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A Reporter Leaves His Beat

David Carr, 1956 - 2015

Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for Vanity Fair

Thursday evening, David Carr, the renowned reporter, collapsed in the newsroom of The New York Times and died a short time later at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital. He was 58 years old. As word of his death spread, his legions of readers, admirers, and the scores of journalists Carr mentored, cajoled, scolded, and adored remembered him as the most authoritative voice on media during one of its most precarious eras. He also knew addiction and pain. He clambered up from those depths, first to become the editor of the Twin Cities Reader and the Washington City Paper, and then a media reporter and critic in New York. He embraced the fullness of his life.

By every account—aside from his own, his 2008 memoir The Night of the Gun—Carr was an uncommonly decent fellow, whose interest in others was rooted in empathy and an abiding curiosity. He was a gossip and a schmooze who rarely came off as one, in part because his physical presence—gaunt, cancer-worn, with a voice made jagged by cigarettes—wasn't imposing, even as he was a commanding figure. Carr's analytical skills, his approachably clever prose, his dogged professionalism, and his reporting chops were all enviable. He made sense of an industry racked by layoffs, furloughs, bankruptcies and technical upheavals. Of course he was the perfect man for the job, in hindsight. But then, not every Minnesota-born recovered crack addict rises so high in the East Coast media ranks.

During Carr’s dark times in the 1980s, he spent many nights tearing up the Twin Cities with Tom Arnold, the actor who would later become Roseanne Barr’s husband and business partner. Arnold was an aspiring stand-up comedian; Carr was a journalist in the audience. The two men drank and used together, and were routinely the last to leave a party. That didn't stop them from physically scuffling once over an unsettled gram of coke. "He started arguing with me in front of a woman I liked," Arnold said Friday. "He said I owed him. I said, 'Dude, I'm going to punch you in the face, I'm just warning you.' And then that happened."

The men stayed close. Arnold went to California to build a career as an actor, and Carr would visit whenever he was in Los Angeles. Arnold, who has married four times, remembers going to the Nate ‘n Al deli with Carr and pouring out how miserable he was in one of his marriages, but told his friend he was determined to persevere. Carr wouldn't have it. He told Arnold he wasn't leaving Los Angeles until Arnold filed for divorce. Then he dug in at the deli and sat. "That day," Arnold said, "after I waited him out for about eight hours, I called the lawyer."

The first time Ashley Groussman, Arnold's current wife, met Carr in 2008, she told her husband that she was worried about him—he didn't look good. "You live the life he's lived, that's how you look!" Arnold replied. "Brian Williams looks a certain way and has to make up stories about his life, because he didn't live the life that David Carr lived. You could see the stories on his face."

During those trips to California, Carr reveled in even the squarest aspects of being a suburban New Jersey dad—and Arnold, his TV-star friend and former party buddy, listened. As the thrills subsided, the joy increased. Arnold said he became a father two years ago, in part because he hoped for the same sense of calm.

In 2002 Carr was not an obvious addition to the Times. Howell Raines, who had been named executive editor the prior year, knew that the previous regime had passed Carr over. "One of the people who had interviewed him—a masthead editor—told me, 'I didn't understand a single thing he said,'" Raines recalled. Carr was surprised to hear back after that first rejection. "My biggest surprise with David was, he was such an iconoclast when I interviewed him, and I was amazed at how quickly he settled into the role as an establishment Times person," Raines said. "It worked for him very well. I didn't see that coming. After he'd been there only a few months, he was very much a believer in the Times's glorious account of its own existence."

His star rose sharply when he became—along with TV reporter Brian Stelter and their editor Bruce Headlam—a central player in Page One, the 2011 documentary that explored the workings of the paper via the media desk. The most replayed scene in that film was Carr’s appearance at the offices of Vice Media, where he upbraided Vice co-founder Shane Smith for impugning the Times' news judgment. "Before you ever went to Liberia,” Carr said, "we've had reporters reporting on genocide after genocide. Just 'cause you put on a fuckin' safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn't give you the right to insult what we do. So, continue."

"It was a very Times-ian decision to bring that kind of person and that kind of voice in," said Jack Shafer, Politico’s media columnist. "It's not like he fought the Times to allow him to speak. The Times recognized the value of that voice." (Shafer wrote his own remembrance of Carr; you can read it here.)

"There won't be another David Carr," said Seth Mnookin, a science journalist who first met Carr while covering the 2000 presidential campaign for Brill’s Content and who remained his friend for the next 15 years. Mnookin said Carr came to see his criticism of Vice as less than fair. But the vitriol sprung from a devotion to his fellow Times journalists. "That tribal loyalty was something he felt for employers, for friends, for colleagues, regardless of how close they were,”  Mnookin said. “If you're part of David's tribe, and you get fucked with, David is going to stand up for you."

