Saturday, January 19, 2008

Brilliant TV show that few watch: The Wire

Called "broadcast literature" and rightfully so, "The Wire" is a complex exploration of race, poverty, policing, drug culture, education, labor, the media, city politics and a myriad of other social issues in Baltimore, Maryland. It is is currently in its fifth and last season on HBO and sadly only had 1.185 million viewers for its Jan. 13 episode. Sad, sad, because this show is really representing issues that never see the light on TV.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with media and disability, the topic of this blog? First, the focus of "The Wire" has always been on the most impoverished residents of Baltimore, a city that is one of the poorest of its size in the USA, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The city of Baltimore has a poverty rate of 24 percent, about double the national rate. And to put it bluntly, poverty contributes to children and adults acquiring disabilities.

Second, the Jan. 13 episode of "The Wire" had a subtle disability theme. This season of the show is focused on the media, and an aggressive reporter at The Baltimore Sun (a fictional newspaper in the show because they use character names?) goes out to do an uplifting opening day feature about the Orioles, but instead of lots of happy, baseball-loving fans, he finds grumpy, un-quoteable people who really don't care about opening day. But later in the show, he comes back into the newsroom with an amazing tale of a disabled teen who wheeled himself to the game because of his love of baseball. The kid was supposedly disabled from gang crossfire a few years before. The editor LOVES this angle, because editors know that anytime they can work a person with a disability into a story it ups the drama and may get more readers. :->

But the editor wants a picture of the disabled kid to run on page 1. . . .and that's where the journalistic drama begins. The reporter, who just wants to make a name for himself so he can get to a "better" newspaper, throws out a litany of excuses. But the editor (played brilliantly by Clark Johnson) wants that picture! So being a good a journalist, he knows that The Sun would have covered a kid disabled in gang crossfire but finds no evidence of the paper ever doing such a story.

The editor's "Jayson Blair radar" ( goes up, and he's concerned about running a story about a kid who no one can verify exists. But his boss is looking for just this kind of "pull at your heart strings" story for the front page and overrules him with a figurative "run that baby." (There's an old Bloom County cartoon that pictures a kid in a wheelchair eating ice cream on a beautiful day in front of a fountain and the editor in the last frame of the cartoon sees the picture of the kid and exclaims "run that baby!", which I have always felt is a great visual representation of what is really going through some editors' minds.)

All this to say, in my experience "The Wire" is right on the mark, because some journalists, and especially editors, put way too much emphasis on using people with disabilities as the inspirational main characters in fluffy feature stories.

I have always advocated that people with disabilities and disability issues should be covered in the news more rather than less, but when it comes to fluffy features, this inspirational dreck does more harm than good, IMHO. The trouble with inspiration is that the flip side of its message is tragedy. HolLynn D'Lil, a wheelchair user, explained in Mainstream magazine several years ago that, "Being told that you're inspirational when you're doing something ordinary is an assault on your self-concept. Suddenly you're reminded once again of the traditional attitudes about disabilities, that no matter who you are, what you do, how you feel, to some people you'll always be a tragic figure."

This isn't the first time I have written about this topic, so if you want to read more of my thoughts, here's an essay that I published in The Baltimore Sun (ironic, I know) in 2001: