By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 2008
David Carr's latest subject is a pathetic human being, a thug, a manipulative jerk who uses people and puts his own kids in danger.
The New York Times media columnist is writing about himself.
He is unsparing as he rips the protective bark off his life, baring his past addictions to crack and alcohol and the utter depths to which he sank. He is selling a memoir -- "The Night of the Gun" -- built on self-flagellation, heaping abuse on himself and his weaknesses.
The former editor of Washington City Paper admits he is an unreliable narrator as he investigates the wreckage he left behind. Carr says he and his girlfriend Anna were smoking crack the day she gave birth to the premature twins he would raise for years on his own; she disputes that. He comes to doubt his own memory as past pals contradict the narrative in his head.
Why share this with the world? Carr, 51, isn't quite sure. "I ask myself that all the time," he says in an interview. "I still feel uneasy about it. It may well be a mistake."
Carr was fired from a series of jobs in Minneapolis as his life became consumed by coke snorting and dealing (not to mention dropping acid) while he checked in and out of rehab centers and kept getting arrested. His personal life was nothing to brag about, and he doesn't: "My duplicity around women was towering and chronic. I conned and manipulated myself into their beds and then treated them as human jewelry, something to be worn for effect."
But recounting exactly what happened is another story, which is why he uses the approach of interviewing people from his dark past, many from the mid-1980s. Carr recognizes that "the meme of abasement followed by salvation is a durable device in literature," but life is invariably more complicated. "Can I tell you a true story about the worst day of my life? No," he writes.
On that day, he recalls, his friend Donald, during a drug-induced argument, pulled a gun on him. Except that he tracked down Donald, who swears it was Carr who brandished the .38 special, and another friend who knew where Carr kept the weapon stashed. If Carr was wrong about that, he wonders, what else was he wrong about?
The story keeps getting worse: Carr beating up Anna, breaking one of her ribs and throwing her off a dock. Carr smacking around his other girlfriend, Doolie -- the two women didn't know about each other -- who called the police after he slapped her in the face: "I tortured her, mentally, verbally and, eventually, physically."
Friends and relatives warned him that detailing such repulsive behavior could damage his career, Carr concedes. "I just thought if I tried to sandpaper some corners, the whole thing would fall apart," he told me.
He wrote the book, he says, to help pay for his daughters' college tuition, and he videotaped the interviews for a companion Web site. While reporting the book "was more embarrassing than painful," Carr says, "parts of it were really uncomfortable. I hadn't seen the girls' mom in 10 years. It was scary to pull up to her place."
Now that he's written the book, he says, Anna "feels I threw her under the bus. I said: 'I'm right there with you. How did I get treated any better than you? I'm complicit in everything that happens.' " A few people wouldn't talk, including Carr's first wife, Kim, whom he married (and cheated on) before his drug use spun out of control: "Not only did she push me out of her life, she was happy to leave it that way."
Several months after Anna gave birth to their twins in 1988, Carr went into detox and then a six-month stint in rehab while the girls were placed in foster care. He emerged, won custody of the kids and tried to pull his life together, only to be sidelined by cancer of the immune system. But he beat the disease and started freelancing.
Somehow, Carr landed a job as editor of the Twin Cities Reader, where his management skills included complimenting a female staffer on her "nice rack." When he became editor of Washington City Paper in 1995, Carr, having grown up in "a land of white people who eat white food," says he found "Chocolate City" a mystery. He quickly stirred controversy with such headlines as "Black Hole: Why Isn't the Black Community Producing Leaders Worth Following?"
Carr married again, had another baby, moved to New York and, in 2002, began working at the Times, where his journalistic duties include covering the Oscars hoopla each year. At this point, the reader expects the memoir to sprint to a how-I-overcame-it-all finish. But that doesn't happen. After 14 years of sobriety, Carr starts drinking again, and occasionally doing coke.
"I decided I was going to be a nice suburban alcoholic, that I could be normal like other guys and go out for a pop after work," he says. "That didn't work out too well for me. I had to quit pretending I was normal."
One day, while sloshed, he drove his daughters to his weekend cabin in the Adirondacks and almost hit an oncoming car, saved only by their shouts. His wife, Jill Rooney Carr, begged him not to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and, as she feared, he drank his way through New Orleans. Carr suffered alcohol withdrawal, told a Times editor about his addiction and checked back into rehab.
The relapse strained relations with his wife and kids, as Carr acknowledges in the book. But Jill Carr says she's comfortable with his literary soul-baring.
"I married the man with that story and I knew 99 percent of it," she says. "We were very clear from the outset that this was something we'd have to live with. I'm not nervous. There are people who'll love it. Others will find it despicable. My true friends and family will always be there for us."
But some wounds are not so easily healed. Daughter Erin, now 20, is still angry at her dad for the near-accident in the car, "the most irresponsible thing you could ever do." The other, Meagan, tells him: "I knew you were going to screw up . . . but I never pictured you throwing your life away."
Times Executive Editor Bill Keller says the book only increased his respect for Carr. "Unlike so many memoirists who have been caught making things up, Dave went out and reported on his own life," he says. "A guy who pulls himself out of the swamp, keeps his demons in check, turns his career around and raises a loving family has demonstrated a kind of character that is in short supply these days."
Carr has been sober for nearly three years, though he's battling an addiction to cigarettes, but still considers himself one drink away from disaster. He has made plans to attend group counseling meetings while he is on book tour and covering the political conventions.
His past travails have not entirely escaped notice. Bill O'Reilly of Fox News Channel, for instance, has called Carr a "far-left zealot" and "former crack addict." Carr says that some sources, unhappy with his reporting, try to use his sordid history as leverage. And that, he says, is one more reason to publish the book.
"There is value in taking custody of the information," Carr says. "I am who I am and everyone knows it."News You Can't Use
The incredible shrinking newspaper is starting to lose some of its old-fashioned foundations.
Nearly two-thirds of the papers surveyed by the Project for Excellence in Journalism have cut back on space for foreign news at a time when America is fighting two wars. Nearly half say they are devoting fewer resources to covering such stories; the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer and Baltimore Sun have closed their remaining overseas bureaus in the past three years. A mere 10 percent say foreign news is "essential."
National news hasn't fared much better, with 57 percent of newspapers saying they have cut the space devoted to such issues. More than a third have reduced business coverage. Science and arts reporting is also shriveling. All this, says the project, "reduces the marketplace of ideas."
On the rise: a 62 percent jump in community news and a 49 percent rise in state and local news -- especially in education -- where papers are arguably the most indispensable. Ninety-seven percent of editors at the 259 papers surveyed called local news "very essential" to their product.
With the business being squeezed by declining revenue and circulation, six in 10 papers reported that they cut full-time staff in the past three years -- a figure that rises to 85 percent at newspapers with daily sales over 100,000.
And how are readers reacting to these leaner publications?
Diane McFarlin, publisher of the Sarasota, Fla., Herald-Tribune, told the group she has gotten no letters of complaint about less local news or fewer investigative pieces. "What I get is hate mail about taking the TV listings, cutting the size of the crossword or moving the comics around. That's what enrages people."