By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 2008 5:50 PM
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." By writing 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, started a job 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. One teenage daughter, Erin, 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."
Yesterday's New York Times Sunday Magazine featured an article adapted from the book as its cover story.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."Furthermore . . .
"The anchors are a big coup for Obama as he heads to Europe, the Middle East, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They confer instant legitimacy. McCain, like Hillary Clinton before him, is arguing that Obama isn't qualified to be commander in chief, but the networks are treating him like he's already got the job."
What could go wrong? Dickerson has suggestions:
"The Big Gaffe: All those cameras mean any substantive slip-up will be magnified. There's no indication that the Obama team will be letting the foreign press question him, and for good reason--they're often tougher than the U.S. press corps, in part because they don't have to worry about long-term access . . .
"The Ugly American: Obama is very popular in Europe. He'll be well-received, and that may delight many Americans who don't like what George Bush has done to the country's reputation. He'll also have an opportunity to match the nice pictures with words about his larger foreign-policy plans, which stress diplomacy over muscle, in contrast to McCain and Bush. But Obama can't look like he agrees with Europe that only he can save America from its racist, backward ways . . .
"Hubris Alert: Who does Obama think he is? He's not the president. He's not even his party's official nominee yet. Obama has no shortage of self-confidence. If the trip looks a little too presumptuous, voters who have doubts about his experience might wonder where he gets off acting a part they haven't given him yet."
The last one might be a problem. But the trip looks like one endless photo op to me.
Obama has given his first interview, to CBS's Lara Logan:
"The Illinois senator also said his high profile trip to the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq and to foreign capitals in the Middle East and Europe was not designed to allay doubts about his preparedness to be commander-in-chief. 'The people who are very experienced in foreign affairs I don't think have those doubts,' Obama said. 'The troops that I've been meeting with over the last several days, they don't seem to have those doubts.' " Here's the transcript.
Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi is struck by the audacity of ego:
"Now he's turning into the A-Rod of politics. It's all about him.
"He's giving his opponent something other than issues to attack him on: narcissism.
"A convention hall isn't good enough for the presumptive Democratic nominee. He plans to deliver his acceptance speech in the 75,000 seat stadium where the Denver Broncos play . . .
"Obama finds criticism of his wife 'infuriating' and doesn't want either of them to be the target of satire. Tell that to the Carters, the Reagans, the Clintons, and the Bushes, father and son.
"There's no such thing as a humble politician. But when Obama looks into the mirror, he doesn't just see a president; he sees JFK."
Which is probably a crime in Boston.
Columnist Kathleen Parker isn't enamored, either:
"Obama's self-deprecation was his most charming bit, but lately he is, well, less charming. He and his wife seem more like a finger-wagging principal and teacher tag team, with Michelle Obama promising that her husband will make us work harder when he becomes president. You get the feeling that should the Obamas take over, we'll all be staying after school. They used to call that detention."
Is there any penalty for getting a story totally wrong? This is what the Wall Street Journal wrote a week ago:
"June fund-raising for Sen. Obama appears to be falling below the expectations of some supporters. The campaign hasn't released its June numbers, but people close to the fund-raising operation say the total will likely be just over $30 million. While this isn't a poor showing, it is an underwhelming haul for a campaign that has ballooned in recent months."
What's underwhelming is the Journal's accuracy. Obama's fundraising take for June: $52 million.
Many of those conservatives who swore they'd never back John McCain seem to be coming around, including James Dobson.
The New York Times portrays McCain as a Capitol Hill wizard:
"He mastered the art of political triangulation -- variously teaming up with [Trent] Lott against the president or the new Republican leaders, with Democrats against Republicans, and with the president against the Democrats -- to become perhaps the chamber's most influential member."
The toughest on-the-bus piece I've read on McCain appears not in The Liberal Media but the Washington Times:
"At times it appears Sen. John McCain's Straight Talk Express should stop and ask for directions.
"From signature issues such as immigration and climate change to tax cuts, the presumed Republican presidential nominee sometimes just seems lost as to his own record and his stance on hot-button social issues.
"After Mr. McCain said he opposed child adoptions to gay and lesbian couples, his campaign clarified that he wasn't making policy and would leave the issue to the states.
"In the past week, the candidate was unable to say whether he thought health care plans that cover drugs to treat impotency also should cover contraceptives. Mr. McCain voted against such a proposal in 2005.
"For a candidate who delights in telling audiences that it's time for 'a little straight talk' he has given his opponents chances to question that reputation . . . Twice this year, Mr. McCain has said he doesn't support 'mandatory' caps on greenhouse gas emissions, even though that is the crux of his proposal to address climate change."
The piece doesn't escape the notice of David Corn:
"McCain better watch out. He's getting quite close to establishing--here comes that buzz word--a narrative. And it ain't a flattering one: it's the story of an older candidate who either (a) cannot remember what he has said or done or (b) misrepresents the facts for political expedience. Neither scenario is in sync with a tale of a straight-talking, independent-minded politician."
The media have magically made Mitt into the VP front-runner. But Allahpundit says he might be better off not being the running mate:
"Anyone want to try floating a plausible scenario by which we'd see a Bush/McCain/Romney succession, even if Maverick only serves one term? Three men from the same party haven't been consecutively independently elected since Grant, Hayes, and Garfield during the post-Civil War Republican stranglehold on government. (I'm not counting McKinley/Roosevelt/Taft or Harding/Coolidge/Hoover since both sequences involved presidential deaths.) Good luck replicating that with public opinion about the GOP being what it is. The only way you could conceivably do it is if McCain's presidency was both a dramatic break from Bush and phenomenally successful, transforming the dynamic from three Republicans in a row to old Republican/new Republican/new Republican. But how phenomenal is his success likely to be with heavy Democratic majorities in both houses?
"All of which is another way of saying that if Mitt's hellbent on the presidency, he needs McCain to lose -- which, ironically, makes him the Hillary to Maverick's Obama, albeit even more so. As such, there's no reason to join the ticket."
But you know Romney won't say no. That $45-million investment he's just written off has got to buy him something!Adjective Watch
"The numbers are staggering."--Friday's NYT on the challenges facing Merrill Lynch.
"The numbers are staggering."--Friday's NYT, in the story right below, on the growth in Dubai.
Times reporters sure stagger easy.