. But by the time they figured that out, the cancer was at chest level.
What do you suggest?
I know this: Until they prove to the people utilizing the product that it needs to be paid for, they don’t have a viable industry. Every news organization must eventually go to the subscription model, and that means some kind of a paywall, whether it’s semipermeable or not. If people don’t pay for the product, then you don’t have an industry. All the motherfuckers who let the horse out of the barn door, they’re all on the golf course. The guys that led the industry into this wasteland all got paid. And by the way, if they work for Tronc, they’re still getting paid based on the butchery. They’ll be getting paid until they padlock the newspaper doors.
Why is the media, flawed as we are, disliked by so many?
We were always disliked by everybody. It just never metastasized into a political philosophy because we never had somebody who was, frankly, as morally depraved as the current president. Trump’s willing to trade on American fundamentals in a way that no other national leader has attempted since Huey Long. It’s populism wedded to totalitarianism. Very few people have been so devoid of ethic to go there. But it was always there. You felt it if you were a reporter and you went to your mailbox and read the furious rage of random people whose candidates were not supported or whose enemies were not vanquished in the pages of the newspaper. It was your God-given right as a reader to resent your newspaper. The other thing that has happened is social media. Which is to say, there’s now this alternative version of reality. One of the reasons I got engaged in arguing on Twitter was because I believe the national narrative was actually being created [there] even before it was vetted in mainstream media. That lies were going halfway around the world before trained editors and reporters could get their boots on.
You would just argue with random folks on Twitter. Did you enjoy that?
I didn’t enjoy it. I guess my problem with Twitter, and I don’t see it as being resolvable because I think it’s being run by idiots, is that when somebody is slandering somebody or telling a big lie in the fashion of a Goebbels — if somebody is spreading, “Tony Bourdain was killed by the deep state” or that women at the border deserve to have their children taken from them because they’re criminals — when somebody’s repeating that, Twitter’s asking you to do one of two things: Ignore them, which allows the lie to stand, which is offensive. Or, they’re asking you to engage with it as if it’s serious, as if it is deserving of any rigor. And that, my friends, is 1935. That is, here comes Julius Streicher or Joseph Goebbels saying that the Jews drink the blood of Christian babies, and you’re being asked to respond, “No, y’know, there’s actually no evidence that they actually drink the blood of Christian babies. This is false.” And instead what you’re supposed to say is, “Go fuck yourself, you scumbag anti-Semite.”
And for that you were banned from Twitter?
Yeah, basically they said, “You can’t talk to Nazis that way.” I’m not one of these people saying they need to take the bad people off Twitter. That’s a slippery slope. They ended up getting rid of me because I told a guy to die of boils. And I won’t delete the tweet. First of all, telling [Twitter CEO] Jack Dorsey he should die of boils isn’t an actual threat. I maintain no biological agent that can actually effect a death by a dermatological disorder. I think everyone understands that this is just playful vernacular for, “Drop dead.” It’s not actually wishing physical harm on anyone, it’s saying, “Go fuck yourself.” And if the algorithm can’t determine that that’s the appropriate response to somebody who is slandering either a group of people or an individual, or spreading memes that are known to be untrue, or is in fact a bot, then fuck your platform.
You’re a master vulgarian. Did anybody teach you to curse?
Well, I kind of grew up in police precincts and on street corners. I would say from the age of 21 on, I had a very good laboratory for maledicta. Do you need me to spell “maledicta”?
You lost former colleagues in the Annapolis Capital Gazette newspaper shooting in June. Do you think that was pivotal point for this country?
I would like to say so, but I’ve noticed that the President of the United States went immediately back to saying that journalists were really bad people. I’m unequivocal that he’s creating a culture and a climate in which it is inevitable that more and more people will walk into newsrooms and do violence to working journalists. And the standard for judging his complicity is not whether the gunman had some prior grievance. They all have prior grievances. The standard is not whether the gunman has a mental disorder. They all have mental disorders. The standard is: Are you encouraging this by suggesting that these people are enemies of the American experiment. That they are society’s villains. And he’s doing that explicitly. I don’t understand why people are not holding Trump to account for the deaths of these people. I knew two of them. They were committed to journalism for all the reasons that people aspire to that career. It doesn’t make you rich. You decide you want to be a newspaper reporter, you’re sort of saying goodbye to a lot of other things that pay a lot more money in our society.
Would you work in journalism today if you were coming out of school?
I don’t think I could avoid it. I grew up in a house that revered nonfiction prose and journalism. I grew up in a house with a lot of bookcases filled with current events and history, and we took all three Washington papers and the New York Times on Sunday. And the arguments at the dinner table were about current events or about journalism or about writing. I was sort of primed for it.
What’s the best way to talk to a friend or a family member of an opposing political party without alienating them?
I don’t know. I’d like to say that there’s a means by which I can talk somebody off of their affections for a modern day Father Coughlin. But I don’t know that I can. I think it’s fuck the bastards, rally the sane.
What would it take for Republican leaders to stand up to Trump?
