[Editor Note: New York Times columnist David Carr died at work on February 12, 2015, at age 58. This interview, originally published in May 2011, was conducted as part of Carr’s promotional duties for the documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times.”)
David Carr claims to work in ‘a room full of pasty-faced trolls engaged in this series of really prosaic acts.’
Whether he likes it or not, New York Times media columnist David Carr is about to become much more famous than the vast majority of newspaper writers will ever be. Carr is a primary force in Page One: Inside the New York Times, a documentary coming in June from filmmakers Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack.
Capping a 16-year career that included editing alternative weeklies in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C., with stops at Inside.com and the Atlantic Monthly and New York magazine, Carr joined “the paper of record” in 2002. A self-described “ex-crackhead with a voice like Kermit the Frog,” Carr’s presence in Page One: Inside the New York Times is brash, voluble and irascibly protective of the Times as institution and workplace.
Carr documented his life’s textured zigzags in The Night of the Gun (Simon and Schuster, 2008). This memoir of druggy lost times was widely praised for, among other strengths, the reportorial method Carr used to research his blown years. By the latest count, @Carr2n has close to 330,000 Twitter followers.
On a promotional tour for Page One, Carr sat with the Skeeve and refused to shirk a string of personal questions.
The Skeeve: What kind of person is good at your job?
David Carr: Where I work there are so many different answers to that. I wrote a book a couple of years ago, and as I went about the book tour, there were two kinds of reporters. One was the kind that you show up, and they make a speech about what you’ve done, about what the movie means, what the book means, what your political announcement means. Then they see what you think of their take.
And then there’s the other kind that just asks a simple, basic, direct question with nothing attached. The good stories always came out of the second version, not the people that make speeches, which is fine. No big deal. Except I happen to be one of the first kind.
I was a speechmaker. I was the kind of person who was always explaining. So, I think a person who is willing to understand that they are adjacent to important things, and they’re next to a lot of important decisions, but does not get confused about their own role in it. We are Boswells. We’re people who go find people more interesting than us, write down what they say, and bring it back and tell other people about it.
There’s shouters where I work; there’s people who hardly say a word ever. And the thing that ties them together is just this insatiable desire to know what cannot be known. Just over and over. Like the one thing you can tell me that will be a cape in front of my eyes is, “You can’t know that.”
I take that as a taunt. I was doing a story about tax incentives in Shreveport, Louisiana. They told me, “We have six movies shooting. Five are open sets. The sixth is Oliver Stone’s, and that’s a closed set.” As soon as they said that, I’m like, I’m going on that set.
I ended up locked in a trailer with Oliver Stone. I had no idea what to talk to him about. But I just somehow had to get there. I went wandering around the set, and I caught somebody’s eye. Before I knew it, there I was.
And he’s like, “So what are we talking about?”
“I don’t even know; I just had to get here.”
The Skeeve: How does the textured life you wrote about in Night of the Gun work as an asset now?
David Carr: I have to make a phone call this afternoon that’s very uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable to think about. I’m probably going to say some things that aren’t going to make the other person on the end of the line very happy. I’m a little worried about it, but I’m not scared about it. And, you know, I’ve raised two children with no money. I have been through treatment five times. I’ve met with people who I owed a lot of money to when I didn’t have the money. So everything else seems sort of misdemeanor in that context, although I still get scared.
“In terms of what have I done that will live in the Pantheon? Probably not much. Not much. I don’t care though. I mean, it beats working.”
In the movie, there’s this big scene of me calling the Tribune guys, and I seem really confident. In fact, I’m crapping my pants the whole time. I’m really scared. But in general [the textured past] makes me not so worried. Like when I go to make this call, I know what I’m going to do. I don’t know what I’m going to say, but I’m going to dial the number, and I’ll start talking when that person picks up. And that’s from having a life that hasn’t really moved in a straight line, you know what I mean?
The Skeeve: What made you become a storyteller?
David Carr: Holy shit. I need to look into my soul. Let me take a big long bong hit and answer that question. [pause] When I was in fourth grade—this is going to be a sort of long answer; it’s a truthful one—I was kind of a momma’s boy. I was in Catholic school, and the nun, who was this mean hateful witch, I don’t know what her name was, but she was talking about having a soul, and I asked, “When I get to heaven, I’m going to see my mom and dad?”
“Um, not in the form that you think of them.”
“Well, they’ll be there!”
“Mmm, not really. No, you probably won’t be reunited with your mom and dad in heaven.”
That began, like, a year and a half of lying awake and pondering that, and I became really a very serious kind of insomniac. We had a basement full of really crappy American literature, like Hardy Boys and, I don’t know, some good stuff; some Huckleberry Finn. But just nasty old books that everybody has in their basement and rec room. Because I was awake a long time at night, I would sit in my bed, and my head just got filled with all these words. And I’ve been spilling them out ever since. I’ve been playing them back.
In terms of being a journalist, that was just something at the time—I graduated in 1974—that sounded so cool to say. Post Watergate: “Oh, I’m a journalist.”
I never wrote a story; never did anything. Then a friend of mine’s dad got beat up by the cops. I was like, “Well somebody should do a story about that.”
And my dad said, “Aren’t you a journalist?”
So that’s sort of how I got started.
The Skeeve: What is the value of your work to the world at large?
David Carr: Depends on the story. Last Monday, I took a nail gun to Nancy Grace and said what she does is corrosive and bad for the culture. Is that important for people to know? No. Turn on the TV. Go, “Oh, nitwit.” You don’t really need me to say that.
On the other hand, I’m working on a big long story about a former hero of our profession who has fallen in significant ways. I don’t think anybody has told this story in that way. There’s value to that. I’m going to write about Buck, the documentary about this sort of horse whisperer dude. A few more people might see it because I’m going to write about it. I’m going to write about The Motherfucker With the Hat, which is the play about recovery and betrayal. Does the world need to know what I think about that? No, but I think there will be some understanding around the edges.
I don’t get into that a lot. I’m more like a craft guy, like a guy who makes stuff. And in terms of what have I done that will live in the Pantheon? Probably not much. Not much. I don’t care though. I mean, it beats working—by like a mile.