David Simon On the Drama of Journalism

David Simon didn’t produce or direct Spotlight, the journalism drama that’s gotten enough good word of mouth to have made it onto your mom’s must-see list and is Vulture’s pick for Best Picture front-runner, but it’s safe to say that the movie in its current form wouldn’t exist without him. It all started back in 2008, when Simon cast actor-director Tom McCarthy as possibly the most despicable journalist in television history on the final season of The Wire. How despicable? McCarthy’s character, Scott Templeton, spends the entire season making up stories about a serial killer who’s targeting homeless men, which eventually leads to a copycat killer and the demotion of two of his colleagues — and then Templeton, of course, wins the Pulitzer Prize.

You can read more about McCarthy’s burden of living with Scott Templeton’s punchable face in the profile we ran on him last month. But it turns out that all that time spent playing a bad journalist, under the guidance of Simon, a longtime Baltimore Sun reporter himself, is a large part of why McCarthy made Spotlight — about the team of Boston Globereporters who, in the early 2000s, uncovered the enabling of rampant pedophilia within the Catholic Church. How did McCarthy go from playing the worst example of reporting to making a movie that our own critic David Edelstein writes “makes as good a case for the necessity of investigative journalism as any film since All the President’s Men“? Where did the idea for Scott Templeton come from, anyway? And what exactly about the actual shoe-leather work of reporting does Spotlight get right?

I called David Simon up for answers while writing that McCarthy profile and found myself in a delightful and unexpected deep dive on The Wire and the state of print journalism. Next time, I promise we’ll ask about his new Times Square ‘70s porn series — but for now, enjoy.

Are you and Tom McCarthy still good friends from your time on The Wire?
Yeah, we’re friends. I’ll let him clarify how good. [Laughs.]

Why’d you initially cast him as Scott Templeton?
I just thought he was a very good actor. We had seen a couple of his films [that he directed]; Station Agent was the one that really attracted me initially. His [understanding of] acting was very understated, very nuanced. Templeton was in some ways a very emotionally thankless role to play because what he was about embark upon was quite callow. So what I didn’t want was somebody who was going to play the callow. I wanted them to play the regular guy, the quotidian guy at one desk in the newsroom whose ambition exceeds his reach. And I just thought, This is an actor who’s really attendant on not being hyperbolic in front of the camera, and when you have that kind of role, it’s kind of [like a] death when somebody’s playing the moral outcome even before it’s evident. I think he’s a really fine actor, and I knew he was a good director and a good writer because of his work thus far, but that didn’t really enter into it for The Wire. I was just looking for the actor.

It’s amazing that he’s such a despised villain on a show filled with guys who constantly kill people.
All Templeton did was make stuff up to try to get to a better newspaper, but apparently, that’s infinitely more evil than putting a gun to someone’s head. Who knew? He and I have a running joke that because of the nature of the role, sales of the Scott Templeton bobblehead are not keeping pace of Omar and Stringer.

Could you have predicted that kind of reaction? What do you think it is about Templeton than makes people hate him more?
I think there’s a great deal of forgiveness for the streetwise badass in this world. I mean, there’s a peculiar way in which the gangster chic tends to overwhelm some viewers’ sense of morality. I was always amazed when we would present the idea of some 15-year-old kid who, because he bore witness and talked to the police, would have people online saying, “Oh, Randy got to be got because he was snitching.” I’d be thinking, No, Randy needs to be 15 in America. He needs to have a childhood, you asshole.There’s a more-street-than-thou demeanor that says, “Whatever you’ve got to do on the street,” but if you’re Maury Levy [the Barksdale Organization’s smarmy attorney, played by Michael Kostroff] or Scott Templeton, if you do your dirt with paper or with a briefcase, it’s somehow less forgivable. That’s just people enjoying the gangster-movie part of that.

