David Simon—before 'The Wire'

Thursday, November 30, 2017
Twenty years ago, journalist David Simon, author of the book that inspired the TV show Homicide—and later the creator of HBO’s acclaimed The Wire, among many others—joined me for a discussion of the then-new book he’d co-authored, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. 

Simon’s time spent on an urban corner in Baltimore had persuaded him then that the war on drugs was a failure—that the concept of “lockin’ ’em up” was a losing battle that served only to further isolate neighborhoods where the vast majority of residents are victims of drugs.

What’s old is new again. Here’s the interview with David Simon as broadcast Nov. 30, 1997, on the late WNUA-FM in Chicago.



Bonus: Appended below is the (largely unedited) transcript prepared by the late Pop-Up Archive, included mainly for research purposes. (Photo: Simon in 2004 at the Peabody Awards.)

Pop Up Archive Item: “David Simon (1997 Interview)” : https://www.popuparchive.com/collections/431/items/3335
Transcript for file: David_Simon_The_Corner_1997_11_30.mp3
good morning I’m Charlie Meyerson and welcome to point of view on wnua 95.5 Chicago this time as a respected journalist takes a close look at the power and the passion poverty in the painfully Urban Street Corner they’re not just out here to swing and can shoot drugs lives without any obvious justification given definition for simple self-sustaining capitalism in this place only they belong in this place only they know they know what they are why they are and what it is they’re supposed to do on Fayette Street today the corner Corner world is what’s left to serve of Truth and power money and meaning it gives life and takes life omit nothing corner is everything if they could sign up with Edward Burns has written the corner year in the life of an inner-city neighborhood the real story of an inner-city intersection in Baltimore Baltimore West Fayette and Monroe streets you may know mr. Simon battery is the author of a book called call homicide which inspired the television series of the same name as his son is also a producer and picture and writer for that show and for NYPD Blue and he may be one of the nation’s foremost foremost practitioners what he called stand around and watch journalism thanks for coming love you text Robin okay I’ll never get to share with you I would probably give me the dumbest question in this half-hour and and that is what is stand around and watch journalism it is for the self-explanatory I hope I have a theory that if you stay one place long enough good things will happen I was a newspaper reporter for most of my career my career and a great frustration was the fact that you would go somewhere and you would start start to get the interior lives of the people living in a van and then you would have to pull up and write your story and go and go somewhere else I found when I work homicide in in 8 research it and wrote it from 88 to 91 that by staying with the characters for more than a year and following them on Twitter greater or deeper levels of Truth revealed and I felt that that was that was kind of random but I wanted to pursue the idea if you stay with people long enough you’ll be able to acquire an interior voice that you wouldn’t otherwise have that work in this case not easily of the area the neighborhood we went into is a drug-involved area area of West Baltimore at 7 o’clock in fact virtually all black and myself and my coworker we’re somewhat pale and have a car Caucasian yes and at first and then my coworker was a former 20 year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department for Narcotics and homicide side effects of so right away we were made for police and we had to do a lot of commands convincing people that we were actually there to write a book and that we we’re not doing any law enforcement at all and that’s okay hype took about four weeks now I think most of us that’s kind of a scary Prospect how did you go by go about persuading people that you know that you were going to be hanging around there for 4 months and in it that you didn’t pose a threat to them and did you ever feel at that early stage in this process this process is if you know your safety were in Jeopardy or Force anything else standing out there are looking very out of place and I think we we we we handle that with as much good humor as we could I don’t overstate the very idea of danger in this project because we went down there without and with $2 or pockets on a driver’s license wearing jeans and t-shirts and we are we yeah we made it very clear we weren’t down there to cop drugs or to do enforcement and there wasn’t much incentive to mess with the real trick is getting people to to to open up their lives and for that I think you know we we we went to he went for the small moments that connect human beings and I don’t know why they would bother you the taxi guy selling drugs and I think I was bringing in the drug trade we going by tonight my stay at the at the corner store because it was a hot day or we die we go play basketball all of the younger kids and we did the sort of things that cops don’t do there was one it was one drug dealer who had an abscessed tooth and we should have the other that classic GameStop tell if you pulled a thorn out of the Lion’s