Remembering David Carr As The Misfit Amid the Elites

When first read Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” in high school, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. Thompson’s distinctive voice and writing style leapt off the page no matter what the subject matter – there was simply no mistaking you were reading one of his stories. His personal story — of a boy from Kentucky making it into some of the best publications in the world — spoke to me too. His success was based on ability and scrappiness alone.

When Thompson committed suicide in 2005, it was the first time I ever cried over the death of someone I’d never met. Yesterday was the second.

David Carr, in my opinion the greatest writer working in the business, died on Feb. 12 after collapsing in the newsroom of the New York Times.

David Carr portrait from Wendy Macnaughton

David Carr portrait from Wendy Macnaughton, shared on Twitter via @wendymac

Like Thompson, Carr had an incredibly distinctive style — in writing and speaking — that set his work above anyone’s on the media beat or elsewhere. There was no mistaking that Carr voice. I remember one time I was reading an in-flight magazine, some one-page Q&A with a celebrity, and three paragraphs in I said to myself, “Is David Carr writing this? Surely not…” It was. Of course it was.

In watching the documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times”, I was enamored with Carr’s personality, which I had never seen on video before. That drove me to read his memoir, “The Night of the Gun“, which I think should be required reading for any aspiring journalist.

Carr wasn’t polished, he didn’t have a prestigious background and, like me, he was from “flyover country” (in his case, Minnesota). Throughout his early professional life, he had been his own worst enemy, struggling for years with drug addiction. He overcame himself, outran his past and ended up writing some amazing stories and generating a thousand quotable quotes.

That someone as imperfect as Carr could, based on the power of his talent alone, end up working — and thriving — in the newsroom of the New York Times is proof that success is possible for any of us.

It wasn’t easy for him – he didn’t get there by going to the right school or having the right unpaid internship or his impeccable branding via social media. He did it by being a talented writer and by continuing to pull himself out of his darkest places to let that talent shine. And once he got there, he didn’t rest on his laurels. He didn’t let the Times change him – but he let the times change him. He embraced social media, he threw himself into learning about the digital changes going on in the industry. He wasn’t shy about turning a critical eye or acerbic comment to the latest media endeavors coming along every day, but he wasn’t closed-minded, either.

If Thompson was the driver for me to get into this industry and the fire behind my early years, Carr was the inspiration for the journalist I wanted to grow into. He was crazy-smart and could be very cutting, but he was witty and funny and kind in all the right ways and all the right times. We’d all love to be remembered that way.

I didn’t know him. I always hoped someday I would. Lots of journalists have shared great stories about how he touched their lives in meaningful ways. I didn’t ever meet him in person, but he certainly touched mine, too, merely by being the best example of what is possible for misfits.

At the end of his book, Carr said:

“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”

I’m grateful the New York Times took a chance on journalist who was flawed and amazing and oh-so-worth-it. I’m grateful to still be a part of an industry where survivors are all holding on for dear life. I’m grateful for the daily miracle of news.

I’m grateful for David Carr.

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  • Sara Wells

    I think Carr is an example of what every young journalist should be doing in order to succeed. Even after he succeeded, he kept up with the times. This is a great tribute to him and I’m glad someone took the time to do it.