Trump, The Wire’s Serial Killer, and the State of the News

Stan Corkin claims the neoliberalization of journalism as a key cause in the rise of Trump, and looks to the fifth season of The Wire as anticipating this phenomenon.
[Ed. note: this post is part of an editorial discussion on “Media and the City in Light of Trump, Brexit, and the Global Far Right.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In my new book Connecting the Wire: Race, Space and Post-Industrial Baltimore, my treatment of that show’s ultimate season examines Season Five’s focus on the use of an ambitious and unscrupulous reporter by lead character Jimmy McNulty (played by Dominic West) to publicize a non-existent serial killer preying on the homeless. McNulty concocts his scheme in order to free money for what he feels are necessary police works, money he is unable to access without a sensational media event. But as always, in David Simon’s big vision, this titillating detail is embedded in a far more involved and socially salient tale of the decline of the public sector, and particularly the urban public sector, and the role of the press in that retrenchment. Indeed, in Simon’s world, the press is not only a cause of that decline, but it is also a victim of it. It is precisely this world—that of a starved social sector and a public piqued only by the sensational—of which Trump is symptomatic; a post-press, post-proportional world.

The implications for the urban United States are indeed deleterious. Since those of the underclass have long been relatively invisible to a broader public, the decline of the press has the impact of either completely eliminating that constituency from the public record or of reducing them to stereotypes, and often racialized stereotypes at that. In Season Five, Simon’s use of the urban homeless as a device to make his social point strategically employs those who are all but invisible to a broader public—even when that public is approached in person and asked for assistance. But Trump never mentions the homeless. Rather, he employs the word “urban” as a short hand for African Americans, even though most African Americans do not live in cities. When Donald Trump speaks with ignorance about a racialized urban population with no resources and asks “What do you have to lose?” he is speaking into the void allowed by the press’ sterotyping or ignoring that group. He is party to the erasure of the actual spaces of African American communities.

Simon’s drama was written in the pre-Trump political world, or in the near-Trump political world. But The Wire envisions the shadow presence of that world, and the resulting decline of the polity. As the urban daily press declined, its ability to cover the details of the world —both near and far—also eroded, resulting in a politics that became less accountable to its constituents and more reliant on bombastic stories—often racialized. Indeed, one of the stories that Simon presents as fictional—though it is published as fact– in this season is a tale of an African American adolescent who has been wounded and paralyzed by gang violence; while another, and the one that is sardonically shown winning the Pulitzer Prize, is a sensationalized and a-contextual series on the chaos to be found in Baltimore Public Schools. Since it is impact, not salience or truth content, that drives both news media and its consumers, neoliberal economics and cupidity have co-conspired to create a world where distinctions between fact and fiction have ceased to exist, a world where generalized social norms have eroded and been replaced by market demands. The greater the sensation—i.e., the buzz—of a story, the greater its ability to garner a readership or viewership; or, in Simon’s example, a lack of funds for policing is decidedly less sexy than the need to catch a maniac. In order to free funds from the public coffer, then, McNulty needs to attract the attention of an inattentive public.

When Donald Trump announced his candidacy, I paid little attention. I knew he had announced his intentions at least twice before and gained little traction. Here was a figure that was more like his frequent host Howard Stern than like Theodore Roosevelt. Clearly, I rationalized; this was not much to be concerned over. My money was on Jeb Bush, the safe bet! When I watched the first Republican debate, I was sure that neither Triumph nor Trump, both insult dogs, could pass the test of gravitas and become president. But I was not a good judge of the latter’s capacity. I watch TV and lots of movies: I do not, however, watch much reality television, and I had never seen The Celebrity Apprentice. The Donald Trump who emerged in the 2016 presidential election was a brand beyond a brand. Indeed, he was a full-fledged media persona. Jay Rosen, a well regarded and astute media critic and analyst, writes of a world where we are “amusing Ourselves to Death, as Neil Postman’s 1985 book put it, in which the logic of entertainment overtakes adjacent but nominally distinct spheres that are supposed to be governed by their own logic, as when newsworthiness and the requirements of political debate are subordinated to entertainment values by media companies obeying commercial imperatives, while claiming a public service mantle. For journalists, this is the import of Jeff Zucker’s reign at CNN and one of the lessons of Trump’s career as a reality TV star. How many people have said of the Trump candidacy, I couldn’t tune it out; or, of the coverage, I am addicted. Trump’s celebrity, notoriety, and unpredictable behavior attracted viewers, which enhanced coverage.