Andrea call Andrea and we did that we went and took him to University Hospital medical dental clinic and got that cat tattoos before and after that he woke up sick or not sick or anything I don’t know what they are you know what they are but they’re not cops you know I would never do that is this a book that you have a title before you have the book I mean did you decide it was going to going to be a corner or the corner become the focus of your work only after you hung around the neighbor once I think if we hung around we realized that the corner itself is almost a character in the book it’s what stands in opposition to the community in general it’s the it’s the centerpiece of the drug trade in that neighborhood and it ended in the other of maybe 120 open air drug markets in my city it’s a guy it’s a gathering place and we started to realize that that all along with the Flesh and Blood characters that we were following this thing have power also something in that that we really we’re writing about its assets and what it does to people people twenty of you and wnua 95.5 Charlie Meyerson here I guess the Baltimore journalist David David Simon co-author of the corner by year in the life of an inner-city Neighborhood Health talk talking about your partner Edward Burns now he’s at he’s a former cop and he was known he was on the stand and non capsule the light there was that that ugly moment I think in the first week we were down there when I got into interahamwe Nike daddy by a street named walked up and sat next to add on the stoop Dupont of 01 shooting Galleries and said you remember me it didn’t of course not know how long the police car and he said will you lock me up yep that was it a try to rest and that you said yeah I was there who’s starting in net said okay and it will look at each other for a moment that you walked away I mean right away I got around that this guy I used to be a cop and saying you would anyways retired at that point but it’s cool teacher and he’s a schoolteacher that but you had to wear the wear people down I mean if you had to get past who we were and what we done we passed that an awful lot of coffee what is a homicide but that got us over I’ll let you know look we really Riders this to this guy wrote a book who wrote a book before and you know people the I don’t want to suggest that we had it was all off roading them or their will because even people who are involved in the drug game it’s gotten so out of hand now at least in my city my city and I think many others that even people who are living the event or using drugs and selling drugs they should realize that the corner has become too much that there’s too much going on going on there that it is destroying neighborhoods destroying communities and it was it was a sensitive well if you’re here to Bear witness I got a story for you and so in some ways we say we found them but they also found us how do you choose this particular corner almost at random it was a corn on the cob the year before had a lot of shootings lot of violence I need the area little bit cuz I’ve done some stories for the newspaper early earlier in that area and also it was near a white working-class white area so the drug trade was decidedly Multicultural as you know all the cellar showers all the crews might have been black but a lot of the buyers were coming north across cross Baltimore Street the cops and I thought that was important I did not I do not want to suggest it to anybody that the drug trade with anything but Multicultural you witnessed a lot of crimes in this book at least what many people would consider Crimes of the walk and said it’s nice even some might say that assisted in the commission of some of those crime Squad no I mean we didn’t they would have happened whether we were there or not to play the role you want all you want to play the role and I never talked about that I mean you doing in in the after what he bought I don’t have any problem with the idea that we were there when when crimes were committed now more than we did drop a dime on somebody know but I mean you help you help some of these guys get drugs you gave money to money today to get their fix it so we gave him money to help him get the drugs anyway we did not give him money to enhance the information coming back from not that that’s really circumstances in which you would have a guy take a guy like Kelly Kelly McCullough out of his game for three hours and we need to explain herself. Gary McCullough and once again you’re right well Carrie McCall was a wonderful guy sort of Turtle Mansion st. Francis of Assisi with a heroin habit and you’ve got game ecologist so wonderful wonderful guy in very many respects but nonetheless completely absorbed in the in his addiction and we were following it mean we were he was he was the guy who we were we woke up in the morning his first job was to get $10 and if you have if you happen to pick him pick up his life and now you drag them down to a park bench 3 hours in and have three hours of interviews with him and talk to him about what he’d done the night before and you you were taking him out of his game that was time that he needed to get his last money to buy Tera Taryn copper piping out of a vacant house or by running some errands for one of the corner stores start doing some doing some work out