Was Templeton based on an actual fabricator, like Jayson Blair, who most famously made up stories about the D.C. sniper?
He’s based on a lot of fabricators. It’s a repetitive theme. If you ask anyone who’s ever worked at a newspaper for any length of time if they’ve ever worked with a known fabricator, someone who’s known in the newsroom, I’ve never had anyone answer no. If you’ve worked long enough in newspapers, you knew someone who was cooking it. We did have a couple of people like that at the Sun, one in particular. I’m not going to name them now. By the time we shot season five, Blair was known, and they’d already made a movie about Stephen Glass. Blair came from my college newspaper. In fact, two of the famous fabricators came out of the University of Maryland Diamondback. I didn’t work with Blair, but I worked with Jack Kelley, who was caught fabricating stories from overseas for USA Today.

The dynamic was always the same with fabricators: They’re doing such great stuff, and they’re being so provocative, and stuff is seemingly great, that when other reporters and other people in the newsroom start to get suspicious, which they invariably do — line editors and fellow reporters start to worry about quotes that are too perfect or anecdotes that are just what the doctor ordered — there’s always a reaction on the part of the upper brass, as there was with Kelley, as there was with Stephen Glass at The New Republic. A reaction that says, “Oh, everybody’s just jealous.” There’s a hostility. The same thing happened at the Sun. It’s fairly common as a dynamic. Again, the fabricator was the provocation in the newsroom — the other part of season five was that we wanted them to overlook every story that mattered. There’s the overt plot, and there’s the thematic critique.

Tom told me that he once had someone come up to him on the street and say, “You’re a bad man. You’re a baaaad man!”
[Laughs.] He has a quotidian, white-collar feel to him that’s very effective when you’re doing something institutional. Honestly, he could be effective if you’re gonna have a guy go sour on you like that, but he could have also played a couple of those roles in Spotlight going the other way, and you would have believed him in the Boston Globe newsroom on the investigative unit doing good work. He loves that kind of understated acting. He tends to encourage it in his projects. The one thing about film, unlike theater, is the camera picks up everything, it magnifies everything. So be gentle, especially if you’re trying to make the story feel hyperrealistic or documentarian in some regard, as if the camera is just there and you’re just being within the story. Tom’s acting is that way, and in some ways, his writing is that way.

Did you sense that watching Spotlight?
I did a panel with the real reporters and Tom and Josh [Singer], the writer of Spotlight, and Marty Baron [who is played by Liev Schreiber in the film], and the other people depicted in Spotlight. We did this panel in D.C. for this film festival on reporting, and I actually lost it at one point just complimenting Tom on that long sequence in the movie where all they’re doing is looking through the Catholic directories and trying to figure out which priests are listed as being on sick leave or on medical, and putting them in a spreadsheet so they can figure out who the potential targets are of their investigation. It’s the driest possible part of the film, and yet he’s pretty unrelenting. It felt like two and a half, three minutes of film where there’s an affection for the paper chase that fingered the happy ex-reporter part of my soul. I loved that.

I remember asking him, “Did you get notes from distributors or the studio or your editors about, ‘Are you sure you wanted to stay this long?’” He’s like, “Oh, yeah, two and a half minutes of guys putting stuff in an Excel spreadsheet to try to figure out where the bad priests are, yep! That’s my movie!” [Laughs.] That’s a part of him that I adore. There’s an affection for paper in that film that’s almost a leitmotif, a subtheme.

Tom told me he got into journalism from working with you on The Wire. Did he consult with you for Spotlight?
Tom told me when he started on the project that he was getting ready to do something on journalism and he wanted to sit down, and we sort of made plans to get together and talk about it. He didn’t need me. I mean, I heard he was shooting when he was already shooting. We shared a couple of emails, but we never actually had a long conversation about it. What he did do was report the hell out of a story about reporting. Once he got inside the heads of the people on the Spotlight team and at the Globe, he had all the material he needed, and he understood it implicitly. It’s such a great movie but, again, for me it’s probably journalism porn, in a way.