Jeff Zucker has himself noted that perhaps he over-covered Trump, but that the surge in ratings that such coverage produced was a kind of justification. In support of Zucker’s explanation, but before the fact, Simon also dramatically asserts that the demise of the newsroom is caused by an imbalance between professionalism and market ethics. On the side of professionalism, as gleaned from Season Five, is the commitment to the public mission of informing a generalized community and presenting material that will help that populace make informed choices about their everyday lives. This vision of professionalism is distinctly opposed to the neoliberal conception: all activities reducible to the ledger sheet as relatively profitable or unprofitable. In the newsroom of that season, overseen by Gus Haynes (played by Clark Johnson), journalism as a public-spirited activity has its own value so that marketplace calculations are no better than a secondary consideration. Such a view makes him the custodian of residual social values, those traceable to the writings of sociologist Talcott Parsons in the late 1930s, who advised that “the professional man is not thought of as engaged in the pursuit of his personal profit, but in performing services to his patient or client.”

Parsons goes on to emphasize that the realm of the professional is technical knowledge so that the social status of the individual recognized as able in a particular area need not spill over into a generalized social elevation. Such knowledge is defined by Parsons as rational and “disinterested,” making it a non-particular, generalized domain of knowing. He also notes that the type of competence associated with such knowledge is generally adequately, if not generously compensated1Talcott Parsons, “The Professions and Social Structure,” Social Forces (Vol. 17, No. 4, May, 1939), 458-461.. All of this is illuminating in elaborating the disagreements that define the newsroom and the broader cultural disjunctions being played out. Indeed, we see the character of Haynes as a guardian of an older liberalism, one that resists being engulfed in an enveloping system of cost-benefit analysis. Such a separation of conceptual markers places the newsroom ethos affirmed by Simon as a residual modernism, one that asserts the logic of both distinction and hierarchy. That is, Simon seeks a world governed by reasoned, and ethical choices, one where covering Trump could never be justified by simple market logic.

In his excellent essay on neoliberalism in the contemporary media, Daniel Hallin astutely notes, “Neoliberals do not believe, as Parsons did, in differentiation and are contemptuous of the ideas that professionals have responsibilities that transcend market values”2Daniel Hallin, “Neoliberalism, Social Movements, and Change in Media Systems in the Late Twentieth Century,” in The Media and Social Theory, Ed. David Hesmondhalgh and Jason Toynbee (New York: Routledge, 2008),46.. Indeed, a cornerstone of neoliberal orientation is cost-benefit analysis, a mode of consideration that assumes all acts must have benefits that can be traced to a ledger’s bottom line. If Zucker had considered the public’s need to know and the social value of a given story, reasonable disciplinary questions that a professional journalist might pose, then another Trump speech or his lavishly appointed Mar-a-Largo mansion might have fallen from a given day’s coverage. We might have also passed on the advertisement for his unopened Washington hotel in the guise of a news conference.

So here we are, talking about “deals,” putting our public assets out to bid—our land, our foreign policy, our legal system, our social safety net, our ethics. What is to be done? We as scholars and intellectuals have both the latitude and the responsibility to resist and to enlist others to do so. In 1937, those mostly Jewish social thinkers connected with the Frankfurt School devised the term “Critical Theory” as a means of naming the counter-cultural means of resisting the enveloping logic of totalitarianism as it pervaded every day life. Critical Theory, in the view of Horkheimer, Adorno, Walter Benjamin, et. al., was a methodological intervention into contemporary social life that eschewed the positivist disposition towards explanation, and therefore the reification, of extant social life. Instead, it privileges a method that questions that formulation in counterfactual ways, by noting not only historical context but what else might have been or might be. Let us also resist this dystopian moment with all of our energies and resources and point to a world that is possible but not yet made.


1 Talcott Parsons, “The Professions and Social Structure,” Social Forces (Vol. 17, No. 4, May, 1939), 458-461.
2 Daniel Hallin, “Neoliberalism, Social Movements, and Change in Media Systems in the Late Twentieth Century,” in The Media and Social Theory, Ed. David Hesmondhalgh and Jason Toynbee (New York: Routledge, 2008),46.
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