Thu October 27, 2011
David Carr: The News Diet Of A Media Omnivore
Originally published on Thu October 27, 2011 12:33 pm
David Carr has a cold. On Sunday night, the media columnist for The New York Times tweeted to his more than 335,000 followers that he realized he probably had a variation of the common cold — because his drugstore was out of his favorite cold remedy.
"Sometimes you want to grab what is in the air, so to speak, and just put it out there," he says. "One time after [the Winter Olympics ended], I just said, 'I miss the Olympics.' That got re-tweeted almost more than anything I've ever written about ... it's just something that's in the air."
Carr joins Terry Gross on Fresh Air to discuss his Twitter usage, the future of newspapers, error correction, his own media consumption, religion and the accountability of social media. He says that he thinks of Twitter as a personalized "human-enabled RSS [feed]" that allows him to follow what his friends are reading and thinking about at any given moment.
"It serves to edit what's going on in the world, and it puts a human curation on this huge fire hose of data that's washing over us all," he says. "The question becomes where to look, and it's nice to have some other people pointing the way."
Initially, Carr says, he wasn't a Twitter fan. But now he tweets on average 8-10 times a day, and often re-tweets things of interest from the 600 or so accounts he regularly follows.
"As a reporter, it was an important listening tool, and that's how I first used it — less as a megaphone and more [as a listener]," he says. "But then I realized that back when I was an editor of a newspaper, I was a decent headline writer — and that links would carry a lot more information, and annotating those links would have significant value to the people who follow me."
'What Do You Think Is Going On?'
Carr was one of four journalists recently profiled in Andrew Rossi's documentary Page One, which provides an extended look at the Times newsroom through its media desk. At the beginning of the film, Carr tells one of his sources that the story he's working on is likely to be big. "What do you think the story is that I should tell?" he asks.
Carr says that's a question that he rarely used to ask. But during the book tour for his memoir The Night of the Gun, he was interviewed by two types of people: those who told him what his story was about, and those who asked him simple, direct questions.
"Historically, I had been a reporter who was very fond of making speeches and very fond of telling people what their stories were about," he says. "[As journalists], we're people who just show up and declare ourselves instant experts on all manner of stories. And we often are only taking a very blunt-force guess about what's going on, and I think it always behooves us to ask the people, especially if you're aspiring to do something good, 'What do you think is going on? What do you think this is about?' "
Carr tells his sources that they shouldn't expect a fluff piece; he doesn't want anyone to be genuinely surprised by what they find in his stories.
"I don't want to sit up in the middle of the night and wonder whether I was unfair to the person — that I didn't communicate to them what is coming," he says. "I don't want anybody to open up one of my stories and have their nose broken by what they read — although I do have to say, at the beginning of the week, I wrote a really mean column, and I didn't tell anybody involved, so I guess that's not always true."
That piece — "Why Not Occupy Newsrooms?" — asked why there wasn't an Occupy movement in media, because some newspaper executives were guilty of "bonus excess despite miserable operations." Carr says he didn't call Gannett this time around because he had called them for a previous column on bonuses in June — and they didn't call him back.
"I spent four days [in June] trying to get comments on Gannett [executive] bonuses, and on Sunday night they said, 'We're not going to comment on these bonuses.' And I just said, 'Really? You're a newspaper company. You're a publicly held company. These bonuses are a matter of public record, and you have nothing to say about them?' And I just found that appalling, and I think some of that was reflected in the piece [this week]."
Carr's Media Diet
Carr checks his Twitter feed every morning and has The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, The Star-Ledger and The New York Times delivered to his house. "The day before, all this stuff has gone whizzing past me, and I seem to know a lot, but I don't really know which part of it is important," he says. "I came to want that resting place ... There's both real-time news ... and a way to look back at what has happened."
All of that content can be overwhelming. Carr says his nightstand is filled with books he'd like to read, his iPad is filled with stories from his RSS feed, and he's constantly inundated with information wherever he goes.
"My persistent concern is that I'll become so busy producing media that I won't consume enough of it," he says. "So that what I produce becomes less and less rich over time."
He notes that his younger colleagues don't have this problem: They're able to both consume and produce media at the same time.
