With David Carr’s death, we have lost a unique and generous voice

by Mathew on February 13, 2015

Writing about death is never easy. But it’s especially hard when it involves a close friend, and when you feel as though they left the party too soon, with so much undone, and unsaid. It says a lot about New York Times media writer David Carr that even though I wasn’t one of his close friends, he made me feel as though I was — and I know many people who felt the same way, because they poured their hearts out on Twitter and Facebook after finding out that he passed away suddenly late Thursday.

As more than one person at the Times mentioned, it was fitting that he was in the newsroom when he collapsed that night, because he loved the paper and his colleagues and his job so much, and often talked about how it hardly seemed like work at all. His defence of the Times and its journalism in the movie Page One — when he chewed out Vice Media founder Shane Smith — became legendary almost as soon as the movie aired.

That incident made him sound like the crusty old defender of everything traditional about journalism, and I bugged him more than once on Twitter about it (he called me “future boy” at one point, as I recall). But David was actually much more inclined towards the experimental side of the business, which makes sense when you remember that he started with a scrappy weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, and only later managed to elbow his way onto a national stage with a job at the New York Times.

David was one of the first at the Times to really adopt Twitter, and often talked about it removed the barriers between journalists and the people they served, and how that made journalism better. He loved experimenting with things like video and blogs, which he did for the inaugural Carpetbagger Oscars blog, and he was fascinated by almost every new-media thing that came along, even if he didn’t really understand it. The curiosity and passion for his work is one of the things I remember most.

Whether he was writing about the arrival of something new like Vice or Vox, or covering the decline of something old like the Chicago Tribune, David managed to find something human in the story he was writing — and he had a way with a phrase that made his pieces enjoyable even if you already knew all the details. He had no sentimental attachment to print, per se, but he definitely had an attachment to journalism, and the need to dig for the truth and not be distracted by the noise and lights.

When we talked about the evolution of newspapers, he said he liked to think of there being a print “room” and a digital “room,” joined by a long, dark hallway. Since papers couldn’t turn the lights out in one room and move en masse to the other, most were stuck in that hallway, he said — without knowing how long it would take to get to their destination, or whether the people they bumped into were friends or enemies.

David and I only met a few times. We never shared any of the personal moments that Circa’s Anthony De Rosa recalls in his memorial post, or the kind of relationship that he had with CNN’s Brian Stelter, who Carr often joked was a robot designed to replace him. But every time we saw each other, he made me feel as though we were the best of friends, and that all he cared about was catching up with me on what I’d been doing, or downplaying his own work in that “aw shucks” way.

The first time we met, at a media event in Toronto that I later wrote about, we talked about Twitter and the future of newspapers and paywalls — and when I went to shake his hand as he was leaving, he pulled me in and gave me a bear hug. For someone who could be caustic in his judgements when writing about media executives and other people he saw as venal or mean-spirited, he was unfailingly kind and generous.

As Slate editor Jacob Weisberg noted on Twitter after David’s passing, it felt as though at least some of his warmth and generosity came about because his earlier life before the Times was so bleak — a subject he wrote about in his biography, Night of the Gun, where he described being a cocaine addict. He managed to survive that period, and it seemed as though he wanted to make up for all that cruelty by being as kind as possible to everyone he met afterwards. As he put it in his book:

“Here is what I deserved: hepatitis C, federal prison time, H.I.V., a cold park bench, an early, addled death. Here is what I got: the smart, pretty wife, the three lovely children, the job that impresses… I have lived most of the last two decades showered by those promises that recovery delivers, with luck, industry and fate guiding me to a life beyond all expectation.”

Cocaine addiction wasn’t the only battle David fought: he also had to deal with Hodgkins lymphoma, which affected his lymph nodes, and the radiation as a result of that cancer was what gave him the thin-necked and slightly stork-like posture he had for the rest of his life — something he tried to cover up by wearing scarves whenever possible (he also lost a spleen, a pancreas and half his gall-bladder). But he never complained about being uncomfortable or in pain, even when he clearly was.

If recovering from both of his physical challenges could be seen as a second or even third chance at life, David definitely made the most of it. But unlike some who pretend their jobs are the most important things on the planet, he was unfailingly humble — often describing himself as the luckiest guy in the room, someone who got to do what he loved and call it a job, someone who had gotten away with a “great caper” as he liked to say. His joy at the gift of just being alive was infectious.

David’s death has taken away a wonderful voice, a media writer whose skill and commitment and insight made his work a pleasure to read and impressed everyone who knew him — even those he criticized. But more than that, his death has taken from the world a true Southern gentleman, a rapscallion, a kind and generous soul, and an occasional badass motherfucker. Rest in peace, David. You will be missed.

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