Is The Wire Too Cynical?

John Atlas and Peter Dreier write in the recent Dissent Magazine a noteworthy critique of The Wire. While they acknowledge the many strengths of the show they conclude, “there’s nothing radical about a show that portrays nearly every character—clergy and cops, teachers and principals, reporters and editors, union members and leaders, politicians and city employees—as corrupt, cynical, and/or ineffective. The Wire misled viewers into thinking they were seeing the whole picture. But the show’s unrelenting bleak portrayal missed what’s hopeful in Baltimore and, indeed, in other major American cities. In that way, The Wire was the opposite of radical; it was hopeless and nihilistic.”

It’s often been said that The Wire fails to show much of the good in Baltimore. This piece describes some of that good and explains why it’s particularly hard for journalists to cover. (Photo Credit: Frank Summers, STScI)

What are the glimmers of hope depicted?

The few heroes depicted in The Wire are individualist renegades and gadflies. These include cops like James McNulty and Lester Freeman and the stick-up artist Omar, as well as social worker Whalen (a Narcotics Anonymous sponsor played by the singer Steve Earle), the Deacon (an influential West side church man played by Melvin Williams), and Dennis “Cutty” Wise (whose boxing program may stop a teenager from succumbing to life of drugs). Unlike ACORN, BUILD, the Algebra Project, and Justice for Janitors, these do-gooders don’t seek to empower people as a collective force. They try to help individuals, one at a time, rather than try to reform the institutions that fail to address their needs.

Here’s the strong finish about why journalists fail at this.

The Wire reveals that daily reporters have little time or inclination to learn about complicated issues or follow a story over time, especially when it involves inner-city activist community groups. So most reporters can’t possibly understand and properly report on these groups’ issues and the persistent, patient work that has brought an organizing campaign to the point at which a reporter encounters it.

Reporters know how to cover rallies, demonstrations, and riots, where protesters disrupt business-as-usual and get into the media’s line of vision. But effective grassroots organizing is rarely dramatic. It typically involves lots of one-on-one meetings, strategy discussions, phone calls, and training sessions. The news media rarely pay attention to the small miracles that happen when ordinary people join together to channel their frustration and anger into solid organizations that win improvements in workplaces, neighborhoods and schools. The media are generally more interested in political theater and confrontation–when workers strike, when community activists protest, or when hopeless people resort to rioting. As a result, much of the best organizing work during the last decade has been unheralded in the mainstream press.

Read the whole thing for more specifics of Baltimore activism.

I do think there’s an important story, too, about the dynamics of activism: overcoming powerlessness, ego battles, abusive (!) organizers, learning from failure, etc.


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