"I can remember when bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces, about the time I was [thinking], 'maybe we should do a blog post about this,' I opened up the media blog I work on, and Brian Stelter, my colleague, already had 700 words up there," he says. "It's like I'm working through jello and he's not. He's in a different sort of universe."
On the golden age of journalism
"We are entering a golden age of journalism. I do think there has been horrible frictional costs, but I think when we look back at what has happened, I look at my backpack that is sitting here, and it contains more journalistic firepower than the entire newsroom that I walked into 30 to 40 years ago. It's connected to the cloud, I can make digital recordings of everything that I do, I can check in real time if someone is telling me the truth, I have a still camera that takes video that I can upload quickly and seamlessly.
"I think that the ability to sit at your desk and check everything against history and narrative, it's part of how newspapers ended up becoming ... daily magazines. All the analytics are baked in because the reporters are able to check stuff as they go. ... Now the business model has not kept up with that.
"The movie Page One does a really good job of capturing a really scary time when fundamental questions of survival were being asked about The New York Times. Did I worry that somewhere in there, when I was doing a big job cut story, that I would type my own name? Yes, I did."
On how he tells sources that he's writing a serious piece
"I say, 'This is going to be a really serious story, and I'm asking very serious questions, and it behooves you to think it through and really work on answering and defending yourself, because this is not a friendly story.' And if they don't engage, I just tell them, 'Well, you better put the nut-cup on, because this isn't going to be pleasant for anybody.' "
On error correction
"After I started [at the Times], I quickly ended up on page two ... the Corrections. They're not buried to us; that is a hall of shame ... it's a page you want to totally stay off of ... It doesn't matter where the error occurs — it always follows you around.
"Part of the deal of working at The New York Times is that your readers, a portion of whom are church ladies and copy ninnies and fact freaks, they wait like crows on a wire for you to make the slightest error and then descend, caw, caw, caw-ing, every time you screw up. It still is something that wakes me up at night.
"... At least on the Web, you can amend. The ethic of the Web is to say what you know as quickly as you can, and then reiterate over and over again. The Web is kind of a self-cleaning oven, and what you have up there can grow more accurate as time goes by. That's never true of print. It's always there for the ages."
"This is the first year that I think my productivity has dropped because [of my media consumption]. I'm looking at the coming year and thinking, what am I going to give up? Am I going to give up following the NFL? Am I going to give up listening to music and going out and seeing it? Am I going to give up riding my bike? Or am I going to cut back on some of these digital habits I have that are eating me alive and some of these ... endless panels about the future of journalism? The future of journalism is wearing badges and talking on panels, as far as I can tell."
"I'm a churchgoing Catholic, and I do that as a matter of, it's good to stand with my family. It's good that I didn't have to come up with my own creation myth for my children. It's a wonderful community. It's not really where I find God. The accommodation I've reached is a very jury-rigged one, which is: All along the way, in [substance abuse] recovery, I've been helped ... by all of these strangers who get in a room and do a form of group-talk therapy and live by certain rules in their life — and one of the rules is that you help everyone who needs help. And I think to myself: Well, that seems remarkable. Not only is that not a general human impulse, but it's not an impulse of mine. And yet, I found myself doing that over and over again. Am I, underneath all things, just a really wonderful, giving person? Or is there a force greater than myself that is leading me to act in ways that are altruistic and not self-interested and lead to the greater good? That's sort of as far as I've gotten."
TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As a media columnist for the New York Times, my guest David Carr investigates the business of journalism and analyzes new developments in the media, including print, digital, film, radio and TV. He's the breakout character in the documentary "Page One," which follows the Times media desk during a tumultuous year that included layoffs at the paper, the Times' publication of the WikiLeaks documents and the introduction of the iPad.
The film examines how new digital technology, blogging and social media are changing how journalism is produced, distributed and consumed. The documentary has just come out on DVD. David Carr is also the author of the 2008 memoir "The Night of the Gun," about his addiction to drugs and alcohol and his recovery. We recorded our interview Tuesday.
