Two days ago, on February 12, New York Times media columnist David Carr died suddenly while at work in the newspaper’s offices. His death received more national attention than it might otherwise have received because it occurred in a week when longtime CBS News journalist Bob Simon died in a car wreck in Manhattan, when Brian Williams was suspended from NBC News for six months without pay, and when Jon Stewart announced that he will be leaving The Daily Show. As David Carr well knew, there is nothing that the news media like better than a cluster of related stories, even if the ways in which they are related are somewhat contrived. We cannot seem to escape the deeply ingrained superstition that bad things happen in threes—or fours or fives. But bad news that clusters around some theme adds up to a very good week for the news media, even if the stories happen to involve the unexpected deaths of several top journalists.
If you have not had the opportunity to follow David Carr’s writing for the Times, he was an astute observer of the media and an excellent writer. I started accessing his columns from LexisNexis, in monthly batches, about a half-dozen years ago. I had become aware of his writing when a friend sent me an excerpt from his unsparing memoir of his extended experience of drug addiction, The Night of the Gun. The excerpt was brutally honest about how difficult it is to be brutally honest about an experience that exposes the worst possibilities in your person. I almost immediately got hold of the book and, literally, could not put it down. To be clear, I have very little inherent interest in narratives of addiction and recovery. It was the writing itself, the voice of the writer, that made me unable to put the book down. Carr’s book stands in many ways as a diametric counterpoint to James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, a book that I had very little interest in reading, even before Oprah forced him to admit that much of the story marketed as memoir was fiction. David Carr was very aware that the line between fact and fiction in such narratives is perilously thin, and so he went after his own story like another investigative journalist would have gone after it. But, in that process, he did not find a journalist’s distance. Instead, he found the distance between his recovered self and his addicted self dissolving as if it were a layer of ground being swallowed away into an ever-widening sinkhole.
Here are two passages from Carr’s columns that should provide some sense of just how good a columnist he was.
The first excerpt is from a column on how digital media is affecting print media, in particular newspapers and weekly magazines:
“Since its founding in 1968, New York magazine has served as a prototype of literate, high-tempo publishing, using its weekly cadence and location in one of the world’s cultural capitals to usher in a new, more intimate and frank approach to what a publication could be.
“Using the tenets of so-called New Journalism, the magazine helped popularize the knowing, skeptical voices of writers including Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Gloria Steinem, and Nora Ephron. It was the birthplace of both Ms. Magazine and the concept of ‘’radical chic.’’
“Now, this magazine that has been at the vanguard of Manhattan publishing for almost five decades is acknowledging that the cutting edge is not necessarily a lucrative, or sustainable proposition, at least on the same schedule.
“Beginning in March, New York will retreat from its long-standing status as a weekly and come out every other week instead.”
The second excerpt is from a column on the very complex net of threats to privacy posed by the government, business, and the media as they try to exploit the possibilities of digital technologies:
“It’s worth remembering that in scary movies (see ”Minority Report”) about the coming in-formational Armageddon, it is not just government that is doing the lurking. Part of the reason the Obama administration, which promised to be the most transparent in history, has become such a spectral presence is that it is facing cybersecurity threats like none other in history. Journalists, aided by computers, can find and surround any source they like. Leaked information, which used to have to be photocopied or whispered, can be dumped by the terabyte into drop boxes by organizations like WikiLeaks and sent every-where in an instant.
“Bloomberg is a hybrid informational agency–a wired gatherer and distributor of information–that had $7.9 billion in revenue last year, mostly from its 315,000 subscriptions around the world. Its media division may play a small role in profits–it is viewed as a marketing tool for the terminals–but it has been hailed as a newsroom of the future with its open office plan and lack of architectural hierarchy.
“There is an instructive paradox in that arrangement. To be seen is also to be under surveillance. Every keystroke, every entrance and exit to the building, every note on every story, is there for the seeing when you work at Bloomberg. Putting a phone call into Bloomberg H.Q., as I did this morning, is akin to calling the C.I.A. ‘Don’t e-mail me, don’t call me here, please,’ said an editor there I know.
“So, we have discovered anew that government will do what it needs to in a vain, but chilling, attempt to plug leaks. But best to keep in mind that the most ubiquitous threats to our privacy do not originate in some secret government bunker. In the media, in the general public, in business realms, we are keeping an eye on ourselves.”
I will close this post with an excerpt from a column on the uneven recovery of communities along the New Jersey shoreline in the months following Hurricane Sandy:
“After sitting in the water in Seaside Heights as an elegiac reminder of what happened on Oct. 29, the Jet Star roller coaster–a former giant amusement tossed like a broken toy–was demolished and pulled out in May. The crane came in by barge, and, like so many miniature ones in the arcades on the Boardwalk, picked at it bit by bit until it was gone.”