David Carr, 1956 – 2015


Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Journalism isn’t a glamorous industry, at least not in the way Sex and the City promised the generation of wide-eyed writers and reporters eager to traipse around the big city. Today’s focus on political #hottakes and Netflix #thinkpieces online belie the reality that exclusives aren’t always sexy, and deadlines aren’t always nice. For every movie journalist—the ones with faces for big screens and clothes for big budgets—there are a million more, many of them bad ones. Reporters don’t make headlines; they write them. And this isn’t a job that usually makes news. 

David Carr existed outside of this dichotomy. Carr, who spent the last 13 years at the New York Times, wasn’t so much a celebrity journalist—wide-grinned and camera ready in the vein of Don Lemon or Anderson Cooper—as he was a fiercely respected wordsmith, almost impossibly well-regarded even among the media czars and Hollywood celebrities that he examined in his Media Equation column. On Feb. 12, Carr, 58, died of complications from lung cancer.

News of Carr’s death gutted me, and my Twitter feed was saturated with public remembrances. It wasn’t only working journalists that had something to say, but accolades from admirers in other disciplines too. “I never met David Carr,” said the comedian Patton Oswalt in a tweet favorited 629 times. “Don’t know what to say. I’m so sad. Sorry for all the RTs. But someone crucial & necessary is gone.” In death, Carr proved to be, to quote the play Angels in America, “Not a person, but a whole type of person”—the Times’ most dogged defender, and also journalism’s proudest son.

The consummate newsman, Carr wasn’t afraid to criticize himself or condemn subjects as difficult and complex as his own soul. “What if I told you I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke?” he wrote in his 2008 memoir The Night of the Gun. “Now what if I said that I was a recovered crack addict who got custody of my twin girls, got us off welfare and raised them? Both are the story of my life.” That was his fairness: for both himself and his subjects, nothing was off-limits.

In growing up, much is made of recognizing your parents as adults—the revelation upon hearing the first time they let slip that they, like everyone else, have had a human life independent of their relationship to you. It’s hard to understand that they’ve had lovers, hobbies, and histories completely unaffected by your presence. John Steinbeck explored it extensively in East of Eden: “When a child first catches adults out—when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just,” he wrote, “his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone.”

That’s what Carr’s death felt like: an awakening of the most unnerving sort. It was more than the surprise that I could be so deeply moved and affected by a nearly 60-year-old Times writer and former coke addict. It was the shock of adulthood, that most of the qualitative career goals we work toward in college still exist in life. It didn’t matter that Carr worked for an outfit as distinguished as theNew York Times; it was still the famed paper’s hallways in which he collapsed.

It’s a well-known reality that celebrities aren’t perfect, and perpetual accusations and revelations surrounding such monumental public figures as Bill Cosby and Joe Paterno continue to establish that. Last week, a much more shocking—and shaking—truth preyed on my naivete: It didn’t matter how much I admired Carr, how fiercely I believed that the media world’s sun rose and set according to his words, or the many years his writing had mothered and fathered and babied me. Death captured him in the same way it would any other.

You don’t have to catch the backend of an Emerson admissions tour to hear how much is made of how driven students here are, the consummate dedication we hold to our respective crafts. I suspect that it’s largely anchored by a deeper respect for the great storytellers who innovated before us. We all make much of the work that got us here—the scenes that made us try our hands at writing dialogue, the artists who made us pick up a camera and try to use it. For so much of the journalism industry, that’s who Carr was.