You are here

David Carr, defender of traditions of the Times, proponent of new media

A journalist who became the leading media columnist of his era and one of the most prominent reporters at the New York Times, David Carr was a onetime crack addict and alcoholic who had never worked for a daily newspaper before arriving at the august Times in 2002.

[NEW YORK] "I'm not what you would call the classic Timesman," David Carr once said, with no little understatement.

A journalist who became the leading media columnist of his era and one of the most prominent reporters at the New York Times, Carr was a onetime crack addict and alcoholic who had never worked for a daily newspaper before arriving at the august Times in 2002.

His widely read Media Equation column analyzed developments across the media landscape, from newspapers to movies, social media and television. He also published a darkly revealing memoir about his addictions and his fitful struggles to overcome them.

Carr was 58 when he died Feb 12 in New York.

He collapsed about 9 pm in the Times newsroom, soon after leading a discussion about the documentary film "Citizenfour," with its director, Laura Poitras, journalist Glenn Greenwald and, from Moscow, the film's primary subject, Edward Snowden, who leaked documents from the National Security Agency.

The Times first reported his death. The cause was not immediately known.

Carr, a former editor of the Washington City Paper, was an outspoken defender of the traditions of the Times, but he was also an early proponent of new media: He had 469,000 followers on Twitter.

In his final story, which appeared the day he died, he wrote about the parallel careers of two television figures leaving their posts in the past week, Brian Williams of "NBC Nightly News" and Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show." "We want our anchors to be everywhere, to be impossibly famous, globe-trotting, hilarious, down-to-earth, and above all, trustworthy," Carr wrote earlier in the week about Williams. "It's a job description that no one can match." In defining the difference between activists and journalists, Carr wrote in 2013: "Journalists are responsible for following the truth wherever it may guide them. . . . Activists can and often do reveal the truth, but the primary objective remains winning the argument." In addition to his writing on the media, Carr reported from the red carpet at entertainment awards programs, led online discussions of the Netflix program "House of Cards" and interviewed figures as diverse as musician Neil Young, actor Woody Harrelson and Internet pioneer Pierre Omidyar.

"He was the finest media reporter of his generation," the Times executive editor, Dean Baquet, said in a note to the staff, and "one of the leaders of our newsroom." Carr's writing was a smooth, provocative blend of sophistication and common sense. But what set him apart as a reporter was his knack of cutting through self-importance to ask searching questions that no one else would dare.

Carr emerged as a central figure in a 2011 documentary, "Page One: Inside the New York Times," in which he was shown working the phones, crafting stories and, in one memorable scene, standing up for the Times and its journalistic values.

Sitting at a conference table with founders of the website Vice, Carr listened as they described their outsider approach to news. One of them, Shane Smith, had visited West Africa and was fascinated by two things: human waste on the beach and what he considered a cult of cannibalism.

He mocked The New York Times for "writing about surfing" and ignoring the cannibals.

"Just a sec, time out," Carr interjected in his distinctively croaky voice. "Before you ever went there, we've had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. And just because you put on a . . . safari helmet and looked at some poop, doesn't give you the right to insult what we do. So continue." Smith: "I'm just saying I'm not a journalist, I'm not there to report." Carr: "Obviously." If anyone in the mainstream media had outsider credentials, it was Carr.

"Every hangover begins with an inventory," he wrote in his 2008 memoir, "The Night of the Gun," which recounted his life with meticulous and often unflattering candor.

"I remembered I had jumped my best friend outside a bar. And now that I thought about it, that was before I tried to kick down his door and broke a window in his house. . . . I had been such a jerk that my best friend had to point a gun at me to make me go away. Then I remembered I'd lost my job." Only, as Carr discovered, that's not what really happened. It was he who had pointed the gun at his friend.

In an effort to make sense of his life, Carr verified his memoir through interviews, hospital documents and police records of his many arrests, most in Minnesota, where he was born and raised.

"I would show up at the doorsteps of people I had not seen in two decades," he wrote, "and ask them to explain myself to me." After reassembling the broken pieces of his past, he told a raw tale of alcoholism and addiction to cocaine in all its forms.

He went to rehab five times. He and his first wife were divorced, and he took up with a woman named Anna, who was his cocaine dealer. They were smoking crack the day their twin daughters were born in 1988.

During some of those years, he worked as a journalist, but he ended up selling marijuana and cocaine to the artsy set of Minneapolis.

After a successful rehabilitation, Carr gained custody of his daughters and restarted his journalism career at the Twin Cities Reader in Minneapolis.

He came to Washington in 1995 and spent five years as editor of the weekly Washington City Paper. He wrote a media column and was considered an inspiring leader by the staff.

"He was very collegial and extremely energetic," said Erik Wemple, who later edited the City Paper and now writes a blog about the media for The Washington Post. "He would invite people into his office and say, 'Are you happy? Are you having fun?' " David Michael Carr was born Sept 8, 1956, in Minneapolis and was one of seven children. His father owned clothing stores; his mother was a teacher.

By the time he graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1981, he was writing investigative stories for the now-defunct Twin Cities Reader. After leaving Washington in 2000, Carr worked for an Internet start-up, the Atlantic and New York magazine before landing at the Times in 2002.

After receiving a diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1991, Carr underwent radiation treatment and surgery that left him with a permanently deformed neck.

Survivors include his wife of 20 years, Jill Rooney Carr of Montclair, New Jersey, who is an executive with the Shake Shack hamburger chain; the twin daughters from his earlier relationship; a daughter from his second marriage; three brothers; and two sisters.

Last year, Carr began teaching at Boston University, which published an online interview in which he discussed the future of journalism in a fast-changing technological age.

Ever the contrarian, he pointed out that "paper itself is a wonderful technology. It's got very high resolution. It's totally searchable. You can turn the page and look through what you want. It's very portable; you can carry it wherever you want."