If you’re like me — or better yet, unlike me and instead a rational human being with a sense of decency and good taste — then you’re probably already borderline obsessed with David Simon. Sure, his television work has helped redefine the medium (and The Wire is the Pajiba-certified Best Show of the 21st Century) and his Twitter feed is a rare Internet oasis of sanity and righteousness. But the man is also a gift to interviewers everywhere, as evidenced by his latest conversation with The New York Review of Books.
Obviously, you should read the whole thing and luxuriate in his eloquent brand of frank intelligence and passion. The conversation largely concerns the arc of his career and his mission to tell mature stories in an often immature format — the clash of being a news guy in a world of make-believe — but you don’t have to read far to get to what just might be his best answer. Right off the bat, interviewer Claudia Dreifus asks Simon how his career as a journalist with the Baltimore Sun prepared him for a career in television, and after extolling the virtues of structure and learning how to tell stories, he drops this bit of wisdom:
Most important, at the Sun, I acquired another America. I was a suburban white kid from Silver Spring, Maryland. When they made me a police reporter in a majority black city, I realized I needed to listen to people who spoke in cadences that were not my own. That included African-American kids, and white Irish and Italian cops, and black cops—and their way of viewing the world.
Journalism gave me a kind of exoskeleton for maneuvering through the world. Even when you didn’t know the answer to questions, people opened up and you acquired their lives. So everything I learned—including servicing my ear about how people talk, and how they behave, and how they rationalize—came out of the newspaper.
And here’s the thing: Simon may be talking about what being a journalist taught him, but the news can help all of us “acquire another America” and understand the lives of people that are not like our own. We often look to fiction to help us experience different perspectives, but really that opportunity is all around us — BY LISTENING. By paying attention, and empathizing.
And when we can’t listen in person, we can read the news.
In a time when the press is (sometimes literally) under attack, this is such a beautiful reminder of why journalism is so important. It’s not about politics or biases or “fake news,” or at least it shouldn’t be. Journalism’s greatest potential is as a window into the lives, the struggles and successes, of our neighbors. There isn’t one right America. There isn’t a single America at all. We are all citizens of our own versions of this country, defined by our unique experiences, but we don’t have to remain siloed within our own perspective.
Despite what some people would have us believe, journalists are not the enemy of the American people. If they’re doing their jobs well, they can actually be the voice of the citizens. The news is a tool that can unite us, not through fear or anger or other emotions, but through shared knowledge.
If only we listen.
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