Christie Blatchford’s recent column in the Globe and Mail (‘It all comes down to “The Wire” in terror case,’ April 23, 2008) compares the Toronto 18, a group of young men accused of “terrorism” who have been imprisoned for two years, to the gangsters in the television show The Wire. Blatchford shows a spectacular ability to miss the point on both sides of the comparison.

David Simon and Ed Burns created a masterpiece in The Wire, an HBO show, five seasons (60 hours) long, about crime, police, working people, politics, schools and the media in Baltimore. It is based on Simon’s experience as a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun and Ed Burns’s experience as a police officer in Baltimore, during which both were very sympathetic and very keen observers of the life of poor, mostly black, people in the city.

Simon’s interviews on the topic show how much respect he has for the subjects on both sides of the street – the young people trapped in criminal organizations and facing limited options, the police trying to do a job in a faceless and numbers-driven bureaucracy themselves, the school system, the media. Simon said in an interview that the second season of the show was “a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class, it is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy, that on its own, without a social compact, raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many.”

There are two other very intentional things that Simon did with the show. One was to portray the humanity of every single character, and the other was to show the beauty and the poetry of the language – of the street, and of ordinary cops, journalists and port workers.

Every bit of that was lost on Blatchford, apparently. She sees all these layers of complexity that Simon observed painstakingly and pulled from his life as a reporter on the streets of Baltimore and describes the people Simon wrote about as follows: “They held their weapons in that stupid yo-yo-yo manner, hands cocked as if giving a gang sign; they all had nicknames; they had never been out of their tiny corner of west Baltimore and had educations best described as preposterously rudimentary.”

Just in case the irony of Blatchford describing the characters in The Wire as “stupid yo-yos” and their understanding as “preposterously rudimentary” is missed, I would like to make sure to point it out here.

She’s even wrong about Snoop, who she says Simon portrays as “purely evil” (even as Blatchford celebrates her own ignorance in declaring that she catches only one word in 10 that Snoop “utters” – and we can leave aside the question of whether it’s only people with black English who “utter” words in Blatchford’s universe as opposed to just “saying” them).

Actually Snoop’s death in the fifth season is one of the most tragic and moving in the whole show. Snoop, like another victim of the street, Bodie, is a loyal and unquestioning “soldier” to the end. As for Snoop’s accent and its incomprehensibility, Blatchford might have considered Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, the actress who plays Snoop, and her background (easy enough to look up) before being so flippant (to be fair to Blatchford, without the flippancy, there is very little left in the column, which she may have had to abandon).

The Wire conveys a great deal about the conditions that create such “soldiers” and then destroy them. In season four, an idealistic professor and former police major (“Bunny” Colvin) try to reach young people in schools. Colvin comes to realize that the problem isn’t that the children are not learning, but that the children are, in fact, learning what they need to adapt to the terrible environment they are in.

There are some pretty unambiguously evil characters though, including William Rawls, Eddie Walker, Cheese Wagstaff, and Marlo Stanfield, who Simon later described as being motivated solely by a desire for “totalitarian power” (that’s also Burns’s analysis of the motivation of gangsters expressed in a paper he wrote on the topic).

Blatchford takes her “stupid yo-yo” analysis of The Wire and applies it to a very serious situation, that of the Toronto 18, the young people who were seized, villified in the media (including Blatchford’s own paper), held for years now, some of whom in solitary confinement, the cases against whom have since largely fallen apart, but several of whom still face important bail hearings.

Blatchford was at the bail hearings for some of the victims, including Saad Gaya, a 20 year-old student she writes about in her column. The verdict for Saad Gaya’s bail hearing will be on May 20. The role of the publication ban in the case was precisely the opposite of what Blatchford claims: “the publication bans placed on the evidence presented at bail hearings and an aborted preliminary hearing – the state moved, with much complaint from defence lawyers, to what is called a direct indictment, meaning the case goes straight to trial – preclude any real discussion of the government case. What the bans don’t preclude, however, is a one-dimensional portrait of the remaining accused as naïfs being grotesquely pursued and punished by a cruel state apparatus, paranoid after 9/11 and arguably anti-Muslim.”

Who is making this portrait? Certainly not Blatchford’s paper, the Globe and Mail, or the Toronto Star, or the CBC, or CTV, to say nothing of the Asper/CanWest empire, but “a sophisticated Toronto 18 website, a ‘Presumption of Innocence Project’ and occasional solidarity rallies.”

This “sophisticated website” and “occasional rally” have to counter the multi-billion dollar Canadian media industry, leaving poor beleaguered Blatchford to have to counter the propaganda.

[On the topic of counter-propaganda, the film “Unfair Dealing”, that readers can watch on You Tube, is quite persuasive on the problem of entrapment, the role of the publication ban, and the actual use of “one-dimensional portraits” in the media.]

Blatchford shows as casual a contempt for the Toronto 18 as she does for the characters Simon worked so hard to humanize. She also provides a bit of a caricature of the media missing the point that Simon tried to show in Season five (something that also seems to have passed her by as she watched The Wire). An article by Simon about the show’s portrayal of the media says:

“Here’s what happened in season five of The Wire when almost no one âe” among the working press, at least âe” was looking: Our newspaper missed every major story … The mayor, who came in promising reform, is instead forcing his police department to once again cook the stats to create the illusion that crime is going down. Uncovered…. Drug wars, territorial disputes, and the assassination of the city’s largest drug importer manage to produce a brief inside the metro section that refers only to the slaying of a second-hand appliance store owner.”

Blatchford’s column seems to have been written to prove that Simon’s analysis of the media applies in Toronto as well. The substance of her article is – well, there is none. In the end, her article comes down to the fact that she was in court listening to evidence that she can’t disclose due to a publication ban.

She reports her “expectation, having sat through a day of evidence at Mr. Gaya’s hearing none of which [Blatchford] can disclose… that the Crown will indeed have people to try and a case that endures.” Thus Blatchford, arguably, violates the spirit of the publication ban, which is to stop such prejudicial speculation, while using it to avoid having to present evidence for her claims. A pity the ban didn’t include demonstrations of ignorance and contempt for people using an inane comparison to a show that she didn’t understand.

If the Toronto 18 hadn’t been in jail already for so long and hadn’t already been subjected to so much abuse from the media (before and despite the publication ban), Blatchford, and perhaps her class and profession, might be dismissed with the same contempt she shows for the young Black people portrayed in The Wire and the young Muslims she saw in court.

But the stakes are higher than that, and it is hard to imagine how Blatchford or the Globe and Mail expect to be taken seriously when they treat their work with such vulgarity.

Justin Podur

Justin Podur is a writer and editor for ZNet (, part of Z Communications, an alternative media organization dedicated to political analysis and support for movements for social change....