of the crab house he had a bunch of small 10 gigs are capers in and out of my head I have to jump in here for now now you people like myself before I would you look up last money Drug Money that’s okay I mean I’m talking in the phone and I think makes the book so compelling Pellegrini did I misinterpret that he needed $10 to get hot and here you are you you’re right are you dragging down on a park bench and you know at Union Square at 3 3 hours and taking up his time and now he’s getting physically sick at that point I gave him $10 what is a practice we did not intervene in events or try to get you get money for two and a half the journals but this will stand around and watch journalism saying it in this book in particular that raised some conflicts between the way journalists have traditionally approached their role I’m not involved I’m just to stand around for a year and not get involved in some ways like this well you know what sort of conflict that set up within your conscience journalistic or more or otherwise or otherwise well journalistic I didn’t have a problem I don’t think it’s my role to be law enforcement or it was someone intervene because somebody’s breaking the law on armed I don’t have a badge I have a notepad but as far as the morality of standing around and watching somebody destroy themselves by degrees or make the wrong decisions or soda turtle walk headlong into what you know is going to end up as a tragedy that’s very hard the other end to get back to Gary McCullough this is a wonderful man a very giving man a man who had been broken by addiction but nonetheless had all of his Humanity intact and I came to regard him as her is a friend and it was nothing like what I feel like I could intervene meanwhile the journalist was going on but even after the year was over and the friendship Maine was maintained and then other times I tried to intervene I tried to get him to go to treatment in detox I did go once and when he ultimately died of a heroin heroin overdose in in in 96 last year it tore me up when I put when I said I was going to the smoke I wasn’t thinking about that moment did you tell me that you find yourself second-guessing yourself that you don’t they get off the bus I’m going to do I’m going to do something I’m just about my time to helping this guy these people that the trail isn’t keeping me from getting more involved than I would otherwise yeah there were times I generally chose the side of the journalism foremost for most of the of 93 when we were in that neighborhood a full-time beginning in a I need about 95 decided the journalism’s over the books over I don’t want I want to go to any more funerals but you know it is a peculiar form of vanity it says so here I am you know I landed here with a notepad and now you know I’m on some fancy-pants writer and so I’ll tell them what the right way to do life is in the listen to me I’m in the corner is a powerful force in the forces operating in Robert against these people decide otherwise just incredible to the idea that I’m going to show up shopping with some good intentions or some kind word here or there or or or favor fever or a ride to the detox center and change the course of events has a peculiar your former vanity interview on wnua 95.5 on Charlie Manson Our Guest is journalist David Simon’s who’s the author of the book The Corner a year in the life of an inner-city City neighborhood know how much your calls or your partner it burns a former cop was it any harder for him to stand around and watch while crimes that he once upon a time and other career would have been different incredibly I think it was easier for him in this sense it was a guy who did major major cases he did you know when I was in truck with killing a lot of people he would Target the crew I meet most of his case work with joint Federal local so here he is at the street level bubble watching watching the drug trade where is effectively legal and by that what I mean to say is it’s not legal it’s still against the law and some people ever every now and then are going to get locked up for it but by the Numbers it’s become legal in West Baltimore this is all this is also true of some areas in South Chicago or East New York or North Philly 50 - 60000 drug users in my city which is about 1 and 12 for the the population in the entire state of Maryland for all crimes all jurisdictions all all 24 counties there’s 22000 person’s health total there’s no way to arrest your way out of this problem for a problem the drug Wars II will become meaningless in a place like West Baltimore and I think it sent them to a greater degree than I did so the idea of getting worked up because because somebody just passed the file in front of him meant nothing and then he would have when he was a cop you would have used use that only to make a bigger case so what we were seeing on that level I don’t think it’s a problem for you I like the way you structure this book I’m like a lot of similar books there is no no no long introduction it just gets right into the action chapter 1 page 1 H1B afterwards though it is fascinating I think it’s a textbook for free group students to anyone of Journalism and and how you went about doing this and I don’t and I’m always curious with all this we haven’t hear about how it works like this man is to get into