The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

David Carr, friend of journalism

In this Aug. 11, 2008, file photo, David Carr, culture reporter and media columnist for the New York Times, poses for a photograph in New York. (Associated Press/Stephen Chernin, File)

David Carr looked a bit awkward gathering kindling. His neck barely worked, so when he picked up a branch he looked as rigid as front-loader. But there was a job to do, so none of the ailments that failed to stop him in his rise to the top of journalism were going to get in the way of a campfire alongside his cabin in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains.

The sticks had to be the right thickness, the right length, the right dryness to qualify for placement in the meticulously structured Carr pyramid. The frame would go as high as David could get it to go — perhaps 8 feet or so. And when he torched it, the flames roared and jumped high above the structure. The result was a not-very-intimate campfire, because people had to sit down at a significant remove from the thing to be safe in case it tipped over, which it sometimes did. The vibe was always more campfire yell than campfire chat.

David Carr, though, wasn’t going to make a 3-foot campfire when a 14-foot campfire was within reach. He was a go-big-or-stay-home fellow, as his wife, Jill Rooney Carr, was fond of noting.

That David was a person of large appetites is a story that he himself lays out in his memoir, “The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own.” There was the appetite for booze, the appetite for drugs, the appetite for chaos; but there was also the appetite for literature, for journalism, for his friends and for his family. The turning point in his life came when he realized he couldn’t keep feeding that first set without endangering the second.

I first met David in the mid-1990s, when he came to town from Minnesota to edit Washington City Paper. At the time, I was writing freelance pieces for the alt-weekly, and when an opening arose, I applied, interviewed and wrote one of those job memos. The process was difficult only in the sense that many of the things David told me I didn’t understand. He used his own language — a dictionary of what his friends would call “Carrisms” — that he often uttered under his breath. “Semiotics of public discourse” is one that sticks out (all these years later, I still don’t know what it means). At one point in the interview process, he told me, “I think we may end up doing business.” Did he need a partner in retail or something?

David Carr, the New York Times media columnist, collapsed at the newspaper's office and died on Thursday. He was 58. (Video: Reuters)

When I started working as senior editor at Washington City Paper, my desk was separated from David’s by a few inches and a wall that couldn’t stop his voice. Back in those days, e-mail hadn’t yet usurped our communications and David would spend the day banging on the phone over this matter or that. I derived a great deal of energy from listening to David’s side of these conversations, whether they were with sources at The Washington Post, old friends or his own bosses — his voice transmitted giddiness with the fact that he was able to just practice journalism every day. “Will write for food” was the saying on a white T-shirt that he often wore along with other uniform components: black jeans and black high-tops.

Sometimes the incoming calls were from people who were really mad about our coverage, like the fellow who’d threatened to sue us after his neighbors complained about his activism. “The technical term for your case is ‘Piece of s—,'” bellowed Carr in a memorable call. He wasn’t reckless, though: He delivered that brushback only after learning from our First Amendment lawyer that the guy really did have no case.

Alt-weeklies report on crime and sleaze, with the inevitable result that some feature subjects want a more physical type of revenge. Upon receipt of one such threat, David ushered me to a door outside Washington City Paper’s reception area and explained to me what was going to happen if this fellow actually stormed our offices. “You’re going to go in at his knees and I’m gonna plow into him high,” he said. Though I was thinking that a 911 call might fetch better results, I saluted. We never had to implement his plan.

Politicians pleading for special consideration received no help from David. We once reported that a D.C. Council member had contradicted campaign pledges by securing an undisclosed contract with a local nonprofit. The council member complained to David that he needed the extra money because of the financial “sacrifice” he’d made in coming aboard the council. David told me how he responded: “Then quit!”

He approached his subordinates with a fierceness that made us all quake. As he schooled me in editing, he would frequently drill in on specific points in the copy that I would pass along to him. One time, he caught me ignorant of a reference in a short news story. “Your job is to protect the insurability of the Washington City Paper,” he said. “If you don’t know what you’re putting in the paper, who will?” I spent an untold number of hours on the next story I sent his way.

Not long after I started working with him at Washington City Paper, David and I discussed the future and how long he’d stick around there. No lifer, he said he’d be out in five years. He held the position from 1995 to 2000, at which point he joined media-news site and began his assault on New York media.

Yet David’s ascension wasn’t a selfish, slash-and-burn tear to the top, which is why his death is stirring so many emotions across the industry. A deeply tribal fellow, David’s proudest work was not that thing he wrote about Twitter, not that slap against CNN, not that quip he made at the Vice News honcho. His proudest work was the advancement of the people he encountered and mentored along the way.

There was one day at Washington City Paper when I heard a whole bunch of boisterous talk in David’s office — laughing, shouting, the whole bit. When I peered around to find out what was up, I saw David chatting with a tall young man with a big smile. That was Ta-Nehisi Coates, then a Howard University student who was a decade and a half from becoming one of the country’s foremost intellectuals. I’m not sure I’d ever seen David quite as happy as when he chatted about Ta-Nehisi’s latest great story.

David molded a lot of others as well, including Amanda Ripley (Time mag, then books) and Michael Schaffer (Washingtonian editor), Neil Drumming (Entertainment Weekly, then films), Brett Anderson (New Orleans Times-Picayune restaurant critic), Jake Tapper (come on). What really made David beam was talking about the exploits of this group. “How about Ripley?” he’d ask me in one of our many-times-a-week conversations. Or: “How good is Jake?” You couldn’t move him off the topic of his people.

Growing up with my two brothers in Schenectady, N.Y., I never learned how to express affection toward other guys. For me and my set, a simple “Way to be, man” was about as touchy-feely as things ever got. So when David signed off of a call one day with “I miss you and I love you,” I responded with something like, “All right, good deal” and hung up the phone. That was David, in touch with his feelings and unafraid to express them.

David loved a great many people. He loved them with hugs and e-mails and tweets and advice and wisecracks. And he did it at all hours. At the time of his death, David taught a Boston University journalism class, wrote “The Media Equation” plus other stuff for the New York Times, moderated panel discussions, tirelessly promoted the work of his colleagues — all in addition to his work as friend, father and husband. He accomplished it all by pushing himself; sleep he regarded as an intrusion, and it was never too late for a strong cup of coffee. Whenever we hung out, I’d feel inadequate when I’d shove off to bed at midnight or so, leaving him alone with his dog, Charlie, and his computer for God knows how many more hours of work. He died at 58, which sounds young until you consider all he did.