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'Fresh Air' Favorites: Columnist David Carr


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to continue our end-of-the-decade series featuring staff picks of the decade with my 2011 interview with journalist David Carr. He died in 2015 of complications from lung cancer. Carr investigated the business side of journalism, analyzed new developments in media and wrote a media column for The New York Times. I'm one of the people who still misses his Monday column. In 2008, he wrote a memoir about his addiction and recovery called "The Night Of The Gun." He was the breakout character in the documentary "Page One," which followed the Times media desk during a tumultuous year. I spoke with Carr in 2011 when the documentary was released.


GROSS: David Carr, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your journalism is changing because it's on different platforms. When one of your articles is in the New York Times online, if there's any mistakes that were made in the article, those mistakes are corrected at the bottom of the article. It used to be that corrections were kind of buried in, like, page two or something. Nobody ever saw them. So your mistakes, your errors weren't, like, following you around. But they are now. What's that experience like of having the mistakes corrected at the bottom of the article?

DAVID CARR: You know, I have to tell you, when I got to the New York Times, which was about 10 years ago, I was paralyzed by the idea that my reporting lacked the professionalism and efficacy required to be in The New York Times. I had done a lot of writing and done a lot of reporting, but I now was at a place where kind of the size of the megaphone and its sort of history made it all the more powerful. And then if I said something that was unfair or untrue - that I could snap somebody's career in half like a dry winter twig.

And sure enough, after I started, I quickly ended up on page two, in the corrections. And you used the term buried. They're not buried to us. That is a hall of shame there, and it's a page you want to totally stay off of. And it's material to your sort of career there. So it's very, very important. And it doesn't matter where error occurs. It always follows you around.

And part of the deal with working at The New York Times is that your readers - a portion of whom are kind of church ladies and copy-ninnies and fact-freaks - they wait like crows on a wire for you to make the slightest error and then descend, caw, caw, cawing every time you screw up. And it still is something that I - that wakes me up at night. After I've written something, I wonder if I got something right. And so the fact that now they follow me around like tin cans on the Internet, at least on the Web...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CARR: At least on the Web, you can amend. You know, the ethic of the Web is to say what you know as quickly as you can and then reiterate over and over again. The Web is kind of a self-cleaning oven, and what you have up there could grow more efficacious, more accurate as time goes by. That's never true of print. It's always there for the ages, to haunt you if you got it wrong.

GROSS: At the beginning of the film, at the beginning of the documentary "Page One," you're on the phone with a source, and you're saying to your source, I see this as a big story. I could probably get significant space. What do you think the story is that I should tell? I thought that was such a really interesting way of putting it. Do you say that a lot to sources - what's the story you think I should tell?

CARR: It's a funny thing because it - that's experience that came off - I wrote a book a couple of years ago, and I did significant press at the time, and there were two kinds of interviewers. There were ones that would make sort of speeches about what I had done and have a grand theory about what my book was about and many of them quite marvelous and well-thought-through. And then were people who asked simple, direct questions. And almost to a person, the best stories came from the people who asked simple, direct questions. And you'd say, well, that's only logical, except historically, I had been a reporter who was very fond of making speeches and very fond of telling people what their stories were about.

And so that was very sort of hard-won information on my part, that I had to ask and then stop talking and asking people what they think the story is. You know, we're people who just show up and declare ourselves as instant experts on all manner of stories. And we often are only taking a very sort of blunt-force guess about what's going on, and I think it always behooves us just to ask the people, especially if you're aspiring to do something good, what do you think is going on? What do you think this is about?

GROSS: And do you use that question especially when you know there's going to be conflicting points of view on a story, and you're talking to representatives of those different points of view?

CARR: Well, I strive for congruence. And by that, I mean there's an interview near the end of the movie with officials at the Tribune Company. It's far less friendly. It's far more declarative. And I'm telling the person at the other end of the phone what I think the story is about. I don't want to be sort of a poodle dog when I'm out there and a friendly sort of presence in people's lives and then come back and do something that's really mean or aggressive.

