On David Carr

Photo: Getty Images.
As near as we can tell, this is former Twin Citian David Carr’s last TV appearance. He was on CBS a few days ago discussing the meaning of the suspension of NBC news presenter Brian Williams (watch).


Carr, never the picture of health, had rarely looked more ill.

The media columnist for the New York Times died at work yesterday evening.

A.O. Smith pens today’s Times tribute.

He managed to see the complexities of digital-age journalism from every angle, and to write about it with unparalleled clarity and wit. His prose was a marvel of wry Midwestern plainness, sprinkled with phrases his colleagues will only ever think of as Carrisms. Something essential was “baked in.” Someone was always competing to be the tallest leprechaun.

That was how David would say he felt when he was singled out for praise. Not that he was modest. He knew his gifts, and was competitive in the way that many of us are — eager for the scoop, the juicy assignment, the front page or the front of the section. But no one was more generous in praise of his colleagues, or happier in their success.

And though he could be critical of people in the profession (and in the building) who he suspected of laziness or logrolling, he could shine a dazzling light on anyone he thought was doing the job well.

And over at the rival, the Washington Post, which used to be something, Terrence McCoy focused on his addiction over accomplishment.

Can ambition vanquish addiction? It can, but as Carr learned time and again, it’s a war of many battles, each of which can go either way. One of those clashes came in the mid-1980s, when Carr and Arnold were running around Minneapolis getting into who knows what. At the time, Carr was composing a newspaper piece on a man who had accidentally been killed while in police custody. Then one day, his phone lit up. It was one of the cops he was investigating.

“You know, I’ve been asking around, and your life is not without blemish,” Carr said he was told. “You better watch your step.”

Carr didn’t heed the warning. He became a small-time dealer in Minneapolis, evincing what he often called a pathological need for narcotics, graduating from coke to crack, from jail to halfway houses. “In retrospection, I’ve always thought of my career, both as a journalist and an addict, as a series of rapid ascents and declines,” Carr wrote in his book. “But after a year of investigating my past, it became clear that I had been chugging along pretty nicely until 1986, and then dropped off the face of the earth in 1987 when I started smoking cocaine.”

But even at his depths, there was his craft. “Regardless of what happened to me, I rarely stopped typing,” he wrote. “Perhaps I was worried I would disappear altogether if I did.”

Lloyd Grove at Daily Beast was a little more balanced on the subject.

Despite outward appearances, Carr revered the journalistic traditions of getting it first and getting it right, and had little patience for bloggers who jeered at the financial decline of the industry with the rise of the Internet, and even seemed to be rooting for the failure of his beloved Times, while leaching original content like parasites.

“People forget that there was this period where some people were not only predicting that we were going to fall down, they were actually rooting it on,” he said about the Times. “And I think to myself, why would people who often act as journalistic pilot fish on the host root for the host to die? Do they really want to make their own phone calls?”

Last year, he started his commencement address at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism with, “my name is David Carr, and I’m an alcoholic.”

Carr, a native of Hopkins, was 58. Ironically, his death made the front page of today’s New York Times, but not most Minnesota editions.

Related: Me (and Eskola, Carr and Dane Smith) half a lifetime ago (MinnPost).