the heads up what’s of their subjects and how often can be confident describing the feelings that Sensations since the attitudes of the people they write about and that’s an essential part of this book how do you do it what we were there for a lot of it I would say about 70 to 75% of the scenes in in the book we witnessed and then when you’re running from your point of view of a character what effectively happened there was that you know after an event happened Gary McCullough or his son Deandre DeAndre your friend boy or better than any other characters in the book would be there with us and they would have have a conversation with us well in order to write third person or third person and if you’re not going to do I jump out unless you really want to destroy your own and if you’re not going to say and here’s the part support worker turn to the right and said the reason that you know I just cussed him out with XYZ instead you put that as an interior thought to Kurtz because it is his thought he expressed it at the same at the same time you know if you want to include the quote you put it once you put it in quotes and take it said to them as if you said it to them to the reporter or to the right as you enter the world of sort of standard journalism and even take the lead we destroyed storytelling as an RN and that’s where most of the good narrative journalists come to realize I didn’t think the exact thoughts in the exact backwards that I have in his head roughly but exactly now NN if you want to call that the great live narrative journalism I guess it is Kurt did think that that idea and I put it into words that could express to me but did he think it in his head head in exactly express it to me or was it muted or change because he was expressing it to me how many angels can dance on the head of a PIN to use after after this year was up been dead even while I was going on to double-check the authenticity of some of the things we told because you were because you’re dealing with people who by the nature of their lives and and and and actions were engaged engaged in in lying on a frequent basis we were like this but there’s a lot about everything I know classic examples of the main character 15 year old DeAndre McCullough has started snoring snorting heroin at the end of that year we knew he was getting high with weed and with with with drinking and we suspected uses of heroin heroin or smoking crack because he was starting to become erratic like Christmas yet until his mother suspect that yeah we had no proof any content continuously denied it not only for the rest of that year but for 94 as well in 95 finally when he finally bottomed out he told the truth and that’s one thing about this type of Journalism you going for a week or a month or six months sometimes you end up buying the lie because because you know people are able to play for their wives over a. Of time but you know you do you keep at it you can keep in the game and you keep you keep watching the same people for a long enough I want to hear the time and now we all can’t stay away that long I know I can’t and I mean yeah you can if you tell yourself a lot but eventually you don’t like those either the straight hand and by following these characters from the beginning of 93 all the way through tonight 296 I think we got more truth Than Fiction point of view on WND wnua 95.5 for guest is David Simon co-author of the corner a year in the life of an seven inner-city neighborhood lessons you think people in it in Baltimore and in other parts of the country concerned about or living near a corner corners of their own I can gather from your work well there’s other things things that I want to have come across in the book and I’m not saying what about it either but I’m I’m trying anyway one is these are human beings on this in a lot of demonology algae that is accompanied the drug war so that our image now people using and selling drug selling drugs amounts to nothing more than like on a cop show where they kicked in the door and then die and the guy runs into a jack any chance of the guy around throws against the wall and grab the $30 and in your claims Victory these are human beings who are struggling juggling making bad choices doing bad things at times but doing more harm to themselves than anybody else 95% of people we met on that drug corner could not hurt another person they were not in the slightest bit sociopathic 5% with heard it in a bad way and it snowing in on it there and therein lies the rub and 95% of them might make a car radio disappear in a heartbeat if you’ll have you’ll have your car door unlocked but they would not hurt another person and that’s that’s that’s that’s the first thing the second thing is that the drug war has now become dysfunctional in places like this is like West Baltimore it may still be a deterrent in some places because I’m sure it isn’t some place in the country if you don’t have this rate of IV drug use and rate of poverty but right now if you need to write it down because it’s it’s actually destroying police work in my city water while the police department of anthropology Furies chasing people like like that curtain and Gary McCall Indian in my car and the streets of Baltimore no possible and because there’s no place to put them in Maryland is 10th in the nation per