David Carr, RIP

Look, I hate it as much as you hate it when some beloved person dies and some less beloved person tries to ride the hem of his garments. Gimme a pass on this one.

Four and a half years ago, I was caught out for sending rude, childish emails about conservatives — whom I’d been covering as a reporter — to a liberal email listserv. In short order, I resigned from a very nice (but increasingly pressure-cooking) job at The Washington Post. Torn between an idea of quitting the profession and the desire to make rent, I wrote two pieces about what had happened, the first of them for Andrew Breitbart’s site Big Journalism. When media reporters called, I answered. In the early days, only two of them actually called me to get the story.

And then, the weekend after I resigned, I got this email from David Carr.

hey dave,
I write a monday media column for nytimes.. have been talking to ppl about what happened with you at the Post and how fraught the intersection btrw MSM and the current cohort of reporters/bloggers/commentators.. I got a great sense of you take from what you wrote on Big Journalism, but if you can stand any more weigel talking about weigel and what people say about weigel, I’d love to chat.

Carr, who was by many leagues the best at what he did, had left a number. I called back and missed him. He got my voicemail and replied:

sorry about that. was on phone busy advancing my plot to take over the world. it’s not going too well so far, but the day is young. am back on the grid. call when you come free.

I called back. It’s a dim memory, like most of them from that week, but I can recall Carr running circles around me with Barry Allen speed, rasping like he’d gargled with Tom Waits’s mouthwash. He pushed me away from a patter (not false, but safe) that I’d been giving everyone who talked to me. He empathized. He cajoled. That way he wrote? Exactly like how he asked questions, pushing and pulling me along. I wish I’d taken notes on how he interviewed me, because he knew exactly how to get his story.

Then he wrote his story, and it was just perfect. In it, I was unforgivably stupid — true! — but the people who’d hired me were castigated for making up ethics rules on the fly.

“If you dumped every reporter who ever sent a snide message or talked smack in private, there would be nothing but crickets chirping in newsrooms all over America,” Carr wrote. Then at the end of his piece:

This is a story about Washington, a place that prizes political consistency and punishes ideological deviation. Mr. Weigel is a libertarian who voted for both Ron Paul and Barack Obama, who supports gay rights and sees the bright side in Bob Barr, who supports not just open borders, but also free markets. He was also a newspaper journalist embedded in the conservative movement and a blogger embedded at The Post.

 

Those apparent contradictions gave Mr. Weigel’s writing texture and surprise, but it also made him a pretty juicy target. Regardless of how much blather you hear about the two parties bickering in Washington, the Beltway is really a monoculture that accommodates the two poles of a debate but very little in between.

Carr could have written anything with my interview, and he chose to write that. It changed the way I thought about reporting. When I got back into the business, as a reporter for Slate, I kept talking to Carr. When we talked in person, it was at my first (and still only) South by Southwest, where he stopped me gushing by ushering me into a concert he thought I should see. He’d written a story about me, then he’d moved on, both the writer and the subject a little better for the experience. You know that Janet Malcolm line that people like to quote — “every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”? David Carr proved that wrong, on deadline, all the time.

Over email, he had a way of totally underselling what he was reporting, writing, and thinking. One time, when he thought I’d know who to talk to for a profile he was writing, I sent him some ideas, and he thanked me with a warning: “I will be back at you as soon as I find a way in that hasn’t been worked over every which way.” This was right before writing a beautifully turned obituary of Andrew Breitbart, “a fresh-off-the-boat Irish storyteller” (no one had come up with such a perfect description of the man) and small, tough anecdotes dug out by careful reporting. They had not been worked over, by anybody.

I don’t have Carr’s facility with language, and I didn’t get to know him as well as the people who are going to mourn him right. All I want to say is: Fuck this. Life is short, but it shouldn’t be this short. Least of all for someone who understood so delicately and elementally how people lived.