David Carr (1956-2015)
Carr: The alt-weekly guy from Minneapolis that made it big. Earl Wilson/The New York Times
What a shitty week for journalism: Brian Williams, Bob Simon, Jon Stewart. But this one hurts the most.
Patricia and I had just finished the second-to-last episode of the first season of “Fargo” when she got the news via iPhone. That seems fitting. We were immersed in Minnesota, where David Carr began his career, then read all about it via digital technology, which was the great, last battle of Carr's career: how to keep the news relevant despite our tendencies toward the free and easy within this technology.
The 19 David Carr links on this blog are indicative. The majority are from the first years, 2008 and '09, when I read Carr, and The New York Times, regularly. Here's how I kept introducing him:
- One of my favorite New York Times writers ...
- Carr, whom I love ...
- Leave it to David Carr ...
- One of the best journalists working ...
And then it stopped. In the Social Media age, I got directed to places and went. I got complacent. Somehow I kept bypassing him.
I was probably most admiring in this March 2012 intro to the 2011 documentary, “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” which featured Carr:
I was talking about this documentary with Evan, the friend who recommended it, and admitted it made me realize why I never became a true journalist. ...
In the doc you watch David Carr, media columnist forThe New York Times, take on various bombastic elements and shut them up. He stares them down, calls them on their bullshit, then moves on. Even when I’m able to do the first two things, I don’t move on. I allow the first two actions to linger and infect the surroundings. Carr, who looks like nothing much, Bilbo Baggins’ after a bad night, with a hoarse voice and a skinny neck and a wide middle and a face that seems permanently bent toward the ground, is able to cut so surgically through situations that there’s little bleeding. It’s like those scenes where Zorro takes a swipe at a candle and it doesn’t move, causing the villain to laugh at Zorro’s ineptitude and anticipate his demise. Which is when Zorro holds up the tip of the candle, or pushes the tip off with his sword, or stomps on the ground and the candle crumbles to bits.
That’s what Carr is like. The other guy laughs at his ineptitude and then David stomps on the ground and the dude’s argument crumbles to bits.
As both Evan and I admired this ability of Carr’s, and lamented our own ability to cry bullshit in social situations, he added, “You know what I could use? A David-Carr-in-the-box. So when I get in those situations, I can take out my David-Carr-in-the-box, and just, you know, pop. Let him loose.”
I agreed. We could all use a David-Carr-in-the-box.
This scene from the doc, “David Carr vs. Some guys from VICE,” has been making the rounds again since Carr's death:
Visually it's a no-brainer: Carr, balding and dimunitive and typing away, engaging hipster-douches who seem to be trying on journalism like ironic fedoras. I have a visceral reaction to these guys. And they don't disappoint. But that's not the point. I think the key to Carr's strength, as journalist and man, is his ability to both engage them, call them on bullshit, and then keep engaging them. He doesn't dismiss them as I do. Even when Shane Smith, the founder and CEO of VICE, talks about the cannibalism in Liberia, then takes the Times to task for not covering the war “properly,” Carr simply interrupts:
Before you ever went there? We've had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet, doesn't give you the right to insult what we do. So continue, continue.
“So continue, continue,” should be the mantra for journalists everywhere.
I never met Carr but I knew tons of people who knew him well. We were on different paths. While I was living in Taiwan and studying Chinese, he was in a north Minneapolis crackhouse. He aspired to the journalistic, I aspired to the literary. Jelani Cobb, in his New Yorker tribute, writes about how Carr, editor of the D.C. alt-weekly City Paper, gave him his first job, adding, “I started at the paper very much afflicted with the insufferable omniscience of many twenty-something writers.” That was me, too. Cobb also has this line about Carr: “ ... he didn’t confuse his unwillingness to judge with an absence of standards,” which is something like what I'm trying to describe above. Carr doesn't judge the VICE guys by their beards and homburgs, but he doesn't let them get away with shit, either.
In her tribute, Sasha Stone calls Carr, her friend and mentor, “Journalism's True North.” I don't think that's hyperbole.