David Carr’s Outsize ‘Times’ Legacy
In yet another shocking development capping a week full of seismic shocks to the news business, New York Times media critic David Carr died Thursday night.
According to Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet, Carr, 58, collapsed in the paper’s newsroom in Midtown Manhattan and died after being rushed by ambulance to nearby Roosevelt Hospital. The cause of death had not been determined late Thursday night, Baquet told The Daily Beast in a brief phone conversation.
“He collapsed in the newsroom, and I met the ambulance and a bunch of us went to the hospital,” a shaken Baquet said. “He was the best media writer of his generation, he really was. We loved him. He was a terrific human being and important to us. Just a truly unique talent.”
Carr’s untimely death follows by a day that of legendary 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon in a freak traffic accident on Manhattan’s West Side Highway; and by two days, the abrupt suspension of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams for embellishing his recent coverage of a helicopter ride during the U.S. invasion of Iraq and possibly other exaggerations in public statements.
Carr had many friends—including this reporter—and his passing was greeted by disbelief, then tears, by colleagues in journalism and beyond. Twitter, for one, was flooded with tributes, both from people who knew him and those who didn’t.
Slate columnist David Weigel wrote: “Remembering the time [he] interviewed me about my nadir, and feeling very blessed to have known him.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas tweeted that Carr “made me proud to call myself a journalist. Simply heartbroken.”
Journalist and author Ron Rosenbaum marveled at Carr’s “offhand precision and casual wisdom in everything [he] wrote.” Comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, meanwhile, tweeted: “I never met David Carr. Don’t know what to say. I’m so sad... someone crucial & necessary is gone.”
Actress Mia Farrow tweeted: “Never got bs from David Carr—only the truths worth reminding us of. Wish he’d stayed longer.”
CNN personality Anthony Bourdain wrote: “There will be none like him again.”
Earlier in the evening Carr, who wrote the paper’s highly regarded and influential Media Equation column, had presided over a Times Talk event featuring investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, and, by remote video feed from Moscow, whistleblower Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor whom Greenwald and Poitras made known to the world.
“I am sorry to have to tell you that our wonderful, esteemed colleague David Carr died suddenly tonight after collapsing in the newsroom,” Baquet wrote in a memo to the grieving Times staff. “A group of us were with his wife, Jill, and one of his daughters, at the hospital. His daughter Erin said he was special, and that he was.”
Baquet continued: “He was the finest media reporter of his generation, a remarkable and funny man who was one of the leaders of our newsroom. He was our biggest champion, and his unending passion for journalism and for truth will be missed by his family at the Times, by his readers around the world, and by people who love journalism.”
Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. added his voice to Carr’s mourners. “David Carr was one of the most gifted journalists who has ever worked at The New York Times,” Sulzberger said in a statement.
“He combined formidable talent as a reporter with acute judgment to become an indispensable guide to modern media. But his friends at the Times and beyond will remember him as a unique human being—full of life and energy, funny, loyal and lovable. An irreplaceable talent, he will be missed by everyone who works for the Times and everyone who reads it.”
Carr joined the Times in 2002 after a career writing for New York magazine and editing Washington City Paper, a weekly alternative newspaper in the nation’s capital, and also working in journalism in his native Minnesota.
With his prickly eloquence and larger-than-life persona, and his fundamental fairness, even when he was taking a news outlet to task, Carr became perhaps the country’s most influential media critic—and certainly its highest-profile one. His frequent television appearances to comment on the journalistic controversy of the moment, plus his starring role in the 2011 documentary Page One—about the harrowing transition the media business was undergoing amid the digital revolution—cemented his status as a celebrity sage.
He wrote and spoke about the news business with deep knowledge and great heart; it was obvious that he cared about good journalism and its importance as a healthy antidote to corruption, hypocrisy, and other evils in a functioning democracy. He was also exceedingly proud to work for one of the planet’s best, if not the best, journalistic outlets.
Carr was the first to admit that he was not anyone’s idea of a model Timesman. By his own account, in his 2008 memoir, The Night of The Gun, he was a crack addict, a one-time jailbird, an abusive boyfriend, and a neglectful parent before he turned his life around and found his calling.
“I’m not what you would call the classic Timesman,” Carr told this reporter in 2011, during an interview to promote the documentary. “It’s sort of a contextual thing: You have this button-down ivy growing everywhere, and this oddly shaped tumbleweed comes rolling through the middle of it. I joke about looking homeless, but my neck is bent, my voice is torn up, and there’s always schmutz on my shirt.”
In some ways, his interviewer suggested, Carr’s personal story of decline and redemption could be a hopeful metaphor for the future of his employer. With typically self-deprecating humor, Carr retorted: “I’m not a student of Times history, but I don’t think the paper was ever actually a crack addict or an alcoholic.”
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?”