Sincere. Generous. Loyal. Hilarious. Empathetic. That was my friend David Carr. RIP.
— Andrew Ross Sorkin (@andrewrsorkin) February 13, 2015
Andrew Ross Sorkin, a colleague of Carr’s at the New York Times, posted this tweet the day after David Carr, media columnist for the New York Times, died in the newsroom. A few days later, Bruce Headlam, who was Carr’s editor for most of his run at America’s most influential paper, says of Carr, “He understood the balance between helping the Times and being his own man.… He was just lovely.” I read these and instantly thought of my first introduction to Carr, the 2011 documentary by Andrew Rossi, “Page One: Inside the New York Times.”
In the documentary, Carr is shown at his home, on the road, conducting interviews over the phone and in the office, interacting with colleagues. Sorkin and other Times reporters appear, engaged in the newsroom workday, on either side of an interview or discussing headlines to a steady, sometimes frenetic, chorus of typing. Headlam is there too and shares a few scenes with Carr. In Headlam’s office, the two men sit reclining in their seats while they deliberate how best to execute a story Carr is pursuing. Headlam’s shirt sleeves are rolled up, Carr sips an iced coffee, tapping his feet. They’re on the job, but speak like friends who respect one another, who are stern but casual and able to work things out this way. Recalling these scenes gives Sorkin’s tweet a genuine impression. The words, occasionally serving as rhetoric niceties or filling space in formal speeches, sometimes make them feel decorative or vacant. They don’t ring like that here. It’s like they were scribbled down and lifted from the coffee-stained page of a journal, rather than a glossy sheet of paper with a New York Times insignia.
To echo what many of his colleagues and fans are writing since Friday (and before that), I admire his writing because it is forthright, candid and often funny. His literal voice is distinct, raspy and cracking, and so was his writing: clear, smart, poetic but not superfluous. It’s not so much his writing that I am thinking about now though. It’s what people are saying about what he was like as a reporter, a friend and colleague. He had a reputation for being someone that could be relied on to tell the truth. He was an integral part of the Times organization and his co-workers appreciated him not only for this fierce and diligent reporting but also for his wit and enlivening presence.
A.O. Scott, a film critic at the Times with whom Carr collaborated on a few occasions, wrote about Carr a few days ago saying, “If he told you you’d written a heck of a story, you knew he meant it.” He mentions this after saying that Carr could “be critical of people in the profession (and in the building) whom he suspected of laziness or logrolling,” but he would also “shine a dazzling light on anyone he thought was doing the job well.”
I envision Carr approaching the students he taught at Boston University in a journalism course called, Press Play, the way he spoke with interviewees on the phone in the documentary. I imagine with his students he was a bit more gentle but still demanding the truth from them, unsatisfied and frankly, finding useless, anything which simply touched the surface and didn’t deliver on the true grit of their stories. Carr came across to me in his writing and the documentary as someone who risked being liked for being real—getting to the heart of a story, getting to the heart of an aspiring journalist’s work by pointing out discrepancies and apathy, and probing that they find their voice. The truth is there and doesn’t need to be elaborated.
This is not always an easy thing for a writer to discern and it can be difficult to put your voice out there once you do find it. Having the support and confidence of people around you and the guidance of an instructor is not something that everyone has the benefit of, but when it’s there, it is helpful and assuring. Either way, the writer exposes themselves, and inevitably parts of his or her personal life become part of a public life. Carr exemplified the courage to do this when he set out to write his memoir, “Night of the Gun,” and put his past under a reporter’s (his) unrelenting scrutiny.