David Carr, welcome to FRESH AIR. So, last night, I was checking your tweets, and you said that you know your cold is a common cold if you go to the pharmacy and they're out of all your favorite remedies. And I thought: Oh, no. My guest for tomorrow has a cold. Maybe he'll be too sick for the interview. Maybe he'll have laryngitis. You really had me worried.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVID CARR: Isn't it important that you knew that I was having trouble finding my medicine at the drug store? I mean, I thought it was important to share that with the world.
GROSS: Well, I was wondering: What made that tweet-worthy? Why did you decide to tweet that?
CARR: Because sometimes you want to grab what is in the air, so to speak, and just put it out there. You - one time after the Winter Olympics ended - I am a Winter Olympics freak. I just love them. And I think two days after it ended, I just said, I miss the Olympics. Well, that got re-tweeted almost more than anything I've ever written about, and it's just something that's in the air.
And so I don't like to do health tweets or food tweets, because you're going to end up sort of in very banal territory very soon. But I thought it was remarkable that sort of wall-to-wall, at a drug store in New York, all the cold remedies were gone, and so that other people would sort of nod their head when they read that.
GROSS: How have Twitter and other social network sites changed your reporting? Like, how do you use them as a reporter?
CARR: I think the fundamental thing that has changed is I would be someone that would, after I woke up, would check an RSS feed, meaning a feed of all the sites that I'm interested in, and I would browse that feed and see what was of interest to me.
I think of Twitter, I follow about 600 people, many of whom are in my business or share my interests, as kind of a human-enabled RSS. And what they're reading and thinking about at any given moment is of interest to me, and it serves to sort of edit what's going on in the world. And it puts a human sort of curation on this huge fire hose of data that's washing over us all the time. You know, the question becomes where to look, and it's nice to have some other people pointing the way.
GROSS: Did you resist social networking at first?
CARR: I really thought Twitter sounded like the dumbest thing in the world. I - there's the name, to begin with: The whole nomenclature of Twitter, tweet, sort of impugns itself. I'm a person who has trouble codifying their thoughts in 800 words, which is sort of a standard length at the New York Times. And the idea that I could communicate anything of value in 140 characters I thought sounded preposterous.
CARR: But I began to understand that, as a reporter, it was an important listening tool, and that's how I first used it: less as a megaphone and more about listening. And then I realized back when I was the editor of a newspaper, I was a decent headline writer, and that links would carry far more complex information and that annotating those links and putting a little spin on them and sending them out into the world would have significant value to the people who follow me.
I think it's Jeff Jarvis who talks about sort of mindcasting, meaning what I'm reading, what I'm thinking about, what I'm seeing, versus lifecasting, which is where I'm going, who I'm seeing. And, for instance, I was in Norway last week. I don't like people who travel-tweet, who talk about where they are. I'm here in this fabulous place, and you're not. So I didn't tweet about Norway a lot.
GROSS: So just one - another thing about how your journalism is changing because it's on different platforms: When one of your articles is in the New York Times online, if there's any mistakes that were made in the article, those mistakes are corrected at the bottom of the article.
It used to be that corrections were kind of buried in, like, page two or something, nobody ever saw them. So your mistakes, your errors weren't, like, following you around. But they are now. What's that experience like of having the mistakes corrected at the bottom of the article?
CARR: You know, I have to tell you, when I got to the New York Times - which was about 10 years ago - I was paralyzed by the idea that my reporting lacked the professionalism and efficacy required to be in the New York Times. I had done a lot of writing and done a lot of reporting, but I now was at a place where kind of the size of the megaphone and its sort of history made it all the more powerful. And then if I said something that was unfair or untrue, that I could snap somebody's career in half like a dry winter twig.
And sure enough, after I started, I quickly ended up on page two, in the corrections. And you used the term buried. They're not buried to us. That is a hall of shame there, and it's a page you want to totally stay off of. And it's material to your sort of career there. So it's very, very important. And it doesn't matter where error occurs, it always follows you around.
And part of the deal with working at the New York Times is that your readers - a portion of whom are kind of church ladies and copy-ninnies and fact-freaks - they wait like crows on a wire for you to make the slightest error and then descend, caw, caw, cawing every time you screw up. And it still is something that I - that wakes me up at night. After I've written something, I wonder if I got something right.