capita in terms of walking people you people up or not / is it that but even so we have no prison space 1st Street level drug arrest while they expended all the resources on that the clearance rate for all other pork rinds for all major felonies has declined dramatically in that. It’s like the city cities cities become deeply involved in the drug war yeah it’s becoming more violent and less livable and I think the two are connected so specifically but you would you recommend or what are you recommending for for legislators Community leaders Sears in Chicago around the country Baltimore Maryland well I’m not recommending any kind of legalization argument argument that’s a bruising political fight that has no possible purpose and can’t be won but I am saying ratchet tie down ratchet down it if you’re making $19,000 and Crescent Baltimore year which they are which is I think the second highest in the country per capita Capital make 12000 you make the ones you need to make how to keep the at the corners that are in a commercial strips around elementary schools in or near Rec Center notes prioritize and use the existing resources that you would save if you due process 7000 West drug arrest just for the sheer amount of money you’re spending on Tops on pretrial detention on on pretrial investigations on judges on gun prosecutors in public defenders if you put that money into treatment bad I’m in the same five years your. Baltimore to create a new treatment but I mean it’s just going to get that now but it is it if you if you through some of the money into education if you in some ways through the money money to job training try to recreate this lost Squadron Legend of of America these Intercity areas with the economy with the general scheme of the economy and women in society they are so isolated in places like that like say that street that the corner proves itself where nothing else does and we think that it’s real what we want to think it’s just about money and about chemical addiction it’s about so much more it is about having a having a reason to believe that mean dreaming when you go to work or sell drugs it’s good it’s the one thing he’s good at it’s the one thing as absolute credibility the rest of the country comes along nicely without him and he’s smart enough to sense that so but I think the one thing that that that has to happen is you have to ratchet down the drug war it we reach the end game in-game I can’t work about community policing course not the buzzword it across the country yeah it is it going to have any impact on this how do you place a community where 40 or 50 or 60% of the people are involved in violating a national problem probation drug war his only alienated these communities from the from the police so that when a shooting happens or the church gets burglarized for the rec center gets burglarized Verizon is a string of armed robberies no information coming back to these officers absolutely to lean on because the officers have it consistently and we did the population by trying to enforce approved probation if nobody believed in you no end because the other donations Haitian person runs two ways are we so incredible brutality we saw some police doing very good good police work is very honest police work and we saw some very poor police work and some very beautifully police work and people because of the only nation to please you know I am somebody I’m somebody very very well-disposed to good police work and my first book was about good police police work but you have to reacquaint the country with what is possible and what is not and it’s a pain painful thing because the country basically has an Impulse to say I’m tired of this I’m tired of reading about and I’m tired of being afraid of it lock these people up but there’s no room But continuing contact with you have been able to go back on a regular basis basis I do actually just give me a strange event in a couple weeks we’re going to have a party for the people who are in the book and the the people who were the characters in the book who are selling drugs and some of them are still on store on the corner that help women and others are a couple people in this there’s some victories in this book look up blue guy running the shooting gallery the year we were there walked away and is now 3 3 years clean and doing drug rehab work with other with other addicts friend boy Deandre Ray’s mother who is addicted for 20 years walked away and is now working and living out in the county so people who were on the corner people are still in the corner going to come back and I have 1 dancer 2 with with all the police in the neighborhood and should be a very bizarre party if you want wnua 95.5 Bend is the David Simon co-author of the corner of year in the life of an inner-city neighborhood 27 754 Broadway Brooks I’m Shameless and thank you for joining us and thanks to RW anyway anyway production is Bill Cochran for his hard work on our snazzy new point of view themes theme song that goes like this the views expressed a point of view are those of the participants necessarily those of wnua 95.5 for Chancellor media corporate Corporation you can write to us at 444 North Michigan Chicago 606 6114 send you an email to wnd news at AOL aol.com is an exclusive presentation of the news Department wnua 95.5 Chicago   