What I love is that you really get a sense of the immense amount of work that goes into investigative reporting. You feel the work. 
And the purpose, and the reason that people do this, the reason that smart people say good-bye to, you know, a lawyer’s salary and a stockbroker’s salary. You choose knowing that the hours are going to miserable, and that right now, actually, because the revenue stream is so awful, that job security is going to be ambiguous at best, and you’re never going to make what you’re worth. But when it’s done well, there’s real meaning in it.

Did you and Tom have long conversations about journalism when he was on The Wire?
I didn’t give him the whole plotline in advance because I didn’t want to have him telescope his performance in any way. I wanted him to act without the burden of knowing the future, which is always an unreasonable thing if you’re an actor. But I said, “Your character’s going to do some things that are increasingly less ethical … The secret to your performance, and I know you’ll get it, is that your character thinks that he’s the good guy. He thinks he’s right, and that what he values is best — at least until the confrontation with McNulty at the end — and you’re able to compartmentalize very carefully what your sins are and the reasons you’re doing them.”

That’s a note that you give to all characters that are about to go down a bad road, but he internalized it beautifully. What I loved most about his performance was how passionate he got when he started getting accused of ethical lapses, how genuinely righteous, how unfair it all seemed, as he played it. You know, when he hurls the notepad, furious that somebody would even think that he betrayed the ethics.

But that was the case. The pond of journalism was shrinking, and rewards, such as they are, accrued to those who can turn heads with a byline or two. So I saw it a lot. It’s funny — you’d ask other reporters coming from other papers, and they’d go, “Oh my God, let me tell you about this guy.” It’s a profession that doesn’t police itself particularly well. It’s kind of like doctors always protect doctors, lawyers protect lawyers, journalists have every incentive to maintain the credibility of their newsrooms at all costs.

But Spotlight is effectively a rallying cry for traditional print investigative reporting. 
Absolutely. For doing it well. And to be fair, I think everyone was paying attention to the fabulist that gets away in the last season of The Wire, but that season we bookended with two very good pieces of journalism. In the first, the city editor discovers something in a City Council agenda that is a real conflict of interest, and they report the hell out of it, and he writes that to the front page. That’s the first thing you see happen. And the last thing is a very honest piece of narrative journalism about Bubbles.

So we weren’t being unaffectionate with journalism. We just made poor Tom carry the weight of conscience. The critique there was, “You guys are very focused on the prize culture, you’re very focused on getting into the best papers, on the self-promotion of the game.” And especially now, with all the buyouts and everything being threatened — the entire industry being threatened — it’s a smaller pond, and everyone’s even more worried and even more hungry. So we were critiquing a newspaper that was no longer really attentive to the problems of its city. In contrast, Spotlightharkens back to a moment where a newspaper sat up, took notice of a problem in its city, and surrounded it with real conviction and ethical fervor. They’re both the same argument, in some ways; one’s just being made in the best-possible example, and the other using the worst.

Did he ever talk to you about the burden of making this movie while being the guy who played Scott Templeton? Apparently he couldn’t go walk through the Globe’s newsroom without someone going, “Templeton!” 
No. No. [Laughs.] Honestly, I don’t think I would have taken it seriously. It’s just a role. Maybe it’s just because I’m in the industry, but I’m disassociative enough to know that Tom can play a lot of characters. He’s not really Scott Templeton. In fact, Scott Templeton is not Scott Templeton! We’ve joked about Spotlight being his penance. But he owes nothing in reality. Actually — did you know that it was Josh who discovered the story that you see in the movie, when they went to interview the one lawyer who seems to be sort of in bed with the Catholic Church?

No, I didn’t. You mean Billy Crudup’s character, Eric MacLeish?
Yes, in the movie they interview him and he says, you know, “Don’t put this on my doorstep. I gave them 20 names of priests. I sent that to the newspaper, and they didn’t do shit with it.” Well, the truth was, that conversation didn’t actually happen with the reporter who went to talk to him. It happened with Josh, the screenwriter. Josh and Tom decided that ethically, they needed to cover all their bases and talk to the guy. They were about to depict him in the film, and they wanted to hear his defense of himself. When they met with him, he said precisely that: “Don’t lay this on me. I gave them the 20 names years ago, and they didn’t do anything with it.”