And so the fact that now they follow me around like tin cans on the Internet, at least on the Web...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CARR: ...at least on the Web, you can amend. You know, the ethic of the Web is to say what you know as quickly as you can, and then reiterate over and over again. The Web is kind of a self-cleaning oven, and what you have up there could grow more efficacious, more accurate as time goes by. That's never true of print. It's always there for the ages, to haunt you if you got it wrong.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Carr. He writes a Monday column on the business of media for the New York Times. And he's also one of the people followed - really the main person followed in the documentary, "Page One," about the media desk of the New York Times. And that documentary is now out on DVD.
At the beginning of the film, at the beginning of the documentary "Page One," you're on the phone with a source, and you're saying to your source: I see this as a big story. I could probably get significant space. What do you think the story is that I should tell?
I thought that was such a really interesting way of putting it. Do you say that a lot to sources: What's the story you think I should tell?
CARR: It's a funny thing, because it - that's experience that came off - I wrote a book a couple of years ago, and I did significant press at the time, and there were two kinds of interviewers. There were ones that would make sort of speeches about what I had done and have a grand theory about what my book was about, and many of them quite marvelous and well-thought-through.
And then were people who asked simple, direct questions. And almost to a person, the best stories came from the people who asked simple, direct questions. And you'd say, well, that's only logical, except historically, I had been a reporter who was very fond of making speeches and very fond of telling people what their stories were about.
And so that was very sort of hard-won information on my part, that I had to ask and then stop talking, and asking people what they think the story is. You know, we're people who just show up and declare ourselves as instant experts on all manner of stories.
And we often are only taking a very sort of blunt-force guess about what's going on, and I think it always behooves us just to ask the people, especially if you're aspiring to do something good: What do you think is going on? What do you think this is about?
GROSS: And do you use that question especially when you know there's going to be conflicting points of view on a story, and you're talking to representatives of those different points of view?
CARR: Well, I strive for congruence. And by that, I mean there's an interview near the end of the movie with officials at the Tribune Company. It's far less friendly. It's far more declarative. And I'm telling the person at the other end of the phone what I think the story is about.
I don't want to be sort of a poodle dog when I'm out there and a friendly sort of presence in people's lives, and then come back and do something that's really mean or aggressive. And if it's going to be a hard story, one of the things I always say is: This is going to be a really serious story, and I'm asking very serious questions. And it behooves you to think it through and really work on answering and defending yourself, because this is not a friendly story.
And if they don't engage, I just tell them: Well, you know what? You better put the nut-cup on, because this isn't going to be pleasant for anybody.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CARR: I worked at a weekly with a lot of young reporters, and I would hear them pouring on the honey on the phone and being real sweet and nice with the people that they talked to. And then they would turn in these stories that were scabrous and really mean.
And I said: Well, you're just - you're setting this up so the phone call's going to come to me, not you. And you haven't done these people the privilege of giving them an opportunity to defend themselves.
I don't think people who read your work, who are involved as sources, should be surprised. I often read significant parts of the story to the people that are involved, because I don't want to sit up in the middle of the night and wonder whether I was fundamentally unfair to the person, that I didn't communicate to them what is coming and that they - that they'll be genuinely surprised.
I don't want anybody to open up one of my stories and have their nose broken by what they read - although, you know, I do have to say, at the beginning of the week, I wrote a really mean column, and I didn't tell anybody involved. So I guess that's not always true.
GROSS: At the beginning of this week?
CARR: Yeah. I wrote about bonuses...
GROSS: Yeah, you had a story that was headlined: "Why Not Occupy Newsrooms?" And you were basically asking how come there isn't an occupy movement in newspapers, because newspaper executives are guilty of some of the same things that bank executives are. Make the analogy for us.
CARR: Well, in the instance of Gannett - Gannett is a publicly held company that owns 82 newspapers across America, in towns big and small, dailies and weeklies. And in the past six years, they've gone from 52,000 employees to 32,000 employees.
Their stock price, which is the general metric of publicly held companies' health, went from $70 a share to about - or $75 a share to about $10 a share. The guy who oversaw it, the CEO, Craig Dubow, when he left, received $37 million in health, compensation and disability benefits.
