Amanda Connolly meets a modern icon of journalism, who has survived drug and alcohol addiction, a battle with cancer, and single parenthood – David Carr, of the New York Times
David Carr is a New York Times columnist and writer with more life experience than most. Throughout a life of survival, he’s been hired and fired, sober and relapsed. But today, he stands among some of the most highly-regarded journalists of our time.
He famously used the tools of journalism to chronicle his own life throughout his addiction by interviewing sixty people and obtaining his arrests and rehab records for his memoir ‘The Night of the Gun’.
This week he spoke on the main stage at the Web Summit in the RDS where he analytically interviewed Shane Smith, the CEO of Vice.
The two infamously had a spat on stage indulging in depths of knowledge laced with wit – one of the more exciting interactions on the main stage and my own personal favourite of the weekend.
I took my chance when the two intellects conversed over the next generation of journalists’ tweeting Carr ‘how about an interview with a next gen journalist?’ hashtagging one of his many quotable lines from the day ‘#thesmartestjournalistsaskthedumbestquestions.’
Ten minutes later my phone rings with a NY number…heart in mouth I dash through the crowd of iPad wielding spectators in the main arena, out a fire exit and into the rain… I missed the call.
I call back very sceptical that it is of any real substance yet to my surprise the unmistakable voice on the other end is David Carr himself. He invited me to the private speakers lounge for a chat and off I went.
The room was much more luxurious than you’d expect. Low lighting, plush carpet and Parisian style armoires; fitting for the level of intellectual wealth packing out the arena for The Summit. It provided a more relaxed mental space from the hectic hustling of the networking going on less than 50ft below.
Carr greeted me on the mezzanine and showed me to the lounge, patting the space next to him on the chair to sit down. Instantly feeling at ease I knew this would be a conversation I wouldn’t forget in a hurry. Having watched the 2011 documentary ‘Page One: Inside the New York Times’, which features Carr heavily, I was already aware of his captivating personality and almost unquestionable opinions.
“What can I do for you?”
In complete awe and possibly a little star struck our conversation began.
I thanked him for his time and for actually taking heed of my initiative.
“It’s a numbers game. There are about 20 requests here today that I didn’t respond to. I just picked one. It’s nice to be nice.
“I remember years ago I was working and they used to do incentives for movies. So they said I could go to a couple different sets but not Oliver Stone’s one in Louisiana because that was a closed set. I thought to myself – well that’s where I’m going and I ended up in a trailer with him. He asked me ‘What are we talking about?’ and I was like ‘I don’t know I just wanted to get here.’ Sort of like when your phone rang today and you’re like ‘Wooah’.
“Here’s the thing, I’m web famous, I’m not like famous famous, so there is all this inbound interest and you want to accommodate.”
We are briefly interrupted by the Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his entourage, including four members of An Garda Siochana who are scurrying to the main stage for the closure of the The Summit 2013.
I ask David if he is going downstairs to watch.
“Fuck no! I’ve only slept about three and a half hours and we’re doing a pub crawl tonight so I gotta get my little disco nap in. I don’t drink though so I’ll be okay, if I did I’d be here forever in handcuffs, trust me.”
This inclination is in reference to his past which he himself has described as either ‘charming or horrifying’ depending what way you look at it. On one level we can fall in love with the story of the man who was an addict, who got clean, sobered up, got custody of his kids ensuring they were no longer on welfare, then survived cancer and went on to become a columnist for the New York Times.
On the other hand, we would probably grimace at the reality that this man was actually once a thug who sold drugs, physically harmed women and terrorised children. In his memoir, ‘The Night of the Gun’, Carr used his journalistic skills and tools to investigate his own life. The life he really only partially lived as a result of heavy drug use.
He chronicled his addiction through a series of sixty interviews which contradicted some of his own recollections. One such incident was a memory Carr had of his best friend pulling a gun on him while he was high on cocaine and alcohol after being fired from a reporting job in Minneapolis. However, whilst researching the book Carr unearthed the truth of the situation which was that he himself had mindlessly pulled the gun on his friend, and not vice versa.
His stories thrive on these contradictions. In his book and in conversation, Carr’s prolix approach to telling a story is charming and charismatic. It gives an added concrete element of truthfulness to his words.
Carr went into rehab seven months after his twin daughters were born having previously left them alone in a car while he bought crack. From rehab he emerged a clean, sober man. He regained full custody of his children who had been taken into foster care. They lived a stable, suburban life for fourteen more years until in 2005 when what seems like a regular twist in the ‘rehab genre’ occurred and Carr relapsed with alcohol becoming what he describes as a failed ‘suburban alcoholic’. Ending up back in cuffs, back in detox and on a path of discovery which led him to sobriety, notoriety and the success he experiences today in his personal and professional life.
I asked Carr if he felt his colourful background had given him an advantage in his career path.
“Of course, I mean I’ve been a single parent, I’ve been poor, I waited tables, I was an addict and in recovery. It makes things that would or should seem scary seem not so scary at all. There’s nothing that could happen to me at work that would seem scarier than other things that have happened throughout my life. I don’t bring a lot of fear to the job.
“I mean, I still get nervous. I still get nervous about making that call, I’d circle the phone, but I always make the call. You have to. That’s journalism.”
Carr is no stranger to breaking stories and making an impact with his content. The story that he says sticks with him the most is his 2010 New York Times piece on the take-over of the tribune company in America ‘At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture’. His investigation looks into the misogynist, financially and socially damaging cultures that bred in Tribune newspapers while they were under the ‘management’ of Sam Zell and Co.
“Initially nobody was really interested in the story so I used someone about your age who I knew was good and together we cracked open the story and a couple of weeks later all the bad guys got fired so that’s what you want right? You want to write something that’s going to land with some impact.”
Impact is something that Carr is a master of, and so for any aspiring journalists like myself I asked what advice he could offer.
“How old are you?”I
“Your time will come. What’s important is that you have those stories, you own those stories. I used to run weeklies and hire a lot of young people. If I was hiring now I wouldn’t really care that you went to DIT or that you got your Masters or that you’re an editor with a college paper, I would like to see what you made with your own hands. The fact that you’ve got stories that landed that were real, even though they didn’t end up where you wanted, those are yours, those are yours to keep and if you get enough of them pretty soon someone will hand you a megaphone and you’ll be able to shout out from a very high perch indeed; stay at it. I mean, my advice is remain patient but be impatient with your patience.”
“I work with and mentor a lot of young people and I always have to kind of mix it up… you want to be kind of ‘woahwoahwoah’ but at the same time you want them to be fucking banging on the door and freaking out so, you know, I try not to be discouraging about that…
“You know what, it’s a fine time to be looking, and it’s a fine time to be putting stuff out there. Sometimes you get a story and you might not work at some place that’s that important in the national narrative but if it’s important enough people will reach down and grab it and it will end up happening for you.”
It happened for David Carr. He is happily remarried and living in New Jersey with his family. The ending of his story seems somewhat problematic for someone who so famously chronicles hubbub. Our conversation ended with an exchange of details, a quick photograph, and a pleasant encouraging farewell.