News Junkie

**Note: See the July 20th NYTimes Magazine cover excerpt from Carr’s forthcoming book, The Night of the Gun. Carr discusses the book August 14th at Magers and Quinn Booksellers and August 18th at Common Good Books.**

David Carr is slouched against the sweaty door of a cab whose shock absorbers long ago lost the battle with New York City potholes. As the cab rumbles through lower Manhattan, I reflect on my old friend, who is now the media columnist for the New York Times, and the many miles he’s traveled from his Hopkins hometown and the days of fifty-dollar freelance checks. But he’s not thinking about that. Between jolts, he’s attempting to explain his current problem: the obstacles he encounters trying to make real, tactile, journalistic contact within the throbbing heart of New York City’s culture.

 

“It took me awhile to figure it out here,” Carr says, “where access is controlled and iterated over a series of rooms.

“I’d be working a story and I’d find myself in a room, where there might be a movie star, or somebody who ran a media company. A room where there was, at long last, no line at the bar, and where that heinous piped-in house music had finally been turned off, and where, if somebody wanted to smoke, they could just smoke. And I figured that after passing through three rooms to get there, to that fourth room, I had finally made it to the epicenter—the white-hot center of New York.”

The lights of the city blur by, looking unusually lurid and feverish in the oppressive heat of the June night. There’s a view over by the West Side Highway Carr wants me to see. “But then,” he continues, “after I had been in the city awhile, I realized there were probably at least four more rooms, none of which I had known about, much less been to, all of which sort of ended in some final room where, I don’t know, I figured if I ever got there I’d find Henry Kissinger and Madonna fucking a goat.”

The New York Times will never publish “Henry Kissinger,” “Madonna,” “fucking,” and “goat” in the same sentence. Still, having Carr on one of the paper’s highest profile beats bodes well for one of the biggest pillars of mainstream media. In hiring him, the Times trusted its instinct for unique talent and made peace with a personal résumé that had plenty of Carr’s Minnesota friends doubting that their friend, now forty-nine years old, would ever see thirty. Few people have recovered from a fall so deep into the freaky abyss of addiction, physiological disease, personal dysfunction, and professional discredit.

To those who know Carr, and likewise were nurtured by media icons such as Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and Joseph Mitchell, his taste for goatish journalistic imagery feels both apt and cathartic. It is quintessential “alternative” stuff. The laughter it evokes confirms and challenges our favorite suspicions. Who doesn’t think, watching the headlines and the appalling distortions of so much of popular media, that the mainstream press couldn’t use a few strokes of vulgar color?

As for Carr (which is how old Minnesota friends refer to him, though he pointedly insists on “David” rather than “Dave”), his eight-rooms-of-Manhattan analogy is personally apt. It rests on bedrock Carr fascinations—the buzz of pursuit and the adjacency to power, political and sexual—and almost as an aftertaste, it is capped by a distinctly Irish outlook: “They’re all sinners, them lacey types, just like us.” And Carr knows his sinnin’. After a “career Irish” upbringing in Hopkins and college at University of Wisconsin-River Falls and the University of Minnesota, he became a bona fide player, certainly within the subculture of the Twin Cities. For roughly a decade, including most of the 80s, Carr out-rocked some of the towns’ hardest rockers, writers, artists, and dopers, closing as many grimy bars as Charles Bukowski and ingesting more illegal narcotics than any Hunter S. Thompson-wannabe who ever lived to tell about it.

But things got rough. He divorced, cratered into crack addiction, and fathered twin daughters by a woman who exhibited some of the same problems as Carr. Almost simultaneous with the arrival of his daughters, and after failing three previous shots at treatment, Carr did a term at Eden House in Minneapolis, which is not exactly known for its Hazelden-style accommodations. Then, as if that weren’t enough, there were chemo and radiation treatments after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease.

But somehow, encouraged by family members and dozens of Twin Cities friends, but largely on his own resources, Carr popped the sewer grate and hauled himself back up to street level.

“There was nothing in my family history that condoned being a bad parent,” he said of the view that his time at Eden House provided, and the slap of adult responsibility he experienced there. “I had two eight-month-old daughters. So it wasn’t just me. But, other than that, there really was no Prince Hal moment, where I rose up from under the bar table to become king of England.”

“David had a lot of support when he went through [Eden House],” recalled Eddie Nagle, who owned Eli’s bar on Hennepin for eleven years until moving to Wisconsin in 2004. Carr calls Nagle, whom he has known since 1981, “maybe my best friend.”