And it seemed - I mean, to me, the occupy movement is - a lot of people tag it as socialist or communist. I just think it's people who are angry about capitalism not working. If you make bad choices, you pay the price.
In this instance - and at the Tribune Company, which I also wrote about - the chief executives made choices that resulted in a lot of people getting rolled out of the back of the truck. Now, it was a very challenging environment for newspapers, but I don't think that people should benefit in the tens of millions of dollars for just firing people.
There's no innovation there. There's no magic to that, and I don't think that sort of thinking and strategy should be rewarded. So, I don't know. I just wrote what was basically a screed.
And oddly enough, it was weird for me, I was writing about newspapers, and it totally connected on Twitter. And I thought: Well, Twitter does not care about newspapers, and yet this thing is rolling over and over again, being re-tweeted thousands of times. I got probably 300 emails. What is it about this?
And what it is, it's about the trashing of once-great American institutions. And that's a story that the general public never tires of.
GROSS: Now, when you started talking about this, you describe the article as - was mean the word you used?
CARR: It was mean.
GROSS: So what was different in terms of how you handled this article and how you typically handle articles that are investigative or critical of the organization that you're writing about, or the company you're writing about?
CARR: Well, I had done a story a few months ago about Gannett's bonuses, and I spent four days trying to get the company to comment on what they did. And on Sunday night, just before deadline, they said: We're not going to comment on these bonuses.
And I just said: Really? You're a newspaper company. You're a publicly held company. These bonuses are a matter of public record, and you have nothing to say about them? And I just found that appalling. And I think some of that was sort of reflected in the fact that A, I didn't bother to call them, and B, that I was angry after I'd written about their last set of bonuses, that they clearly were a life beyond consequence, and they just stepped up and did it again and gave this guy a huge bag of money on the way out the door.
GROSS: My guest is David Carr. He writes the "Media Equation" column for the New York Times, and he's featured in the documentary "Page One," which has just come out on DVD. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is David Carr. He writes a New York Times column about the media that's published Mondays in the business section.
Do you feel like, as a reporter who covers the business of media, that you are reporting on the dismemberment of your own profession?
CARR: No. I think I'm living through a golden age of journalism. I do think there has been horrible frictional costs, but I think when we look back sort of at what has happened, I look at my backpack that is sitting here, and it contains more sort of journalistic firepower than the entire newsroom that I walked into 30, 40 years ago.
It's connected to the cloud. I can make digital recordings of everything that I do. I can check in real time if someone's telling me the truth. I have a still camera that takes video that I can upload quickly and seamlessly.
And I think that the ability to sit at your desk and check everything against history and build in context and narrative, it's part of how, you know, newspapers ended up becoming sort of daily magazines, as all the analytics are baked in because the reporters are able to, you know, check stuff as they go. And he or she can just jam it right in there.
Now, the business model has not kept up with that, and the movie "Page One" does a really good job of capturing an incredibly scary time about whether fundamental questions of survival were being asked about the New York Times and other organizations. And did I worry that somewhere in there, when I was doing a big job-cut story, that eventually I would type my own name? Yes, I did. It was really scary for a while. It's less scary now.
GROSS: What's your typical media diet in the course of a day or a week?
CARR: I find myself watching a great deal of television. I think that a lot of the great sort of narrative work has gone to television. And I think the ability of people like to me to just program their diet as they see fit, I just think there's a lot of good things going on on television.
When I wake up in the morning and the gun goes off, I'm checking Twitter. I'm checking RSS feeds, and I get four newspapers at my house every day. I get the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the Star Ledger - because I live in New Jersey - and, of course, the New York Times.
And the reason I do is because the day before this, all this stuff has gone whizzing past me, and I seem to know a lot. But I don't really know which part of it is important. And I used to think it was so silly that newspapers would - like, I'd go to our page one meeting, and they'd be organizing the hierarchy of the six or seven most important stories in Western civilization. Meanwhile, the Web is above them, pivoting and alighting, and all these stories are morphing and changing. And I thought: Well, how silly is this?
But you know what? I came to want that resting place, where someone yelled stop and decided, look, this is stuff you need to know about going forward. So there's both real-time news and then newspapers have become a kind of magazine experience for me, where they're - where it's a way to look back at what has happened.