At first they thought, Oh, the guy’s bullshitting us. They’d already decided that he was who he was and he had done what he’d done. But they went looking for the clips in the file, and they were the ones who rediscovered the early clip where the Globe reported on 20 priests that had moved and had not followed up with a big Spotlight investigation. It had been accurately reported, but not followed up upon. The paper had missed that window.

Now, that’s not to criticize the paper excessively, because you get to stuff when you get to stuff, and news ideas and tips and information is coming over the transom, and sometimes it goes in the paper and sometimes you pick up on it and you go deeper, but sometimes you get preoccupied. They show them all getting preoccupied entirely after 9/11. The hindsight that the Boston Globe, or any newspaper, would have dropped everything and kicked it into high gear at the first revelation is a little bit retroactively pristine. I’m not suggesting that. But to their credit in the film, and I very much admire this, they all sort of eat that one. They all realize in retrospect that they missed an opportunity to report on this earlier. The editors had the same reaction when Josh came to them with the clip and said, “You know, you guys kind of got on this a couple years earlier.” But that shows you the depth of the careful reporting that went into that screenwriting on the part of Josh and Tom

That’s kind of amazing, to be able to present that to these reporters who probably already knew they’d missed that follow-up. 
I don’t think they did know! When they showed the clip to Robby Robinson, the editor — and I was speaking to him on the panel — he said, “I didn’t even remember it.” It came and went, and he had no recollection of it. They would have loved it. It would’ve made their return trip on the reporting that much faster if they’d have found that clip. It wasn’t a matter of, “Oh, we’re hiding a mistake we made.” It’s just that until Josh and Tom put the two and two together, the reporters didn’t have the moment of going, “Oh, man, look at this clip. This clip was a road sign.” It was very pure on all sides, but, again, it was Josh who came up with the clip. I found that fascinating. And of course they couldn’t write the screenwriting into the film, so instead of Josh, they go back to get [MacLeish], and he tells them, and they themselves are made to confront the missed opportunity. Which at least has the integrity of making the characters reflect on the fact that they could’ve gotten to it earlier. I found it to be a very ethical movie.

I can see that. It’s high praise, coming from you, to say that Tom got journalism right.
Yeah, he did. He really did. And the people to be credited are Tom and Josh, and the crew from the Boston Globe who opened up and let Tom and Josh in and told them what was in their heads and hearts when they were chasing this. It feels real. It feels like what I remember the best days in newspapering to be, in a way that a lot of films do not. Others typically come across either far too ennobled, or tawdry. Too much of the way newspapers are depicted either has to raise the stakes beyond what they are, or has to make the criticism much more cynical and much more absurdist than it actually is. There’s a lot to be criticized in what newspapers have become and what they’ve given up over the last 30 years, in terms of their ambitions, and there’s a lot to be angry about if you’ve worked in newspapers or you care about newspapers. And there’s a lot to be angry about the people who ran the industry and made some of the choices they made, but the stakes are still the stakes — and a country without newspapers, a society without newspapers, is going to be a place of considerably more misery, because nothing’s more necessary.

Why do you think Tom was the right guy to be telling a story about journalism?
He’s certainly one of the right guys, but I think he’s the right guy to be telling any kind of complicated story. It’s a gentle story. It’s a story that usually doesn’t get made into a film. It has a hard time finding backers, it has a hard time getting made, it has a hard time getting distributed. Look at the films Tom’s done prior [The Station Agent, The Vistor, Win Win, The Cobbler] and that he’s made a journey out of. They’re improbable films. And listen, I think we’re all up to our fucking necks in the films that are inevitably going to get made and are all going to feel the same and be all full of action and heroes and redemption and box-office potential. You know, that shit’s killing us. We’re entertaining ourselves to death. Tom’s never been about that. He’s trying to actually get at some of the world. Are there other people like him? Yeah, but not as many as there should be. He found this one and he went for it, and he’s done something beautiful and honest. It’s really grand. I hope the film has a long shelf life.

