A personal tribute

David Carr is dead.

Pendarvis Harshaw

My wife and I were sitting on the bed, reading books to our son, when the news came across Twitter. A push alert: 67 friends had shared the New York Times’ media critic David Carr’s obituary. We held it together, but our son is already old enough to know something was up. He got upset. I dropped him into his bed crying.

I sang him the nighttime songs I do and thought of nothing but Carr. I couldn’t wait to emerge from the darkness and keep typing until it became writing. It was the only reaction I could imagine. There are going to be thousands of remembrances of Carr, and I can’t claim this one will be the most intimate or insightful. Take it as the story of yet another young journalist Carr took the time to know and help. There are undoubtedly hundreds of others with stories like this. But I want to add my paper lantern to the rest that are going up into this dark night. Spill all the ink.

David Carr was a bad motherfucker. Tough, tough. Feared nobody, pulled no punches. Called billionaires on their shit. In a field of cowardice, he was a statue of honor, even heroism.

The first time I encountered him, Mat Honan (Buzzfeed SF bureau chief, also a good friend), Sarah Rich (editor of Reform at Medium, also my wife), and I had started this weird side project to create a magazine in 48 hours. We were young and didn’t have kids and you know, YOLO. It was possible, so we should do it.

Thanks to the good graces of Clara Jeffery, we got to camp out at Mother Jones for the weekend around the old table they inherited from Rolling Stone and try to make something beautiful out of nothing. And it kind of worked! A magazine was produced. We called it 48 Hour Magazine for obvious reasons. And we went back to work that next Monday triumphant.

And then… we got the email from the CBS lawyer. The network was upset about our use of the words “48 Hours” because of their show 48 Hours. We didn’t have a lawyer. Or any money. Or anything, really. We were kind of scared and totally deflated. What the hell were we going to do?

Then Honan had this idea that we should call David Carr because he might be interested in this story of these weirdo San Francisco journalists getting hit with a cease-and-desist by big, mighty CBS. We got on the phone with him—I think I was in the Wired stairwell, trying not to talk too loudly or piss in my pants—and told him our story, as fully and honestly as we could.

And goddamned if he didn’t write it up in the New York Times with the headline: “48 HR Magazine Experiment Big Hit, Except for That Part About the Lawyers.” CBS still made us change the name, but they were not really going to come after us. Not after that story.

All I’d heard about Carr was how he was nails, but he was so gentle with us. When we ran into him at an awards ceremony, he made a point to tell all three of us that he thought we’d done a good thing. Journalism was looking pretty bleak back then, but Carr had faith in the power of all of us to keep the traditions alive, and that gave me faith.

My career moved on, and I landed at The Atlantic, where he’d been a contributing editor. Over the years, he called to ask me about stuff a few times. Sometimes I got the sense he was just shooting the shit, other times filling in little tiny blank spots in his panoptical view of the media landscape. I could never sit still when I talked to him. I’d end up pacing, trying to focus my entire mind on keeping up with what he was saying. It was always wise. He never hung me out to dry, even though he always was able to get me talking. Who could say no to David Carr? That crazy voice, the intimacy he generated with his rambling, obscenity-laced stories, the way he made you feel like, yes, you are part of an elite club, and on the door of the club, it is written, REPORTERS ONLY.

The David Carr Reality Distortion Field was a powerful thing — and for reasons I can’t entirely fathom, he used his magic for good, drawing the best from people with his magic. He could have made me feel anything and he chose to make me feel good.

It’s hard out there for journalists. In most places, budgets are shrinking, the work is not only harder but less fulfilling, and the relationship between effort and reward has been broken by the viral dynamics on the Internet. Today, I was in a journalism class at Berkeley talking about media—and I could just sense the sadness in the students. The thing they most want to do is probably not the optimal economic choice for most super talented young people.

I knew that feeling. But I also knew that I loved doing this thing. This talking, this reporting, this typing, this writing. It is what I am made to do.

And David Carr sanctified the idea that it was OK to think of journalism this way, as a calling, not a career. You followed your urge into this field not because it was a good decision but because you could not help it. And though it might be trench warfare and not many of us would come out of it unscathed, journalism needed people willing to go to the frontlines and try to make the world better.

I know there was a lot more to David Carr than his peripheral interactions with young journalists on the wrong coast for media. My heart goes out to his wife and his daughters, colleagues and friends. But goddamn, if those fleeting moments of his life weren’t some of the most important and transformative of mine.

David Carr made me feel humbled and sometimes stupid and sometimes smart. But above all, he strengthened my conviction that a life spent in journalism would not be a life wasted.

Rest in peace, Carr. You made us all better.

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