GROSS: My guest, David Carr, will be back in the second half of the show. His media column is published Mondays in the New York Times business section. He's featured in the documentary "Page One," that follows the New York Times media desk over the course of a year. A companion book is edited by NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with David Carr. He writes a column about the media that's published Mondays in the New York Times, in the Business Section. He's one of the journalists followed in the documentary "Page One," about the media desk of the Times. "Page One" has just come out on DVD. When we left off, we were talking about Carr's media diet, which includes reading four newspapers, watching a lot of TV and following about 600 Twitter accounts. He has over 300,000 followers on Twitter.
Do you ever feel like your brain isn't really equipped to sort through and synthesize all the information that you're inputting into your brain?
CARR: I'm sorry, what was the question? I'm kidding, Terry. Yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CARR: I worry about it constantly, because number one, in writing terms, if I become good on Twitter, will lose my ability to think long thoughts? Number two, my nightstand is groaning with Netflix, with an iPad, with books that, you know, my friends have written about things I'm interested in, and I haven't gotten to them. So it's sort of implicates me, sitting there. And meanwhile, you know, I walk through Times Square and I see messages on the zipper. I go to buy groceries, there's more messages. I ride the elevator up here, there's more messages. And I think that it does sort of paralyze you.
My more sort of persistent concern is that I will become so busy producing media that I won't consume enough of it, so that what I produce becomes less and less rich over time. What it reminds me of is being at a convention, whether it's a political convention or South by Southwest, or covering a big story like 9/11 or Katrina, all of those things I've done. When you're in the middle of things and pushing out a lot of information, you really have no idea what's going on, because you have no time to watch or listen or consume. That's my problem at 55 years old. I don't notice it among my younger colleagues.
They don't - Brian Stelter, who is also in the film, the act of producing media and consuming media, those are not discrete things to him. He does both at the same time in a way I don't. I can remember when bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces, about the time I was going, maybe we should do a blog post about this, I opened up the media blog that I work on, and Brian Stelter, my colleague, already had 700 words up there. And so...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CARR: ...I'm like, you know, it's like I'm working through Jell-O and he's not. He's in a different sort of universe. But I'm familiar with all the platforms, have engaged in them. I mean, I set up a fully equipped studio in my basement and wrote and edited video and sent it out to the world every day. They ended up looking like hostage videos. They were horrible.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CARR: You could almost smell the dead bodies. But still, I got the experience, and I learned to do it. And I never understood some of my colleagues saying, oh, that crap's for someone else. It's, like, that maybe would have worked five years ago, but that isn't going to work anymore.
GROSS: You moderated a panel at South by Southwest that was titled I'm So Productive, I Never Get Anything Done, and it was about how answering email, looking after accounts on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr left no time to do what one actually cares about or gets paid for. And it seems unavoidable nowadays, if you're really as immersed in media as you're describing.
CARR: I'm really thinking about this in the coming year, partly because I did a lot of work with the movie and I did a lot of speaking at colleges, and I did a ton of communicating interviews with kids working on papers and email or correspondence or Twitter correspondence with people who are curious about things. I want to be two-way. I want to be available. But I'm in danger of being one of these guys who talks about their jobs instead of doing it.
This is the first year when I think my productivity is really sort of dropped because of it, and I'm looking at the coming year and thinking: What am I going to give up? Am I going to give up following the NFL? Am I going to give up listening to music and going out and seeing it? Am I going to give up riding my bike, or am I going to cut back on some of these digital habits that I have that are eating me alive and some of these sort of speaking, panelizing, the endless, endless panels about the future of journalism? The future of journalism is wearing badges and talking on panels, as far as I can tell.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Carr, and he writes a column on the business of media Mondays for the New York Times. He also writes about popular culture for the Times. And he's kind of like the main character in the documentary "Page One," which is about the media desk of the New York Times. And that documentary's just come out on DVD.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Carr, and he writes about the business of media and about popular culture for the New York Times. His media column is Mondays in the Business Section.
