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What David Carr Taught Us

Remembering a legendary journalist who improved the industry he critiqued.

by Benjamin Shapiro
15 February 2015, 6:29am

Photo via Wikipedia

Last night, after moderating a panel discussion with Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald, author and journalist David Carr collapsed in the New York Times newsroom. He was hurried to St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he was pronounced dead. His wife, Jill, and one of his daughters were with him when he passed. He was 58 years old.

We haven't seen many journalists as talented, frank, or funny as David, but it's likely some of our readers weren't aware of his work until now. Eulogizing such a remarkable man before all the facts come out feels risky, like we might miss something, or make a mistake. The kind of mistake that, while he was alive, David would have caught, and called us on. That's why we loved him.

But as David advised the countless young journalists who once flocked to him for advice, the best cure for writer's block is typing. So I'll just start typing.

As of this morning, the cause of David's death is not entirely clear. What we do know is that for his entire life, he struggled with the myriad physical and psychological challenges that tend to haunt those of us who spend the better part of our youths assaulting our brains with mood-altering chemicals. As a young reporter in Minneapolis, he built a career telling the stories of the most desperate drug users on the streets, before he became one himself.

David's rise from the dregs of that crippling cycle of addiction, as recounted in the 2008 memoir The Night of the Gun, is one of the greatest success stories in our industry. Once he got clean (inspired, in part, by a chilling incident he once recounted in his famous gravelly voice to the Moth, when he left his two infant twin girls alone in a car while he scored coke during a blizzard), David built his career in the 90s at alt weeklies, working for the Twin Cities Reader and the Washington City Paper. Then, in 2002, after stints at the Atlantic and New York magazine, he found a job that perfectly suited his unsparing journalistic wit: Covering the publishing industry for the New York Times' business section. He joined the Times during a time of uncertainty in the paper's history, and rose through the ranks to become its public face. Any discussion of the paper and its influence would be incomplete without a nod to David's work.

Even if you've never read his remarkable "Media Equation" column, you've witnessed its influence on any publication, outlet, or journalist who dares to do things their own way, whatever the consequences. He took shots wherever they were deserved, including at us, famously, in Page One, the 2011 documentary about the Times of which he was the star.

It's rare that one person is able to improve an entire industry, but that's exactly what Carr achieved. The numerous journalists and organizations he criticized came out better for it. His comments forced all of us to try harder. The bar he set was high but fair, and when a person or company received his praise it was cherished, probably framed and hung on a wall by some. In later years his opinion of us warmed, and he and VICE founder Shane Smith even became friends.

A few years ago, we had the great pleasure of working with one of his twin daughters, Erin, in our London and then US offices. We loved her. As a producer, Erin made some of the best documentaries we've ever done (if you haven't, you should really watch her piece on 3-D printed guns). We miss her humor and weird heart brightening up our lives in an office that can get, as all offices do, a bit depressing at times. Our hearts go out to her, and to the rest of David's family, in this time of unspeakable loss.

But most important, we'd like to thank David Carr. For everything you taught us. The world is different without you in it, and your death is a reminder that at the core of our work, at its very base, are people like you, sitting up late writing truth to power even when it's inconvenient for the execs.

You once wrote that the truth is singular, lies are plural, and that the facts of history are unknowable. You may have been right, but we know one thing: You'll go down in history as the best media reporter of our time. Thank you.

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