I didn’t know David Carr. But over the years, he became a regular at our Monday morning breakfast table. I’d look forward to his column, “The Media Equation,” almost as soon as the alarm went off. He was a former editor of an alternative weekly, just like I had been. He was also a former crack addict, which I am not. But if a guy with that kind of resume could get a job at The New York Times, there might be hope for the rest of us.
Carr was paid fulltime to write about what the rest of us in journalism were living every day. New technology that put our words and images onto new platforms while disrupting our old routines. A different way to tell and promote stories, whether through Twitter, SnapChat or selfies. And a different calculus for underwriting the practice of journalism, from media moguls like Rupert Murdoch to the hyperlocal, pureplay startups in Seattle and Madison.
When Carr died last week at 58, it was indeed like losing a professional friend. It came during a tumultuous week of headlines in journalism – the resume padding by NBC anchor Brian Williams, the retirement of Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and the death of Bob Simon of 60 Minutes. These were all figures who came into our living rooms at night on TV and commanded bigger headlines than Carr.
But as the working press learned of Carr’s death, they quickly made it known which journalism story was most important. I thought mine was a rarefied pleasure, digesting Carr’s 900 words each Monday and occasionally recycling them online or clipping them out. But as the tributes flowed in from those whose Monday breakfast news menus mirrored mine to a T, it was clear that Carr spoke for a whole cadre of working stiffs, from executive editors to calendar editors, who desperately want to do right by their calling but need a David Carr to inspire us each week.
Carr, in writing a column, could interject his voice where most reporters couldn’t, and that may be why he was much respected and loved. He could bring the high low and the low high with tough reporting and generous praise. Journalists can be among the most competitive people on the planet, but all seemed to acknowledge that Carr was the best and probably irreplaceable. I’ll close with just a few of the tributes, as compiled by Columbia Journalism Review:
--A.O. Scott of The New York Times:David was our champion: the best we had and also the one who would go out into the world every week to make the case for what we do. He understood better than anyone how hard the job can be, how lonely, how confusing, how riddled with the temptations of cynicism and compromise. And yet he could make it look so easy, and like the most fun you could ever hope to have.
Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker: “He was allergic to euphemism and a believer that journalism was the art of curating minutiae. He also had one of the most valuable attributes a writer can claim—an ability to withhold personal judgment…. What made him more than simply a humbled former user, however, was the fact that he didn’t confuse his unwillingness to judge with an absence of standards.”
Foster Kamer, a young journalist mentored by David Carr: “Being around David didn’t just make you proud to do what you did, it made you aspire to do it so much better, because it only took a few minutes [around Carr] to make you truly believe . . . that great reporters are rooted in humanism.”
Hamilton Nolan of Gawker:
--There are hundreds and hundreds of people out there who believe that, secretly, they were David Carr’s favorite. And maybe we all were. He had the rare emotional capacity to make each of us his favorite, one by one by one…. The fact that he was a feared and respected media figure at a fancy newspaper always seemed like a wonderful cosmic prank against the existence of stereotypes.