Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Mpls.St.Paul Magazine September 2003
David Carr's interview in our September 2003 issue
I had David Carr, who covers print media for, ahem, The New York Times, on the line. In the last fifty years, Carr is one of a miniscule coterie of Twin Cities journalists that have made it to that pinnacle of their craft (hired in February ’02). Though it should have been a personal highlight to talk to Carr, forty-six, about his climb—Inside.com, Atlantic Monthly, New York magazine, and the rarefied air of the most famous newsroom in the world during perhaps the most tumultuous year in its history—I felt like I was watching the bigger, flashier sequel, when what I wanted was his gritty first movie: the “poly-addicted” (his words from a previous interview) Hunter S. Thompson-style gonzo journalist his colleagues knew as “Carrzilla,” who overcame multiple bouts with alcohol and drug addiction, single parenthood, and even Hodgkin’s disease before emerging to resurrect a career at the helm of the Twin Cities Reader in 1992, just prior to its death throes. Then to D.C. to edit (and cover media) for the influential weekly City Paper during the height of the Lewinsky scandal. Ta-Da! Sorry, you don’t get that either. Just the talented-writer-rising-to-the-top-of-his-field-in-the-big-apple. Ho hum. —Steve Marsh
Steve Marsh: What was your break?
David Carr: I just sent a note to [Spy co-founder and Inside.com boss] Kurt Andersen, who I did not know, along with a URL attached. And my bluff got called and he said, “Yeah, come on up, let’s talk.” It was in this huge former industrial building on the West Side. It was very much kind of a dot-com cartoon, with the freight elevator, people with earrings and tattoos, row after row of gleaming Macs, and a view of both the Hudson and Midtown that was just magical. And that room was full of people from like McSweeney’s sitting next to somebody from the Wall Street Journal sitting next to somebody from The Onion sitting next to somebody from Fortune. I’ve never been in a room like that. That was a ball. It was great publishing technology, it’s just too bad there was no business attached to it.
SM: How did you get the call up to the show?
DC: I was splitting time between the Atlantic and New York magazine. And then I called [the late Atlantic editor] Michael Kelly and said, “You know, the Times is talking to me about a job.” And he made a very, very gracious counter-offer, and then he said, “That’s me as your editor talking. Now as your friend, I want to tell you, if you like The New York Times and they like you back, that will be a life-changing experience and maybe you oughta think about taking it.”
SM: Have your sensibilities changed making the transition from the alternative press to the Times?
DC: Well, I’d like to think as a journalist that I shared values with the organization before I got there: efficacy, first and foremost, speed, elegance of language. Those are my values, I didn’t always achieve them, but I felt I had things in common with the place before I ever got there. But in a practical sense, I had an enormous amount to learn. A lot.
SM: Like what?
DC: It’s pretty nerve-wracking to be honest. Less about the place . . . the Times is a friendlier place than you might think. It’s more collegial than you might think. When you have a million people over your shoulder every day—that was the biggest and most profound change for me. It was a little shocking to come into work and pick up my phone and have people treat my little story that I did on deadline as if it was issued by God. And if you make a mistake, you really don’t have an excuse because, after all, you work for The New York Times. There’s nothing you can say back. So I spend a fair amount of time really sweating.
SM: How do you prowl your beat day-to-day? There isn’t a courthouse or a precinct or a locker room to go to.
DC: Well, thankfully my beat is full of needy gossipy people who are in the media business. They’re not in the media business because they’re good at keeping a secret.
SM: Do you think the media is perceived as more of a business than ever now?
DC: One of the inevitable byproducts of consolidation is that news becomes commodified as content. In an array of different platforms, in a way that people in the media business will use to produce ongoing revenues. [see Laci Peterson.] There’s no way of getting around that.
SM: Do you get treated like an internal affairs officer by peers at a party?
DC: I have dear friends who begin conversations with me about nothing in particular by saying, “This is totally off the record, right?”
SM: You were a friend of Jayson Blair. Can you identify with him at all? You were at one point living the vida loca of a young journalist.
DC: Yeah, although that wasn’t the bridge that we walked across. We walked across one that was built on recovery and chemical well-being, but make no mistake, Jayson Blair, who I liked enormously, got over on me really big time.
SM: So you were professionally and personally duped?
DC: Both. I had no trouble understanding why the leadership of the paper liked him. He was an enormously likable person. It certainly was a stunning thing to live through.
SM: How do you see this transition unfolding at the Times?
DC: Any time that somebody like Howell Raines, who worked really hard and well to get his hands on the wheel and ends up crashing, it’s breathtaking to watch. And tremendously sad. He was and is a good guy, but I think the Times has proven again and again over its 100-year history that it’s bigger than any individual. The day that Howell resigned, I did a story. It happened to be about him, but there were a lot of other people that did stories as well. I’ve been really struck by people who suggested that this institution is going to be crippled going forward. Many of the people who suggest that are long-time hacks that have been phoning it in from a great distance for a long, long time. And if you ask me, the big crisis in American journalism is not malpractice or malfeasance, it’s mediocrity. I go to a shop every day where people work really hard to get it right every single day. And just because it turned out that one of our reporters was using a corked bat doesn’t mean The New York Times still isn’t the journalistic equivalent of the Yankees. We’re always going to contend. Jayson Blair represented a very asymmetrical threat.
SM: You mentioned chemical recovery, there was a time in your life when you needed to clean up . . .
DC: I’m not talking about it. It’s nothing personal, but it’s been many, many years since, and I’ve raised kids by myself, and run newspapers. Even though it may be the most interesting fact about me, it’s not the most salient one. I’m a person who has three children, drives a Ford Explorer, lives in the New York suburbs and I take no particular pride in that part of my life. You can find the clips—there’s a Paul Levy story from the St. Paul Pioneer Press—but I’m not going to be the one talking about that.