Carr’s tribe never stopped growing. Andrew Beaujon, now a senior editor at The Washingtonian, joined the Washington City Paper six years after Carr had left. But the former editor’s presence lingered “like secondhand smoke” in phrases that remained in the office lexicon. “A long walk for a glass of water” was a story that didn't get to the point quickly enough. Talking to an unresponsive writer was “throwing ping-pong balls at a mattress.” When Beaujon finally got to spend time with Carr, it was at a conference in Florida. Both were on the media beat. "We mostly just talked shop, gossiped about people. When he wanted me to tell him some tale out of school he'd say 'C'mon. Just between us girls.'"

Carr did impart one secret, the cure for writer's block: Keep typing. And: A good reporter always makes more phone calls. Goes out and asks someone to tell you something. When Carr wrote his memoir, he reported it out. "He questioned his primary source," said Beaujon. (As of Friday afternoon, Night of the Gun had jumped to #7 on Amazon, right after the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy).

“I met David my first day as an intern at the Washington City Paper when I was 20,” Sridhar Pappu, a former media columnist with The New York Observer, wrote in an email. “He was definitely tough on me both at first and over the years. He would impress upon me the importance of being bold in my reporting and almost immediately gave me life lessons.”

Carr essentially adopted Pappu. “I didn't know anyone in Washington and that summer he would invite me to the house,” he said. “I got to know his family and established a relationship with them that has never gone away.” Carr taught Pappu how to clean gutters. “The next day,” Pappu wrote, “it would be how to build a fire the right way."

Carr was also known for his incessant advocacy, and he took a particular interest in young writers of color. “The thing to understand is that he did more than hire me,” said Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor at The Atlantic. “He changed my life. He changed my life. There’s no one, no man who had more of an effect on me than David Carr.” Coates says Carr was one of the first people who believed in his writing. He hired the 20-year-old Coates as intern at the Washington City Paper. “He relentlessly believed in me. Relentlessly. Ridiculously. Like to levels I couldn’t even understand,” he said. “I’d been writing from a very, very young age, but it was never clear to me that that could mean anything,” Coates said. “I had three college newspaper clips and some poetry, man. And he hired me.” Coates said Carr was an important mentor for him. “In the field of journalism, that doesn’t happen much anymore. But it certainly doesn’t happen that some dude says, ‘You know what, I’m gonna look out for you. I’m gonna look out for you.’ David wasn’t the sort of dude who’d read all this shit on intersectionality or something like that. He just got it. He just got it, man.”

Jelani Cobb, Director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut and a New Yorker contributor, said much the same thing. “The Washington City Paper had very bad relations in the city—at least it had very bad relations with African Americans, at that point,” Cobb said. “So one of the things [Carr] did was that he set out to diversify the publication. And he did it initially through the intern program.” This was noteworthy because there were so few black people writing in D.C., for local or national publications. “Carr, without a lot of fanfare, just reached out and found people. He made a remark about it, that it wasn’t difficult, it was easy.”

Carr was a demanding and at times eccentric boss. “He was exacting,” Cobb said. “And he could be harsh as hell if you fucked up.” But Carr’s was a toughness bred from his struggle with addiction. “He had this really well-cultivated sense of human fallibility,” Cobb said. “If you sense a complete absence of judgment from this person, then you can tell them anything.” He was there for his writers, long after they’d left their D.C. jobs.

“At one point I was really broke, and I needed to write an article when I was in graduate school, and I called him and I was like, ‘I need an assignment, because otherwise I don’t know how to pay my rent this month,’ and he gave me an assignment,” Cobb said. “And I was like ‘Oh, do you also think you can expedite my pay?’ and he was like, ‘You’re pushing it, but sure.’ I don’t know that I’ve had another editor that I could be that frank with about something like that.”

“When I got the media beat at The Observer, he gave me advice on how to handle the beat,” Pappu said. “When I had one professional setback, I remembered being upset. And he grabbed me and said, ‘Look, that guy doesn't love you. I love you.’"

“That was my brother, man,” Coates said. “That was my brother.”

Ken Auletta, a New Yorker contributor and fellow media reporter, recalled a night he and Carr appeared together on PBS NewsHour, at a studio near Lincoln Center in Manhattan. "When you’re doing something for them," Auletta said, "it’s standard procedure they send a car to pick you up and take you back. David and I walked out together. And I said, ‘Where’s your car?’ And he said, ‘Where’d you get the car?’ There was a certain innocence about him. I said, ‘No, no, everyone does this.’ It made me feel almost guilty. And you just watched him wander down the street toward the subway."

Additional reporting by Claire Groden.