David Carr: The Greatest

David Carr, 1956-2015. (Image, courtesy Wikipedia.) David Carr, 1956-2015. (Image courtesy Wikipedia.)

Note: I’ve done a bit of after-the-fact research, the original version of this story was in error when it indicated that Carr interviewed me for a Reader job in 1991—that is impossible, since he became didn’t become editor at the Twin Cities Reader until May 1993. So I clearly had my dates mixed up. I guess he interviewed me in the summer of 1993. The bit about me returning from California is true either way, since I came back from there once in 1991, returned in May 1992, and finally, in April 1993, came back for good. Those dates I’m pretty certain of.

That also means that when I was a candidate for editor of the Reader, Carr may or may not have been in the mix, as I assumed in the original version of this column. I was in California at the time, and my campaign for that job was conducted essentially by phone and snail mail, and frankly I do not know who won that job that year. I did not attempt to compete for that job in 1993 when David Carr became editor.

This is what you get for writing from bleary memory. And also for not keeping a journal.

The sad truth is that David Carr refused me.

It never made me angry—his explanation, which I’ll get to presently—made perfect sense. But I will always regret that I never got to be a member of his tribe.

It was 1993. I was a young journalist, fresh from glorious California, where I had made all the right moves in the newspaper industry, climbing from reporter to editor in a few years. I was even being groomed to take over as the editorial page editor at my paper in El Cajon.

I never did that. By the spring of 1993 I was out of patience with the distance between me and my two young boys, the product of a short and none-too-tidy marriage. So I quit my job flat, and headed back to the Midwest—without having first secured a job back home.

David Carr was then editor of the Twin Cities Reader. Ironically, I had been a candidate for the same job two years earlier. In several phone calls with the publisher, I thought I was being seriously considered, enough to actually get excited that I might be chosen. Didn’t happen.

My first meeting with David must have been mid-summer of 1993, not that I recorded the date. David had granted me an interview for a staff writer’s position at the Reader.

Again, I thought I had a chance. I hadn’t really emerged from the alt.newspaper scene, I was more a mainstream news guy. But I had done just enough of that sort of writing in San Diego to present several of the kind of clips I figured the Reader’s editor would want to see.

I put on the only suit I had—a cheap, seedy looking affair with a high percentage of polyester among the threads. That, a sorry old tie and scuffed-up shoes were the best ensemble I could muster. I knew the suit was a joke, but I figured it was de riguer. Who goes to a job interview not wearing a suit?

I drove to the Reader’s offices and waited in a reception area. And waited. I didn’t know David Carr by sight, so I kept excitedly scanning the newsroom for any guy who fit my preconceived image of a Twin Cities newspaper editor; a slick-looking, thin white guy with a short haircut, crisply pressed shirt and air of authority. I figured that such a man would emerge from an office at some point, and call me into the interview.

That didn’t happen. Instead, a strange specimen exited a distant door and strode toward me. I don’t remember what he was wearing. I just remember being shocked that the guy was even there. He was thin, beyond rumpled. His unkempt hair looked like it had been put through the wrong cycle in a commercial clothes dryer. It looked like he had been sleeping in his dark, ragged clothes for weeks.

“What’s this guy doing here?” I thought. “They must be doing a profile on the homeless?”

He walked up to me, held out his hand. “Hi, I’m David Carr,” he squeaked. “Come with me.” I was dumbstruck.

Rather than feeling relieved that my suit was at least better than his, I became even more self-conscious about my clothes. It was obvious that David Carr, a man who apparently dressed for shock value, was unconcerned about the propriety of appearances.

“Man,” I said stupidly, nervously picking at the threads in my blazer. “I guess I’m a bit overdressed for the occasion.”

I don’t think that David Carr took kindly to that. Who would? Yet, I knew the moment I met him that I really wanted to work for this guy.

I knew David at that time only by his reputation as one hell of a writer. I had read some of his stuff preparing for the interview, and knew he was beyond capable. Meeting him, I sensed there was something in the presence behind his cloudy eyes that could teach me more about my craft than anyone had ever taught me. Here was a guy, I knew, who clearly was messed up at some level, but who exuded both brilliance and some strange quality of the humane that I had never before come across.

I don’t know if my idiotic comment about what we were wearing killed my chances at the job. We spoke for about 20 minutes. At the end of the conversation, David rendered his decision. No bullshit about this guy.

“You’ve got good clips,” he said. “You’re a good writer. You could probably do OK here. But here’s my problem: I’ve already got enough smart-assed white boys on staff.”

“Well,” I said, probably hiding my disappointment about as well as David hid his slovenliness. “I guess that’s that.”

I shook his hand glumly, thanked him and left, sensing I had blown the chance of a lifetime.

The Greatest

I encountered David over the years only a handful of times, and that interview, I’m sure, was our longest chat. He left for the East Coast a couple of years after that. But I followed him pretty closely, becoming increasingly aware as I established myself in the Twin Cities that his shadow loomed over the entire journalism landscape here.

In 2000, I was at Newsbytes.com and David Carr was working for a web site called Inside.com. He had come home to speak at what I believe must have been the RTNDA2000 conference here in Minneapolis. Christiane Amanpour also spoke there, I remember. I covered some of that conference for Newsbytes. (See: http://www.featherly.com/blog/nb-RTNDA-2000.htm.)

At the time, David’s writing was almost a form of primordial micro-blogging; really, really short bites of content. It worried me a little. I knew a little something about what he was capable of, and I felt that his talents were being wasted at Inside.com.

After his panel talk, I stood and took a microphone to ask him a question. I introduced myself as a managing editor at Washington Post Newsweek Interactive, and reminded him of his “smart-assed white boy” comment. He laughed and apologized, but I assured him that by that point I had come to agree with him.

I prefaced my question with some probably over-baked concerns about the direction that the craft of writing in general, and his writing in particular, were headed in the face of this new medium, the Web.

“You are the greatest writer I have ever met in my life,” I told him. “Is there no room for writing in this medium? Is there no room for you in this medium to be the writer that I know you really are?”

I don’t remember what his response was exactly, other than it was gracious and, I sensed, grateful that I had said that. I seem to remember that the answer was quite a bit wiser than my perhaps over-anguished question.

Thankfully, David would soon sign on with the New York Times, and as it developed, his greatest writing was still ahead of him. I for one am grateful to the New York Times for recognizing David Carr for what he truly was, and giving him their platform to exercise his craft and to make an example, for anyone in the world who was paying attention, of his own humanity, humility and honesty.

I am also grateful for something else. Even if I did it in a way that was no less awkward than our first encounter at the offices of the Twin Cities Reader a decade earlier, today I am so very glad that I got to pay tribute to David Carr, in his presence, as the greatest writer I have ever met.

I knew that was true then—no one I had ever personally encountered was as great as David Carr, and as a journalist—that odd class of the over-privileged and underpaid—I had already met some fine contenders to that title.

What I did not know in 2000, and would not learn for several more years, was that David Carr may have been just about the greatest writer that anyone has ever met.

Peace be upon your fine human soul, David Carr.

“I’ve seen enough to know that we all carry a measure of guilt and innocence among us.” — David Carr

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2 Comments

  1. Wonderful stuff, Kevin.

    • Thanks, Adam. The quotes are reconstructed from memory of course, but it’s as accurate as memory can make it. I really wish I’d have had even one year under Carr as a reporter.

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