David Carr, the New York Times media columnist who overcame numerous battles with addiction to become one of the nation’s most recognizable and respected journalists, died on Thursday after collapsing in the newsroom, the New York Times announced on Thursday evening. He was 58.
“I am sorry to have to tell you that our wonderful, esteemed colleague David Carr died suddenly tonight after collapsing in the newsroom,” Times editor Dean Baquet wrote in a message to Times employees. “A group of us were with his wife, Jill, and one of his daughters, at the hospital. His daughter Erin said he was special, and that he was.”
Baquet continued: “He was the finest media reporter of his generation, a remarkable and funny man who was one of the leaders of our newsroom. He was our biggest champion, and his unending passion for journalism and for the truth will be missed by his family at The Times, by his readers around the world, and by people who love journalism.”
On Thursday evening, he moderated a panel conversation that included Edward Snowden, filmmaker Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald to discuss last year’s National Security Agency surveillance revelations. Afterward, he collapsed at his office around 9 p.m., Times spokesman Eileen Murphy said. It’s not clear what the cause of death was, or whether he died in the newsroom or en route to the hospital.
For more than two decades, Carr focused his considerable talents on media criticism, lacing his columns with incisive commentary and wit. For the New York Times, which he joined in 2002 as a business reporter writing on the magazine industry, he authored the Media Equation column, which ran on Mondays. Carr was editor of the Washington City Paper before joining the Times. He was editor of the Twin Cities Reader, also an alternative weekly, from 1993 to 1995.
When Carr took over Washington City Paper in 1995, he hired a core group of writers who would fan out throughout the world of journalism. One such writer, Michael Schaffer, now the editor of Washingtonian magazine, remembered when he first met Carr.
“He was a force of nature — just an overwhelming personality,” Schaffer, who had remained close with Carr, said in a phone interview. “He was my first boss, my first editor, and as a result he was always this inspiring and challenging figure in my life. He was a tremendous motivator, and had this real sort of moral core in him.”
Carr was never a man to put on airs. Raised in Minnesota, he exhibited an authenticity and candor on everything from his dress to his writing to his professional leadership. These traits forged an almost larger-than-life personality that made him a recognizable figure in Washington.
“That’s what made him a really effective journalist,” Schaffer said. “He took over City Paper as this white guy from Minnesota to lead a staff of mostly white people in a city that at that point was heavily African American. But as this reporter who didn’t come from a fancy place, who took a bunch of detours along the way [in his career], it made him really effective.”
In 2008, Carr wrote about those many detours in “The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own,” a deeply personal and probing investigation of his battles with addiction. Drawing from public documents and interviews with characters from his past, the book told the tale of his journey from working as an alt-weekly writer in Minneapolis to his descent into crack addiction and his eventual recovery, fueled by the power of fatherhood.
There was a lot to overcome. In one of the book’s most harrowing passages, Carr recounted how he left his infant twin daughters in the car while he sought drugs.
“How long had it been, really?” he wrote. “It had not been ten minutes tops. Ten minutes times ten, probably, if not more. Hours not minutes.”
But the book was more than just another addiction memoir. By reporting out his own life, Carr’s creation proved not only a journalistic tour de force, but a moving, unflinching chronicle of memory and the human condition.
“Some people I interviewed wanted me to say I was sorry — I am and I did,” he wrote. “Some people wanted me to say that I remembered — I did and I did not. And some people wanted me to say it was all a mistake — it was and it was not.”
Particularly after the publication of “Night of the Gun,” Carr became a titan of media criticism, known for moral conscience — and zingers. In “Page One,” the 2011 documentary about the New York Times, Carr notoriously took down upstart Vice magazine when it dared challenge the quality of the Gray Lady’s Liberia coverage.
“Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide,” he said. “Just because you put on a f—ing safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do.”
Just a few months ago, he put himself on trial for neglecting to ask a comedian about sexual assault claims in a column called “Calling Out Bill Cosby’s Media Enablers, Including Myself.”
“I was one of those who looked away,” he wrote of his decision to write a puff piece about Cosby in 2011. “… I knew when the editors of the airline magazine called that they would have no interest in pursuing those accusations in a short interview in a magazine meant to occupy fliers. My job as a journalist was to turn down that assignment. If I was not going to do the work to tell the truth about the guy, I should not have let him prattle on about his new book at the time. But I did not turn it down. I did the interview and took the money.”
After Carr’s death, condolences and praise for his work poured in from every corner of the media universe.
“David was one of if not the most gifted journalists I’ve ever known, former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who is the former publisher of the Twin Cities Reader, told the Star Tribune. “He had an incredible gift of language. He was absolutely fearless in what he said and how he said it. David was unquestionably a force of nature. He was an enormous personality who required a significant amount of the oxygen in the room but could also use that to hold a lot of people on his shoulders and usually move them forward.”
“Sure hope David Carr knew how much he meant to so many, how much he inspired & delighted & spurred his world & how much he was loved by it,” Philip Gourevitch of the New Yorker wrote.
“David Carr was one of the most gifted journalists who has ever worked at The New York Times,” Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of The New York Times, said in a statement. “He combined formidable talent as a reporter with acute judgement to become an indispensable guide to modern media. But his friends at The Times and beyond will remember him as a unique human being — full of life and energy, funny, loyal and lovable. An irreplaceable talent, he will be missed by everyone who works for The Times and everyone who reads it.”
“David Carr is one of the finest journalists and one of the best human beings I’ve ever known,” New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote on Twitter.
Paul Farhi contributed to this report.