“He is fiercely loyal to people who are loyal to him, and a lot of people were. But the thing with him is that he’s the kind of guy who always finds a way to get it done. In the dark days, that meant another stop and another round before calling it a night, or in the case of treatment, locking himself up for ninety days in a nut house and getting it done. He’s got that quality. With David the answer is never ‘No.’ ”

Within four years of leaving Eden House in 1989, Carr became editor of the erstwhile alternative weekly Twin Cities Reader. In 1995, he was recruited to head up City Paper, Washington, D.C.’s well-respected alternative weekly. In 2000, Carr went to New York to write for Inside.com—the high-profile, albeit ultimately doomed project of Kurt Andersen, the Spy magazine co-creator, new media wunderkind, and public-radio host. Though that gig was short lived, Carr parlayed it into contracts with the Atlantic and New York magazines, before being courted by and going over to the Times business section in 2003 to cover the publishing beat. And in June, he signed a six-figure book deal with Simon and Schuster to tell the story of his life so far.

Carr describes the book as a “transparent memoir.” He pitched it as something of an antithesis to James Frey-style fabulism. Instead of offering his view of his life, he will produce a fully journalistic, third-person, reportorial autobiography, one based on the grim paper trail of rehab, police, and foster-care records, and the not-always-comforting recollections of friends, lovers, and colleagues who were once tossed in his wake.

“You and I have talked about a number of stories from my past,” Carr told me. “Some of them are good, some of them are boring. Some of them are true. Maybe some of them are not.

“We all tend to construct these broad narratives about ourselves, where we are an anti-hero or a victim. [The book] will be document-based, so it’ll be more about how other people see me. Mostly set against these stories I’ve told through the years. And I’m not talking about me as a journalist. I’m talking about me as a human being—my Irish heritage, my penchant for hyperbole, and my need to keep dissonance at bay.”

With college tuition payments for his twins staring him in the face, and having sniffed real cash up close for the past few years, Carr is determined to make the book both journalistically credible and “commercially successful.” To that end, he promises that it will include an elaborate video-blog component. For some of Carr’s Minnesota pals—the tossed-in-the-wake crowd—the acid test for this project will be how successful he is in avoiding the cardinal sin of confessional memoirs: namely, becoming a dreaded auto-hagiography creep.

David Brauer is one of Carr’s oldest friends. A former editor of Skyway News and Southwest Journal, and a current commentator for MPR, he and Carr got started in journalism together—and at critical moments found themselves competing for the same job and recognition. (Carr concedes, with a modicum of remorse, that he took a covert path all those years ago in beating out Brauer for the editor job at the Reader.)

“I regard him as one of the most influential people in my life,” said Brauer. “But David makes for a very complicated friend.” Carr taped a video-interview of Brauer for his memoir last summer, and they slogged through the delicate, hot-button stuff.

“I hope David deploys his full talent on this book. But I have this fear, once he looks at everything, he won’t go all the way. There may be some very hard truths he’s still not willing to confront.” That said, Brauer added, “I have no problem at all saying that David took me places and got me to do things I would have never done without him, and for that I’m forever grateful.”

Laughing at his own sordid recollections, Brauer said, “David showed me how to do a whole pharmacy cabinet of drugs. But, I have to say, I’m a better, smarter, more aware person because of the time we spent together.

“When people ask, I always describe him as a ‘personality tornado.’ He sweeps people up and drops you down miles from where you started. He is definitely one of those ‘The State is Me’ kind of guys.”

Carr’s current beat—covering the congenitally unapologetic mega-egos of American media, and, this past winter, the over-the-top preening of Hollywood’s Oscar campaign—doesn’t surprise Brauer at all. “David’s ambition has always been palpable. Writing about powerful people is perfect for him. He loves power. He’s drawn to it. He has the same kind of ambition as the people he writes about.”

My own experience with Carr began when I assigned him a freelance story for the Twin Cities Reader back in the early 80s. He insists it was his first professional assignment. All I recall is an extraordinarily garrulous and rather rotund Irish guy clogging the doorway to my office, going on in righteous outrage about a friend of his father’s allegedly being beaten up by Minneapolis cops for having the temerity to “step off the curb” as a bystander and question the cops’ treatment of a black guy in their custody.