A few years ago, you wrote a very personal memoir about being addicted and recovering from the addictions. And the addictions were coke and crack, and you had alcohol problems, too. The book is called "Night of the Gun." And, you know, I'm just wondering, like, did the New York Times, when you got your job after you were clean, after you were sober and you got your job with the New York Times, how much did they know about the addiction part of your past? I mean, it's not the kind of thing you put on your resume.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: But did you talk to them or tell them that...
CARR: I think I actually did in terms of...
GROSS: Did you really?
CARR: ...of like my communication to them. I mean, part of - I didn't want there to be any surprises about, sort of, who I am and what I've done. But what I tried to emphasize is, you know, I was a very low-bottom, poly-addicted crackhead, drunk, whatever you want to call it, number of misdemeanor arrests, violence against all sorts of people.
And what I wanted to point out is that since then, you know, I've been a single parent. I had gotten off of welfare, that I had taken any number of the assignments and done a good job, that I had run newspapers, that I'd done a few things since then. But still, when I did the book, you know, I went to my boss, Sam Sifton at the time, and he said I'll walked the book down there, but I think you probably should do it. And I said, well, do you have a pair of tongs or oven mitts or something that I can use to hand it over? Because it was a very - it's kind of a dark book. And when I gave it to him, Bill Keller said, you know what? We don't hire nuns. We have no problem with your book. You know, they said they were proud of the book. But...
GROSS: But getting back to them hiring you, you know, before the book existed. They were okay with it? Like, you told them your story, and they had faith that you would remain sober and do a good job.
CARR: Yeah. It's not something that we committed to directly. I mean, I didn't, in fact, remain sober. So - and I don't think that that's part of the contract. I did try drinking again. It didn't go very well. My work never suffered, per se. My work rarely did. It's always the last thing to go. But if you took all of the functioning alcoholics and addicts out of the American economy, you'd be taking out a lot of firepower and a lot of talent.
In the main, while I've been at the New York Times, I have been completely sober, highly productive, true to my word, doing my best, like everyone else there, to get it right. But they don't - I've seen people at the Times tumble and get in personal trouble. And you know what? That place, it's weird, but it will pick you up and accommodate all manner of human frailties, because people are pushed to the limit at the place. And when somebody stumbles, it's an incredibly humane place.
And I know that sounds gooey and horrible, and I never really needed it or required it, but I've seen - it's like when you're on deadline there and you really can't quite get it done and there's not enough room, and somehow, everyone around you will sort of lift you up and throw you across the goal line. And then you're the one who stands up the next day and puts your arms above your head, because you made a touchdown. Everybody there is working very hard to make it better.
GROSS: So this question is probably way too personal, so just...
CARR: I bet not.
GROSS: Well, just tell me if it is, because I don't want to be intrusive. For a lot of people who are giving up an addiction, they're encouraged to, like, find a higher power that they can, you know, turn to and believe in, whether it's religion or something else that will function in that way. Was there such a thing for you?
CARR: You know, it's funny you should mention that, because I'm in the middle of sort of a struggle with that. And it's not that - I am a churchgoing Catholic, and I do that as a matter of - it's good to stand with my family. It's good that I didn't have to come up with my own creation myth for my children. It's a wonderful group of people that I go to church with, and it's community. It's not really where I find God. And sort of what the accommodation I've reached is a very jerry-rigged one, which is: All along the way, in recovery, I've been helped - without getting into the names of specific groups - by all of these strangers, you know, who get in a room and do a form of group-talk therapy and live by certain rules in their life. And one of the rules is that you help everyone who needs help.
And I think to myself: Well, that seems remarkable. And not only is that not a general human impulse, but it's not an impulse of mine. And yet I found myself doing that over and over again. So, am I underneath all things, just a really wonderful, giving person? Or is there a force greater than myself that is leading me to act in ways that are altruistic and not self-interested and lead to the greater good? And so that's - that's sort of as far as I've gotten with a higher power thing, is I'm - you know, I'm kind of a pirate, kind of a thug. I mean, I've done a bunch of terrible things, and yet I'm able to, for the most part, be a decent person. How is that? Do I have some inner strength of character? I think not. I think something else is working on me.
GROSS: So, in the spirit of reflection about whether you will have a higher power in your life and what that higher power will be, how are you thinking about it? Like, are you reading things you hadn't read before? I mean, how do you figure that out?