And if it's going to be a hard story, one of the things I always say is, this is going to be a really serious story, and I'm asking very serious questions. And it behooves you to think it through and really work on answering and defending yourself because this is not a friendly story. And if they don't engage, I just tell them, well, you know what? You better put the nut-cup on, because this is not going to be pleasant for anyone.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CARR: I worked at a weekly with a lot of young reporters, and I would hear them pouring on the honey on the phone and being real sweet and nice with the people that they talked to. And then they would turn in these stories that were scabrous and really mean. And I said, well, you're just - you're setting this up, so the phone call's going to come to me, not you. And you haven't done these people the privilege of giving them an opportunity to defend themselves. I don't think people who read your work, who are involved as sources, should be surprised.

I often read significant parts of the story to the people that are involved because I don't want to sit up in the middle of the night and wonder whether I was fundamentally unfair to the person, that - I don't want anybody to open up one of my stories and have their nose broken by what they read - although, you know, I do have to say, at the beginning of the week, I wrote a really mean column, and I didn't tell anybody involved. So I guess that's not always true.

GROSS: At the beginning of this week?

CARR: Yeah, I wrote about bonuses...

GROSS: Yeah, you had a story that was headlined "Why Not Occupy Newsrooms?" And you were basically asking, how come there isn't an occupy movement in newspapers? Because newspaper executives are guilty of some of the same things that bank executives are. Make the analogy for us.

CARR: Well, in the instance of Gannett - Gannett is a publicly held company that owns 82 newspapers across America, in towns big and small, dailies and weeklies. And in the past six years, they've gone from 52,000 employees to 32,000 employees. The guy who oversaw it, the CEO, Craig Dubow, when he left, received $37 million in health, compensation and disability benefits. In this instance - and at the Tribune Company, which I also wrote about - the chief executives made choices that resulted in a lot of people getting rolled out of the back of the truck. Now, it was a very challenging environment for newspapers, but I don't think that people should benefit in the tens of millions of dollars for just firing people. There's no innovation there. There's no magic to that, and I don't think that sort of thinking and strategy should be rewarded.

GROSS: So what was different in terms of how you handled this article and how you typically handle articles that are investigative or critical of the organization that you're writing about or the company you're writing about?

CARR: Well, I had done a story a few months ago about Gannett's bonuses, and I spent four days trying to get the company to comment on what they did. And on Sunday night, just before deadline, they said, we're not going to have any comment on these bonuses. And I just said, really? You're a newspaper company. You're a publicly held company. These bonuses are a matter of public record, and you have nothing to say about them. And I just found that appalling. And I think some of that was sort of reflected in the fact that A, I didn't bother to call them, and B, that I was angry after I'd written about their last set of bonuses that they clearly were a life beyond consequence, and they just stepped up and did it again and gave this guy a huge bag of money on the way out the door.

GROSS: We're listening to my 2011 interview with journalist David Carr, who was a media reporter and columnist for The New York Times. We'll hear more of the interview after a break as our end-of-the-decade series continues. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. This week, we're featuring some of our staff's favorite interviews from the decade. Let's get back to my 2011 interview with David Carr, who was a media reporter and columnist for The New York Times.


GROSS: A few years ago, you wrote a very personal memoir about being addicted and recovering from the addictions. And the addictions were coke and crack, and you had alcohol problems, too. The book is called "Night Of The Gun." And, you know, I'm just wondering, like, did The New York Times - when you got your job after you were clean, after you were sober and you got your job with the New York Times, how much did they know about the addiction part of your past? I mean, it's not the kind of thing you put on your resume. (Laughter) But did you talk to them about it?

CARR: I think I did...

GROSS: Did you really?

CARR: ...In terms of, like, my communication to them. I mean, part of - I didn't want there to be any surprises about sort of who I am and what I've done. But what I tried to emphasize is, you know, I was a very low-bottom, poly-addicted crackhead, drunk, whatever you want to call it - number of misdemeanor arrests, violence against all sorts of people. And what I wanted to point out is that since then, you know, I'd been a single parent. I had gotten off of welfare, that I had taken any number of the assignments and done a good job, that I had run newspapers, that I'd done a few things since then.

But still, when I did the book, you know, I went to my boss, Sam Sifton at the time, and he said, I'll walk the book down there, but I think you probably should do it. And I said, well, do you have a pair of tongs or oven mitts or something that I can use to hand it over? Because it was a very - it's kind of a dark book. And when I gave it to him, Bill Keller said, you know what? We don't hire nones (ph). We have no problem with your book. You know, they said they were proud of the book. But...