The story he wrote on this was pretty damned good, not to mention being a vital infusion of gravitas for a publication then running on the fumes of high-attitude music and movie criticism. As with dozens of other local writers, I eventually fell in with Carr’s retrograde cultural caravan. I found myself closing down Moby Dick’s in previously unimagined back rooms populated by characters with more scars than teeth, consuming enough recreational drugs to stupefy a frat house, and seeking to establish meaningful contact with my inner prairie-Catholic bohemian.

Very few people keep up with Carr step for step today, much less shot for shot, toke for toke, and snort for snort in those years. Eventually, I backed off the throttle and settled into the steady, responsible flow of suburban parenthood. But reports on Carr’s relentless adventure continued to come in, turning steadily more dire, devolving from rollicking to near-tragic.

Under a blistering sun and eighty percent humidity, Carr and I met up on a Thursday afternoon in June in Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library. Carr, who seems perpetually Wi-Fi connected, was typically resplendent in a moth-eaten T-shirt, unlaundered jeans and two days’ worth of stubble. Not exactly Maureen Dowd. He’s lost probably seventy pounds since we first met more than twenty years ago. The radiation treatment for Hodgkin’s did a number on the muscles in his neck, causing him to walk these days with a pronounced stoop until he remembers to pull himself erect, and he’s hoarse from the combined effects of air conditioning and cigarettes (no friend dares admonish Carr about the butt addiction).

We toured, ate, and talked through the evening, catching up before doing a classic Carr “finishing game” at a subterranean bar in the shadow of the Port Authority bus terminal.

With its battered, signage-free service door and a seating that includes stacked boxes, broken toilets, and plastic lawn chairs, Siberia is a place easily mistaken for the aftermath of an explosive Shiite attack. (It used to be located off a stairway in the Fiftieth Street subway stop—a literal hole in the wall.) Its owner, a bulky, affable, pony-tailed guy named Tracy Westmoreland, had called Carr a couple of hours earlier to invite him in. Tracy’s personality resemblance to Carr’s Minnesota buddy Eddie Nagel is immediately obvious.

“Tracy collects people,” said Carr. “Especially media people. He’s just one of those New York characters. Psychokinetic things seem to happen around him. Or at least you always think you’re minutes away from something silly or wonderful.

“Tracy’s more than just a casual friend. He’s true blue. Believe me, when you make a friend in New York, you better hang on to him.”

Carr waved us down to a lower level, where the bar was shorter, the lights lower, and the furniture included filthy, battered couches every college guy recognizes from his slummy front porch. Down here, Tracy was hosting a birthday party for Anthony Bourdain, the globe-trotting Travel Channel chef, who was holding court in a red-lit storage room still deeper within the joint’s mechanical bowels. Jimmy Fallon was there, too, but national names aside, it could have been Moby Dick’s and 1985 all over again.

Carr is fond of saying that the Times today, all its Gray Lady heritage and majestic support hose notwithstanding, has become receptive to writers who have “a high game and a low game.” In other words, writers comfortable both in the salons of power and saloons of subterranea. By hiring writers and editors with pedigrees of the alternative persuasion—writers from papers in which Henry Kissinger and startled goats used to mix freely—the Times has effectively brought the counterculture in-house, he argues. Granted, such outside-the-box journalists are, midlife, more focused on tuition payments than toot.

“What has happened,” Carr said, “is that the tools and assets of the insurgency have been built into the modern execution of journalism.” He recalled a recent bull session with his colleagues on business writers’ mixing reporting and opinion. “I said, ‘You know, you guys have to understand that the ground that they stand on at the New York Times has changed so much. There is so much in the way of analytics and point of view embedded into reporting, it is absolutely baked in, in a way where people don’t even see it anymore.’

“It’s like the way the generals running the Army right now came out of Vietnam,” he told me. “A lot of the best editors in daily newspapers came out of alternatives.

“For a long time, if you read the editorial pages of say, the Washington Post”—a paper Carr regularly skewered in the media column he also wrote those five years in Washington, D.C.—“they’d all end the same. You know, ‘These are terrible problems. Really terrible problems that someone should do something about, someday.’ I don’t think that kind of limp-wristed stuff washes anymore.”

Carr’s editor at the Times culture desk is Sam Sifton, a former managing editor at the New York Press, an alternative weekly. “It is increasingly inaccurate,” said Sifton, taking up Carr’s point, “to draw a divide between the alternative press and what constitutes the mainstream. We are doing stories [at the Times] today that would never have been done here before.”

He seemed to suggest the newspaper’s better, broader view of life is a happy consequence of a better, broader range of reporter types. Including maybe people who, to paraphrase Neil Young, may have jerked the wheel a few times in their lives and drove into the ditch, because the people there were more interesting.