CARR: One of the things that I'm doing is praying, which seems like a really uncomfortable, unnatural activity for me. It's to whom, to what, about what. You know, I have a prayer in my wallet that I'm saying...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CARR: ...and I feel like a complete fraud while I'm doing it. But it's the act of acknowledging that there may be something else out there. And so it isn't - I haven't really thought it through, but I think the behavior and the activity will sort of lead to something good. Anything that sort of gets me into a place of something less than self-obsession and gets me into a place of some humility, not even acknowledging a higher power, but that other people exist and they're not here as an extension of my world - I think that part of the reason I got involved in journalism is I just - I love the stories of other people. I mean, everybody's got a story to tell. It - I just - when all these layoff stories were coming, I was just thinking to myself, good Lord, what if I would have to go and get a real job? How horrible would that be? Because I don't - I do - what I do as something of a caper, not really work.
GROSS: Can I ask what the prayer that you're keeping in your pocket is?
CARR: Sure. Let me look at it. It's really full of, like, thees and thous and I think it's the prayer of St. Francis, what it would be known - programmatically, again, no names mentioned, is kind of a third-step prayer. I'm not comfortable reading the whole thing. But what it talks about is to offer yourself to God to build with you as God would see fit. And then the important part to me is to relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do thy will. And then it goes on to say, take away my difficulties. Of course, everyone prays for that. We all do - and that victory over them will bear witness to a power greater than yourselves, and just says may I do thy will always. I don't really know who I'm talking about when I say those words, but I sort of feel good when I do.
GROSS: I can understand that.
CARR: Yeah, I don't, like, I think it's okay to sort of like have a superstitious belief in God and not really have thought it through. I think it's okay to just - I think there's freedom in allowing for the possibility of it. Like, I don't have a presence. I don't have some idea in my mind of a woman or a man figure or anything like that. But I find the spaces between people, whether I'm making a newspaper with them or in recovery or living with them as family or friends or - I find something really godly in that. I don't have trouble acknowledging that.
GROSS: So you have - you've found something godly, but there isn't in a theology that you're following.
CARR: Yeah. I've been watching sort of this debate over Mormonism that's gone on because of the folks that are running for president, people making fun of their theology and then I think, well, I'm a practicing Catholic. We suggest that in churches all over the world that there is a metamorphosis of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, which we proceed to eat and drink, which when you really take a step back is sort of creepy, right? But that's who I'm running with. So I, you know, whether it's the kind of underwear people where or the hats they wear on their heads or the turbans or whatever, again, I make no judgment. I find comfort in those traditions.
GROSS: So your voice has a kind of hoarseness to it.
GROSS: A little raspy. Was it always that way or is that related to the drugs that you did back then or to the cancer that you had after that?
CARR: You know, it's a little tough to pin down, because I smoked on and on all my life, tobacco, so a lot of people who smoke tobacco sound like me. When you smoke cocaine you're taking in vapors that are coming into your lungs at a really high temperature, and so could that have made a problem? I took, I had Hodgkin's lymphoma and I took a lot of radiation to the mouth and throat, so could it have been that? I mean I have, I walk around and you can see in the movie, "Page One," I walk around with my neck bent, that's from the muscles sort of getting shot out by all the radiation. But I will tell you something interesting though. I spent a couple weeks working 9/11, you know, working the pile, just my job was to cover fireman. I never had a hoarse voice before that.
CARR: Yeah. So I think that's when it declared itself. And it sort of comes and goes based on the amount of fatigue I have. I could have surgery to remove the vocal notes but I've had a lot of surgeries. I've had a very medicalized life. I have no spleen. I have one kidney. I have no gallbladder. I have half a pancreas. And the idea of sort of willingly allowing people to cut into me, I'm probably not for that. I'll just deal with the hoarseness of the voice.
GROSS: Well, David Carr, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
CARR: Oh, it was a pleasure to speak with you, Terry.
GROSS: David Carr's media column is published in the New York Times Mondays in the business section. He's featured in the documentary "Page One" that follows the Times media desk over the course of a year. It's just come out on DVD. Carr has an essay in the companion book, "Page One." You'll find a link to David Carr's New York Times page and information about how to follow him on Twitter on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.