In a New York Times newsroom filled with stars, David Carr ranked as one of the few whose death would merit a makeover of the newspaper’s front page. When the media columnist died suddenly Thursday evening, America’s paper-of-record bounced a report about tensions between Silicon Valley and the White House off the cover to make room for Carr’s obit. The celebrated journalist and denizen of the alternative press would have found sardonic irony in the way he landed, once again, on Page One.
Carr had become the unlikely star of a 2011 documentary film of that same name. In filmmaker Andrew Rossi’s “Page One,” Carr emerged as the irascible, plain-spoken public face of the Times. “It was kind of a beat-up face (though in its way a beautiful one),” his colleague, critic A.O. Scott, would write late Thursday, after confirmation of Carr’s sudden death. Times executive editor Dean Baquet, in an email to his staff, called Carr “the finest media reporter of his generation.”
But the reasons for his success might be clouded amid the tsunami of tributes about his iconoclastic style, pithy Midwestern tropes and, in particular, by one video snippet that wins the click-ability prize. The bit, from the documentary “Page One,” shows Carr in a confrontation with a group of bearded young executives from Vice Media.
One of the Vice hipsters has just suggested to Carr that the magazine/video producer’s guerrilla-style coverage of Africa may be superior to that found in the New York Times. Aiming baleful glare over the top of his keyboard, Carr reminds the upstart that the Times has been covering war and genocide for generations. Then he unloads: “Just because you put on a [expletive] safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do.”
Regiments of traditional journalists adored Carr for that moment. He would later write that he had enjoyed playing “the crusty old-media scold.” But what was remarkable about the episode was not the smackdown itself but what followed. Carr did not return the newcomers’ condescension. Instead, with a few caveats, he wondered if Vice might be on to something — its edgy videos from the world’s rough edges winning over a generation of viewers who had given up on the evening news.
Four years later, Carr revisited the topic and suggested that the Vice boys’ dream of creating “the next MTV” might not be outrageous at all. He conceded that initially he had “failed to recognize that in a world that is hostile to journalism in all its forms, where dangerous conflicts seem to jump off every other day, you can’t be uppity about where your news comes from.”
Many in Carr’s vast audience (nearly 500,000 Twitter followers for starters) treasured his swagger, his toughness and his ability to reduce the ever-fracturing media world into something comprehensible. But it was ultimately his humility — his sense of himself and others as flawed, but holding great promise — that made him a must-read for all of us struggling to make sense of our disrupted, multiplatform world.
His colleagues heaped on praise when the sad news suddenly arrived. Critic A.O. Scott, who joined Carr in videotaped sessions musing about the future of journalism, lauded his friend’s “analytical acumen, ethical rigor and gumshoe tenacity.” Associate managing editor Marc Lacey recalled an authenticity earned from “his hard-living past, his gruff persona, his firm sense of journalistic mission.” He added: “Hollywood couldn’t have created a more colorful newspaperman than Carr.”
Times reporter Richard Perez-Pena, writing on his Facebook page, noted how he had once been infuriated by someone on Fox News referring to “drug addict David Carr.” But Perez-Pena added: “David calmly replied, with a half-smirk, ‘Well, it has the virtue of being true — if a bit dated.’ “
Carr had written a bestseller, “The Night of the Gun,” about his crack addiction and the danger he visited on himself and his family. His very public demons, and the way he wrote about them with unsentimental honesty, won him legions of admirers.
In Los Angeles and other cities served by Tribune Company newspapers, though, another story might have had the deepest impact. It came in 2010, when Carr spent weeks reporting and writing an expose on the “bankrupt culture” that beset the venerable media company following its takeover by real estate billionaire Sam Zell.
Zell heaped debt (and eventually bankruptcy) on the beleaguered owner of the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and other newspapers. But Carr uncovered much more — a company where the “use of sexual innuendo, poisonous workplace banter and profane invective” by one of Zell’s top lieutenants had shocked and offended employees, who still had aspirations of reaching for something higher.
In one unforgettable example, Carr recounted how executive Randy Michaels once offered a waitress at a hotel bar $100 to show her breasts. It was a proposal he made in front of other Tribune Co. executives. The culture of poker parties, jukeboxes and “pervasive sex talk” had turned the company’s Chicago headquarters into something like a frat house, Carr wrote.
Those of us who worked at the Los Angeles Times back then had known things had gone dreadfully wrong back at headquarters. But it took the unrelenting scribe from the other side of the country to dig out the roots of the disease. To those working away in Tribune Co. newsrooms, it felt like Carr’s story began to wash away a smirking, retrograde past and to restore a bit of the company’s lost dignity.
Perez-Pena, who covered media companies for a time, wrote that he admired how Carr trained his unstinting analysis on not just others, but himself. “You could not say anything bad about him (at least, not anything honest) that he had not said about himself, repeatedly and publicly,” Perez-Pena wrote. “He knew who and what he was, what he had done, and he owned it.”
Only Carr, just 58 when he died, should write the final coda for his life, perhaps from a line he tagged on to his emails. Each one ended: “Conveyed to you from the very recent past by tiny winged creatures.”