In the documentary, as he is recalling his times as a drug addict which are recounted in the 2008 memoir, he says, “that was another life. That was another guy.” The thing is, however, is that it was him. This seems obvious but it’s worth emphasizing. That was his life for a time. He mistreated his girlfriend and left their infant twins in the backseat of a car while scoring drugs. At some point, he decided to not be that guy—that way—anymore. Many people have endured the grip of addiction either as the addict or someone who loves the addict. Indeed, it does feel like the addict is two people—one you remember and the other who solely embodies the demands and cravings of the habit. Consumed by addiction, this is hard to climb out of and it takes some crack in the fog of using to have a transparent moment about who you are and what you want. Whether it comes by hitting rock bottom, or by some inexplicable mercy, the person in recovery at one point or another made the decision to change. Carr made that choice.
In the Press Play course syllabus, he writes that he is “not very mysterious” and adds, “if you want to know where you stand, just ask.” He had experiences which made him intolerant to anything but transparency, seeing firsthand a life that was lead for a time by a cunning, deceptive ghost that overcame his body and averted his mind and eyes from the things that mattered most. I think the way this perspired in his work, as ethically-minded and audacious, is what garnered him love or respect or both from his readers and colleagues alike.
His was a past that could have derailed him eternally but it didn’t. He carried this spirit of renewal and foresight into his life as a journalist. He was shrewd and innovative, creating columns for the Times. “The Carpetbagger Blog” was his take on the Oscar season red carpet circus and comprised both serious discussions of movies and a platform for Carr to poke fun at the “fake friends” dynamic of red carpet interviews. The “Carpetbagger” videos of him interviewing people in Times Square (or a “Daily Baggage” video shot in his basement) are funny and smart, and remind me of The Daily Show correspondents’ many reports from the streets.
The “Media Equation” column he was writing at the time of his death spanned topics within media and culture and often discussed the developments in technology and journalism, showing how the two intersected. He was astute and curious about the changing landscape of journalism, and embraced technological advances that left many in dismay. He was an avid Twitter user and warmed up to it like a city-slicker moving to a country town, skeptical at first but before long, a regular at the town pub and in the running for mayor. He changed his life because it didn’t work for him. Maybe this made him more open to the evolution of journalism and technology. His own life evidenced that the future may hold better things and that change can be good.
Carr said of being a journalist, “it takes hustle.” I took this to mean not only hard work but guts. Guts to ask the right questions. Guts to face and tell the truth. Guts to put forth new ideas and be accepting of criticism and change. In the Press Play syllabus he also emphasized working together, saying that many of the tasks a journalist does are solitary but that ultimately, “great work emerges in the space between people.”
As part of a small team in the nascent stages of this publication, I immediately see the value in learning to collaborate well. We all write—this is what I think comes easiest to us in the whole process. What is difficult at times is finding how best to contribute, how to figure out what we each want to pursue, and how it fits into the group’s goals. We have creative ideas and struggle turning them into solid projects. There are the interpersonal aspects that are sometimes hard to navigate—assigning roles, taking responsibility, and acknowledging when to relinquish it for the benefit of the whole—but then we are each others’ editors, relied on to earnestly and honestly give and receive criticism. We want to be able to extract the best in each other, to progress individually while cultivating growth. I want to be an effective journalist here, I want to tell stories but I also strive to work well with people and be an asset to the team.
I look to writers for direction. I find myself trying to mimic their styles like a kid on a basketball court imitating the Michael Jordan fade away. I look starry-eyed to Joan Didion for somehow infusing her sentences with an intimate and mysterious beauty, whether about her hometown or Alcatraz. But I know that being a good writer isn’t the only thing that made her a good journalist. And the same with Carr. Admiring a writer’s work in this way naturally leads me to look up to the people they are and aspire to become that, to imitate that until it becomes mine. As a professional I want to be efficient, sharp. As a writer I want my words to be trusted. I want to grow, become a new person. As a friend and collaborator, I want my actions to be relied on confidently by whomever works with me. I want to be someone that colleagues can go to for support. In other words, I want to be like Carr.
I enjoyed your piece on David Carr. It very was thoughtful and informative. Having really only known David Carr from the Carpetbagger blog in the NYT, I now want to know more and intend to read his memoir. Thanks for a job well done.