It’s interesting what you say about improbable films, because one of the things that made us want to write about him is that he seems to have figured out Hollywood, in that he’s able to consistently make modest-budget adult dramas that very few people seem to be able to make. 
Well, he brings a different kind of edge and purpose. The Coen Brothers can make films no one can make. Other people have figured out the margins. But a film about a bunch of reporters investigating pedophilic priests, and doing so with a bunch of retroactive paper discoveries in the written record or legal record, that’s a tall order. Even by standards of indie filmmakers who’ve managed to find their own backers and clear the way to making films that have different expectations, Tom’s kind of cutting-edge there. There’s a lot of bravery involved in that kind of filmmaking.

If feels like you don’t see depictions of newspapers in pop culture much anymore. The Newsroom and this new movie about Dan Rather, Truth, are both about TV journalism.
Listen, I don’t think TV is able to accomplish the same things as prose. But I don’t care about newsprint. I don’t care about cutting down trees and throwing them on people’s doorsteps. That is an anachronism. We’re all going to be working digitally. Everybody in prose is going to work digitally. I mean, books are going to hang on longer because they’re things with greater permanence in the culture, but it’s hard to imagine that any periodical’s digital presence isn’t going to be prominent. So I don’t care about the newsprint at all. That day is gone, and rightly so. I care about the newsroom.

The newsroom matters to me because the newsroom is a source of collective institutional wisdom and knowledge and ethics that can’t be replicated by individuals who are working a blog or who are on their own. It’s hard to explain, but the hierarchy of the newsroom is extremely valuable for imposing an ethical standard on reporting and making sure that what was printed was not only true but contextualized and fair. It doesn’t mean it was perfect, it doesn’t mean it always worked, but there was always a core value of the newsroom that at least had to be addressed or argued with.

As I often tell people who try to suggest that internet bloggers can somehow replace the ethos and talent of the newsroom, some of the greatest moments of journalism I ever witnessed were editors spiking stories and not publishing things that were not properly reported or were only partially true, partially reported, or things that they were unsure of. Holding back from putting something out there that might not yet be as fair as it could be, some of those moments were the ones that I was proud to be involved with. There’s no comparable moment I can imagine on the internet. Everything just gets thrown up there the moment somebody gets a photograph or a fact. You really see the lack of an ethic.

By the way, you work for New York Magazine?

Yes. Ha. Go on.
The magazine has a standard within its pages that is infinitely superior to Vulture. Now, sometimes Vulture just repeats the magazine and that’s fine. Sometimes there’s very meaningful reporting and essays on Vulture. But sometimes Vulture is a piece of shit, in a way that the magazine is not. The delivery system of the future belongs to the internet, and we’re not going to be cutting down trees and throwing them on people’s doorsteps, so Vulture is the way of the future. But God help us if it’s the standard!

What’s the gold standard?
The gold standard, as far as I’m concerned, is a bunch of people who go out and acquire information in a systemic way and then bring it back to a collective of people with real experience and real institutional memory, who have an understanding of the continuity and the context of issues, and can determine the news value and publish it accordingly. Or not publish it. The gatekeeper aspect of modern journalism, before it started to fall apart, had real value to me. Again, there’s a moment in this film where they don’t publish because they don’t have the story completely surrounded yet, and it’s a moment of great editorial integrity in the film. That’s the gold standard — having editors who truly edit and take their roles as gatekeepers seriously. The stuff that’s incomplete or the stuff that might be inaccurate or unfair gets a second look and maybe gets passed on. That’s all I’m saying.

How do you feel about me running this on Vulture?
It’s up to you. But focus on Tom and the movie, because the movie is great and it deserves it.

David Simon on Spotlight and the State of Media