GROSS: But getting back to them hiring you, you know, before the book existed. They were okay with it? Like, you told them your story, and they had faith that you would remain sober and do a good job.

CARR: Yeah. It's not something that we committed to directly. I mean, I didn't, in fact, remain sober. So - and I don't think that that's part of the contract. I did try drinking again. It didn't go very well. My work never suffered, per se. My work rarely did. It's always the last thing to go. But if you took all of the functioning alcoholics and addicts out of the American economy, you'd be taking out a lot of firepower and a lot of talent. In the main, while I've been at the New York Times, I have been completely sober, highly productive, true to my word, doing my best, like everyone else there, to get it right.

But they don't - I've seen people at the Times tumble and get in personal trouble. And you know what? That place - it's weird, but it will pick you up and accommodate all manner of human frailties because people are pushed to the limit at the place. And when somebody stumbles, it's an incredibly humane place. And I know that sounds gooey and horrible, and I never really needed it or required it, but I've seen - it's like when you're on deadline there and you really can't quite get it done and there's not enough room, and somehow, everyone around you will sort of lift you up and throw you across the goal line. And then you're the one who stands up the next day and puts your arms above your head because you made a touchdown. Everybody there is working very hard to make it better.

GROSS: So this question is probably way too personal. So just...

CARR: I bet not.

GROSS: Well, just tell me if it is because I don't want to be intrusive. For a lot of people who are giving up an addiction, they're encouraged to, like, find a higher power that they can, you know, turn to and believe in, whether it's religion or something else that will function in that way. Was there such a thing for you?

CARR: You know, it's funny you should mention that because I'm in the middle of sort of a struggle with that. And it's not that - I am a churchgoing Catholic, and I do that as a matter of - it's good to stand with my family. It's good that I didn't have to come up with my own creation myth for my children. It's a wonderful group of people that I go to church with, and it's community. It's not really where I find God. And sort of what the accommodation I've reached is a very jerry-rigged one, which is: All along the way, in recovery, I've been helped - without getting into the names of specific groups - by all of these strangers, you know, who get in a room and do a form of group-talk therapy and live by certain rules in their life.

And one of the rules is that you help everyone who needs help. And I think to myself, well, that seems remarkable. And not only is that not a general human impulse, but it's not an impulse of mine. And yet I found myself doing that over and over again. So am I, underneath all things, just a really wonderful, giving person? Or is there a force greater than myself that is leading me to act in ways that are altruistic and not self-interested and lead to the greater good? And so that's - that's sort of as far as I've gotten with the higher power thing, is I'm - you know, I'm kind of a pirate, kind of a thug. I mean, I've done a bunch of terrible things, and yet I'm able to, for the most part, be a decent person. How is that? Do I have some inner strength of character? I think not. I think something else is working on me.

I don't - like, I think it's OK to sort of like have a superstitious belief in God and not really have thought it through. I think it's OK to just - I think there's freedom in allowing for the possibility of it. Like, I don't have a presence. I don't have some idea in my mind of a woman or a man figure or anything like that. But I find the spaces between people, whether I'm making a newspaper with them or in recovery or living with them as family or friends or - I find something really godly in that. I don't have trouble acknowledging that.

GROSS: So you've found something godly, but there isn't a theology that you're following.

CARR: Yeah. I've been watching sort of this debate over Mormonism that's gone on because of the folks that are running for president, people making fun of their theology. And then I think, well, I'm a practicing Catholic. We suggest that - in churches all over the world that there is a metamorphosis of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, which we proceed to eat and drink, which, when you really take a step back, is sort of creepy, right? But that's who I'm running with.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CARR: So I - you know, whether it's the kind of underwear people where or the hats they wear on their head or the turbans or whatever, again, I make no judgment. I find comfort in those traditions.

GROSS: Well, David Carr, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

CARR: It was a pleasure to speak with you, Terry.

GROSS: David Carr recorded in 2011. He died of complications from lung cancer in 2015. Our series of FRESH AIR favorite interviews from the decade will continue tomorrow. After a short break, our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, will choose his word of the year. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHUCHO VALDES'S "OCHUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.