In response to comments from the Baltimore Police Commissioner that the television show The Wire is going to harm the city, creator David Simon defended the show:
Others might reasonably argue, however that it is not sixty hours of The Wire that will require decades for our city to overcome, as the commissioner claims. A more lingering problem might be two decades of bad performance by a police agency more obsessed with statistics than substance, with appeasing political leadership rather than seriously addressing the roots of city violence, with shifting blame rather than taking responsibility. That is the police department we depicted in The Wire, give or take our depiction of some conscientious officers and supervisors. And that is an accurate depiction of the Baltimore department for much of the last twenty years, from the late 1980s, when cocaine hit and the drug corners blossomed, until recently, when Mr. O’Malley became governor and the pressure to clear those corners without regard to legality and to make crime disappear on paper finally gave way to some normalcy and, perhaps, some police work. Commissioner Bealefeld, who was present for much of that history, knows it as well as anyone associated with The Wire.
We made things up, true. We have never claimed otherwise. But respectfully, with regard to our critique, we have slandered no one. And to the extent you can stand behind a fictional tale, we stand by ours – and more importantly, our purpose in telling that tale.
It would be interesting to consider whether television shows and movies and other fictional works can have a significant impact on what people think about locations (and even further, whether it influences people’s decisions to move to certain places). The Wire was a critically acclaimed show but one with relatively low rating and even with more widespread DVD availability, it is still not a mainstream show.
There certainly is some link. Depictions of the inner city have impacted decades of suburban residents. I’m reminded of the Japanese businessmen who my father worked with when I was younger who knew two things about Chicago: it was the home of Michael Jordan and it was home to gangsters immortalized in film.
Now whether these depictions should reflect reality or some idealized or stereotyped view is another question. Simon defends The Wire on the grounds that the show was intended to showcase a different set of priorities:
But publicly, let me state that The Wire owes no apologies — at least not for its depiction of those portions of Baltimore where we set our story, for its address of economic and political priorities and urban poverty, for its discussion of the drug war and the damage done from that misguided prohibition, or for its attention to the cover-your-ass institutional dynamic that leads, say, big-city police commissioners to perceive a fictional narrative, rather than actual, complex urban problems as a cause for righteous concern. As citizens using a fictional narrative as a means of arguing different priorities or policies, those who created and worked on The Wire have dissented.
And this is a perspective or story that is rarely discussed in much depth.
I would be curious to hear how Simon would want people to view Baltimore after watching the show. Should they identify with the residents? Should they dislike the institutions? And ultimately, what should or could the viewers do to help change the situation?