The Republican Party has shamed itself in so many fundamental ways that I don’t quite know what to say about it. I used to be able to disagree with some of the core values of conservatism and still recognize it as being within the realm of a political argument. This seems to be so empty of principle and ethos that I don’t know what you do if you’re a Republican. Unless winning at all costs is a viable stance. If you’ve got half a brain, you’ve got to be looking at what’s going on and saying, “This is untenable in the long run, for all of us.” You wouldn’t want to see this on the left. What the Republicans did with the Supreme Court, you wouldn’t want to see those tactics on either side. And yet here we are.
You brought up Anthony Bourdain earlier. You wrote a very beautiful tribute to him after his suicide. What do you think happened?
I can’t explain Tony. I think there are elements to Tony that I can’t even fathom. As I wrote in the piece, nothing I experienced in his presence, or from reading him or spending time with him or working with him — nothing prepared me for that outcome. He was so wise and sane and engaged to the world that it completely vexed me. It tells me how much I don’t know about him, and how much none of us know about each other. It’s infuriating, terrifying and grievous.
How has life changed on the set of The Deuce after #MeToo?
I felt like we were the right show for the moment. That if you are really interested in discussing the culture of Weinstein and [James] Toback, how ingrained it is and how it’s perfectly framed within the vernacular of how men view women, we had a lot to say about that. Has it changed our set? Even for trained actors and for the most professional crew in the world, it’s really hard to depict the culture of pornography and the sexual misuse of people. The show is set in the most mercantile environment. It’s all transactional.
So how do you handle it?
We hired a woman for the second season whose sole job is to be the intimacy coordinator. Her job is to facilitate the filming of simulated sex and intimacy in such a way that we’re protecting the emotions and the dignity of everybody who’s involved. ’Cause it’s hard work, a lot harder than violence. You know, everyone’s an old pro about simulating violence. But I don’t think I’m ever going to work without an intimacy coordinator again. Because the truth is, we knew we were asking a lot of actors and directors and crew in terms of professionalism and to deliver this material bluntly and honestly. But you can ask all you want — at a certain point everybody has to trust everybody.
Have you learned anything about human sexuality in making this show?
I would hope so, jeez. It’d be embarrassing if we hadn’t. I think in some respects a lot of what I might’ve believed about sex work and pornography would have been stereotypical. I would have been much more inclined to categorize people in very general ways. But I learned nothing comports to a stereotype. When it came to the characters, the more people we met and talked to, the better the writing got. And when you’re writing drama, you have to love the characters even for all their mistakes and flaws. And sometimes you love them more.
What would you say to David Simon, 30 years ago?
Holy shit. You’re asking what I regret. I wish I’d read more. I learned everything there was to know about crime reporting and a ton about American political dynamics, and obviously I read the paper every day. I could tell you an awful lot about what a bullet does when it hits a human body. But there are whole swaths of the human experience that I didn’t attend to. I didn’t travel a lot. I don’t think I left the country until I was 25. I can’t tell one tree from another, you know? It sounds like a small thing, but I can’t tell a goddamn oak from a beech tree. I wish I knew more about more. I spent my whole life reading, but I still haven’t read Cervantes, I haven’t read Proust. You get to the last third of your life, if you’re lucky, and you start thinking about all the shit you didn’t pay attention to. That’s kinda it, isn’t it?
Are you more optimistic about America or less versus when you made The Wire?
I’m more pessimistic now, in the wake of us electing this vile human, than at any point in my life. At the same time, it doesn’t affect how I act. A long time ago, one of my early heroes, the indie journalist I.F. Stone, said it very well: “The only fights that matter sometimes are the ones you know you’re going to lose.” And he went on to explain that you may lose them, and the next guy may lose the same fight. But eventually, the sheer act of having the fight, of declaring for what is rational and sane and just, has an effect. After enough tragedy and waste and loss, it turns enough minds around. I guess what I’m saying is, the fact that you’re going to lose, the fact that it might be trending the wrong way, does not absolve you of the responsibility of doing the good that you could do in a given moment.
Do you have any interest in going back to The Wire at any point?
No. There’s so many more stories to tell. The truth is, those characters on The Wire, there’s a beginning, middle and end, you know? What else could you ask for in a story?
What should every American know about their political system?
Right now, the fundamental question is whether or not mass capital is going to purchase the republic. Whether money itself, and the people who have amassed great wealth, are going to be able to purchase the American governance. That’s the great fight, and that fight is being lost. An oligarch is an oligarch. And how money routes itself and adheres to and delivers power, that’s primal now, and dwarfs any question of ideology. Everything that mass capital is doing is to consolidate power and more wealth — there’s no other purpose. All the framework that was erected to prevent or mitigate that outcome is crumbling. We’ve reached a level of insanity where there’s no resemblance to the republic that was constructed. So, if you’re asking me what people need to know, it’s that your country’s been bought, and there’s precious little of it left that’s not answerable to mass capital. Capitalism is a remarkable tool for generating mass wealth, but the moment you mistake it for a structure that can deliver a just and coherent society, you’re an idiot. We apparently have millions and millions of idiots.
Does all this get you down?
I don’t know. I’m happier than I sound. You ask me to talk about depressing shit, but the truth is every day I go to work, and it’s fun, and I enjoy my family. I wish the Orioles had a better farm system. But, other than that…
What motivates you at this point?
I’m interested in telling a good story. This is what I do for a living. I just want to come to the campfire and have everyone say, “That was a good story, you didn’t fuck that one up.” You put stuff in the world, and you hope.