Radio job in Los Angeles

Thursday, November 16, 2017
As I do from time to time, I’m sharing word of an opening I’d apply for if I were … (fill in the blank; in this case: willing to leave Chicago).

This one’s for a radio job in Los Angeles, where the news director tells me he’s …

“… looking for a full-time reporter. This position requires energy, passion, great writing and storytelling skills as well as the ability to use natural sound in a big way. We pay well and pay moving expenses. The ideal candidate must also be able to write Mervin Block style. … I’m willing to train a promising candidate who has been working in TV.”

Interested? Send a note, and links—no attachments, please—for your resume and work samples to Charlie@MeyersonStrategy.com.

Writing about writing: My favorites (so far)

Monday, November 6, 2017
My friend Brad Farris wrote me earlier this month* to share small-business consultant John Jantsch‘s list of the best books on writing. Brad flattered me with a challenge to put together my own list.

I can’t say this is a list of the best, because I have yet to get to so many no-doubt wonderful books about writing, including Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craftwhich I need to get around to. [Update, Nov. 6. 2017: I’ve now read it, and it’s great. The only book on writing that has brought me to tears. Highly recommended, even though King's core advice echoes the essentials of The Elements of Style.]

But here’s a brief rundown of the writing about writing I’ve found most influential:

The Elements of Style
by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

Since high school, when I first encountered White’s revision of his old English professor Strunk’s guide to writing well, it’s shaped everything I’ve written — in print, on air, online. Along with the AP Stylebook, it’s the one text I require for my journalism students at Roosevelt University. White’s description of Strunk’s philosophy has helped me see the writer’s job as similar to a lifeguard’s: “Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get the reader up on dry ground or at least to throw a rope.”

On Writing Well
by William Zinsser

Zinsser applies Strunk and White’s work directly to journalism, with rigor and enthusiasm: “The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”

Zinsser’s follow-up 1983 guide, Writing with a Word Processor, helped a lot of writers learn to stop worrying and love the computer. And Roger Ebert’s brief 2002 essay for Yahoo Internet Life magazine, “In Cyberspace, Writing is a Performance,” remains central to the way I teach journalism“In some imaginary sense, you are reading this right now, even as I write it. I have keyboarded in so many e-mails, so many forum messages, so many arguments and replies, that I instinctively think of this activity as a conversation. ... To write it on a monitor is somehow to create it publicly.”

Writing Broadcast News — Shorter, Sharper Stronger
by Mervin Block

Block’s ruthless, sarcastic and funny directives for getting to the point — forged in the fires of broadcast news, where every second and every syllable count — are all the more useful now, when almost everyone is in essence, as Ebert notes, writing broadcast news. Every newsroom should bake into its culture Block’s “Dozen Deadly Don’ts,” including this one: “Don’t start by saying someone ... is in the news. ... Go ahead and tell the news. That’s what a newscast is for. That’s why they call it a newscast. Everyone who’s mentioned in a newscast is ‘making’ news. So when writers say someone ‘is making news,’ ... they’re wasting time.”

What are your favorite books about writing? Please comment below.

* Originally posted Jan. 11, 2014.

How to fight 'fake news'

Monday, October 16, 2017
With rising concern about “fake news”—a term I reject, because it’s an oxymoron—the Downers Grove (Ill.) Public Library invited me to present a talk on “News Literacy in a Digital Age.”

I accepted because I believe (as you can hear below) that, if the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, the price of our liberty in this day and age is our eternal vigilance that the information we use to make our democratic decisions is reliable.

Need tools to defend yourself against the onslaught of false information from friends, relatives or trolls? Check out these video highlights from my presentation, Sept. 26, 2017.



Or skim the slides at SlideShare.com.

P.S. What do you think about the sound in this presentation? Recorded on an iPhone in my shirt pocket.