David Carr 1956-2015

Fourth Estate

Remembering a friend, a journalist and a journalist’s friend.

All the great New Yorkers were born and raised outside of the five boroughs and its environs. The city, which would otherwise suffer heat death and melt into a mud puddle if not replenished by the brilliance of the provinces, summons them every season. New York Times reporter and media columnist David Carr, like Bob Dylan, another Minnesotan with turned Gothamite who invented his own creative language, was one of those greats.

When Carr died last night—while working at the Times, of course—Twitter immediately hosted his Irish wake as his friends, colleagues, and fans broke down the doors to share their sorrow and tell tales about him. A vain but not narcissistic man, Carr would have been the last to leave the party had fate given him any choice in the matter. He never met a social network he didn’t like. His ocean refused no rivers.

In a business over-populated with characters, Carr projected an original persona that was one part shambling hipster, one part Tom Waits, a pinch of Jimmy Breslin, and a dollop of the Mad Hatter. A master interrogator, he used his guise the way an anglerfish uses the wriggling growth on its head to attract and then devour other fish. Interview subjects who paid attention to Carr’s jittery gestures and boho-lingo, thinking him a harmless eccentric, found afterwards that he’d picked their pockets for information.

Nobody seems to know when Carr became Carr, the enigma who spoke in an infectious code, not even Burl Gilyard, a Minnesota journalist of my acquaintance who met him in 1990 and later worked for him in 1993 at the alt-weekly Twin Cities Reader. Gilyard maintains that Carr was “always like that.” If you asked him how he was doing, he’d shoot back, “Workin’ hard, getting’ lucky.” Always ambitious and ever the ham, Carr had a way of bee-lining for the spotlight, even low-wattage ones like the one flung by this 1984 Minnesota public-access talk-show about local news—decades before becoming a New Yorker and a regular guest on Charlie Rose, BBC America, ABC News, CNN, MSNBC, PBS NewsHour, and other TV venues. From the beginning, he gave good soundbite, tossing off ad hoc paragraphs that lesser writers would have hoarded for a print piece later. He had that sort of confidence only a few writers possess: No matter how badly he abused her, the muse would always serve him.

Better at connecting people than Lois Weisberg, Carr knew everybody in New York. He was like that in Minnesota, too, Gilyard says. When he edited Washington City Paper from 1995 to 2000, he mounted a similar successful campaign to connect to the population, which helps explains what made him such a good reporter. He loved to exploit other reporters, and was generous about letting them exploit him, which is unusual in the trade. His generosity, especially with younger journalists, explain the many positive notices his death has received, although most of the young writers will never fully appreciate how much he was nourished by their attention. At the same time, he was extremely ambitious, one of the reasons New York beckoned.

Journalists also loved Carr for the way he defended the trade. Although he looked like a misfit outsider, nobody preached the orthodox values of journalism—accuracy, fairness, enterprise, courage—to the public quite the way he did. Perhaps it was the anglerfish in him that made his press-rap sound so appealing, his unique ability to express the old-time religion the way hippie priests used to dress up the mass with bongos and guitars. But his defense of the orthodoxy was never at the expense of journalism’s future. He thrilled at where the new technology was taking us. Although his personal story included a stint as a crackhead wastrel (see his memoir Night of the Gun) and he looked like a wildman, the real Carr was a conservative and traditionalist, a family man and a mentor whose greatest public vice was a love of cigarettes. He didn’t rock the boat at the Times. He became the boat.

Journalists also loved Carr for his talent at forgiving their transgressions more in sorrow than in anger, most recently in his last “Media Equation“ column about the fall of Brian Williams. (See also how he treated another besieged journalist.) He was a romantic about the press and about life, another reason the New York tractor-beam had to drag him to the cynical city. He was always hungry—for food, for information, for experience. His curiosity and openness served him well. Never was there a man who talked so much but listened so well.

Made frail for several years from lingering illnesses, Carr insisted on a punishing professional schedule, which makes his unreasonably young death less of a surprise. The cat is supposed to have nine lives. Alas, this hipster cat had only five.


We grieve for Carr’s family. See the media remembrances collected by Greg Marx: Send your Carr story via email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. Today, I’m dipping my email alerts flagstaff in Carr’s honor. My Twitter feed and RSS feed are paying similar tribute.

Jack Shafer is Politico‘s senior media writer. 

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