Is the Times today more accepting of talented people with messy past histories?

“Yeah,” said Sifton. “There are plenty of people here with messy past histories. Plenty with messy present histories, too.”

A prime example of Carr’s “high-low” game, and the Times’ enthusiasm for it, was Carr’s avid submergence in last winter’s Oscar season, a two-month blitz of hype, sheer hype, raw hype, and more hype with almost no discernable Greater Cultural Value.

“It was a bet we made,” said Sifton. The bet being that a credible news organization could cover the daily minutiae of the Oscar race without pandering to the airhead audiences who flock to the salt lick of “celebrity news.”

“We knew it would only succeed if the writer, David, was willing to fully commit to it, adapt the persona”—Carr assumed a nom de hype, “The Carpetbagger”—“and devote himself to it 150 percent. David did a terrific job, in my opinion.”

Times elders apparently agreed, because “Carpetbagger II, The Sequel,” involving loads of travel expenses, will be unveiled at the first stroke of the Oscar clock next year.

Like Carr, Sifton sees The New York Times Company evolving from a newspaper company into an “information” company, a shift that implies both the necessity and the willingness to fold previously alien technologies, like blogging and video, into the formal product.

The “Carpetbagger” blog, while perhaps not quite as merrily rank as Los Angeles’ Defamer site, rested on solid journalistic fundamentals, like hundreds of phone calls. The video-blog that went with it, with Carr toeing the boundaries of Hollywood’s overused red carpets and sampling the Oscars fascination to average schmoes in Times Square, effectively peeled away the movie industry’s dense layers of self-reverence. More to the point, “Carpetbagger” showed what, given the right writer/character, credible journalism can do with pop-culture mania.

A few days after the Siberia finishing game, Carr and I were returning to Montclair, New Jersey, from a weekend in the Adirondacks. Montclair is a leafy commuter town thick with journalists who’ve escaped Manhattan; Carr and his wife, Jill Rooney Carr, live in a 1920s Colonial with the twins, Megan and Erin, and his youngest daughter, Madeleine.

During the long ride in his aged Saab, far from freshly detailed, I asked Carr what he thinks resurrected him and earned him cachet on the national media landscape. “I guess I’ve done OK in New York,” he responded, flicking cigarette ashes out an open slit of window, “not because I’ve been all that cunning or smart, or know and understand the wiring diagram, but I think it’s more because I’m not real fearful. If I look like a rube or offend some precious sensibilities, I don’t care about that.

“I’m a person who has owed people a lot of money I didn’t have. I’ve had guns pointed at me. I’ve been a single parent. So being in a room and telling people things they might not be comfortable with, that doesn’t scare me. No big deal.

“I care how I’m seen, and I want to be fair, but I’m not overly impressed by what people think of me. I certainly have my eccentricities. But the things that are at my core are substantial and significant, and the kinds of things you can rely on. Good values, hard worker, not easily scared. Those are not extraordinary assets, but they are very valuable.”

Does he think he’s modulated his tone or style to adapt to the vaunted institutional traditions of the Times?

“Well,” he said, after a pause, “you know, I’m more than happy to come over the hill and just fill someone with lead. But when you’re working at the New York Times, it’s not just a blood sport; you really could ruin someone’s life. There is a conference of credibility that goes with the New York Times as your last name. And I found that paralyzing in the early going. You really could do serious damage to people. I called Anderson Cooper ‘a silver-haired empath.’ That was kind of a joke. I said Angelina Jolie made building a family look like collecting Beanie Babies. That was kind of a joke. But I do really worry about hurting people’s feelings. My experience with most media people is not that they have thin skin; it’s that they have no skin. I’m not going to be one of those people.”

That odd mix of aggressive imagery and underlying sympathy for his subjects is perhaps a residual effect of Carr’s own experience. It’s as if he simultaneously recalls the terror of having the gun pointed at him and the power of having survived it.

For all his think-tank-worthy analyses of journalistic aspirations and foibles, it’s Carr’s experiences of courted danger that have imbued him with the questing skeptic’s notion that all placid, dignified exteriors withstanding, if you push hard enough, schmooze well enough, and deploy enough ribald Irish verbiage, you will eventually gain entrée to the aforementioned eighth room where Kissinger, Madonna, and some misbegotten beast engage in activities heretofore unimagined by decent hardworking readers of the New York Times.