Twenty-four hours before he died, David Carr was kicking back in a plush chair in the green room at CNN. He was wearing an undertaker’s black suit and tie, which seemed an appropriate uniform: We were both waiting to go on air to talk about the death of Brian Williams’s television career. “How would he come back?” Carr asked me, in that unmistakable midwestern warble that was part Keillor, part Dylan. I offered my take. Virtually everyone I had talked to at NBC didn’t think it was possible, etc., etc. Carr grew impatient.
“No!” he snapped. “I’m asking, how would he do it?”
I started again, but this time he only seemed to be half listening. “I sense a column brewing,” I finally said.
We’ll never know what he might have said in that column. Carr’s sudden death last night, at 58, stunned the media Establishment, a network in which he had, improbably, become a central node. From the moment my wife gasped reading a push alert delivered by the Times’ iPhone app, my own phone lit up with text messages from journalists and sources trying to make sense of the unbelievable news. A cascade of grief and remembrance soon flooded Twitter. This morning, Carr’s obituary appeared on the front page of the Times above the fold — a place of prominence normally afforded to a head of state.
The outpouring of emotion reflected the influence he wielded. For a wide swath of media professionals and a surprising number of general news consumers, Carr’s Monday column was a must-read. Of course, there were times he phoned it in or gave someone or something a pass, but every week he championed the joys of journalism that make it the sport of kings, as my former editor calls it. The true force of his column was his singular voice and searching curiosity. Simply by his weekly presence, he provided a sense of comfort to journalists (and their business-side counterparts), addled by the velocity of digital disruption. It was like if Carr was writing, then the sun still rose in the east.
For the Times, Carr’s passing is a crushing blow, not just to the newsroom but to the institution’s larger mission. He had, in his later years, become the paper’s unlikely public face (a face, by the way, that Carr once described as “made out of potatoes”). Years ago I wrote about the unexpected popularity of “The Carpetbagger,” his web series about the Academy Awards horse race. His emergence as the emotional center of the 2011 documentary Page One burnished his role as ambassador for the paper. This being the Times, the movie was not received well in some corners of the competitive newsroom. But Carr was generous with his fame. He used it to fiercely defend the Times against all manner of threats, from the predations of Wall Street to new-media insurgents. Page One features a classic exchange in which Carr dresses down Vice co-founder Shane Smith. “Just a sec, time out,” Carr replies when Smith boasts of Vice’s international reportage and takes a swing at the Times. “Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do. So continue.”
The Times was invested in promoting Carr, taking out house ads for his Times Talks and flying him to conferences. He clearly relished the attention. He was a ubiquitous presence at glittery media parties and the SXSW festival, elbowing around with the media titans he reported on. He wasn’t so much a critic of his industry as a kind of interpreter and assimilator, part of the larger court of New York power brokers. Such proximity to power might have turned him into a gadfly, but his gritty biography managed to inoculate him against that criticism and preserve his identity as a truth teller.
His underdog narrative, which he chronicled in a searing addiction memoir, is in some ways the Times’ narrative now. Carr embodied the grit the paper needs to thrive in a constantly changing media landscape. Like all underdogs, Carr was fueled by ambition. Last night, shortly before he collapsed, Carr displayed that hunger again as he interviewed Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Edward Snowden (via Google Hangout) at a Times Talk event. After congratulating Poitras on her new film, he turned to Greenwald. “Glenn, I could congratulate you on your Pulitzer, but I’m a fellow journalist and I’m a little jealous,” Carr said.
“It’s also kind of stale,” Greenwald replied.
“You know what?” Carr said, looking out into the distance, seeming to imagine the possibility. “If I won one, one of them babies would never get stale.”