The kingdom and the power of David Carr

David Carr in his editor's office. ()
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New York Times media reporter David Carr had a bad feeling during a photo shoot he was doing for Interview magazine early last month.

The photographer for the notoriously fashiony celebrity-on-celebrity Q-and-A magazine had taken a number of shots of him in a nice, tailored suit, to accompany a write-up of an interview of him by the brilliant screen- and television writer Aaron Sorkin, a famous ex-cocaine addict.

("We once had a hobby in common," Carr told Capital.)

The Sorkin interview was pegged to the documentary, Page One, which opens at select venues in New York City on June 17, and in which Carr has a starring role. But their conversation, as so many of Carr's public conversations these days are, was about the Times, writ large: Its mission on earth. So here was a photographer coming at him with a fedora.

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"I was thinking, 'I'm not a hat guy,' and they said that's just a couple of shots, don't worry about it," Carr said, in a phone interview.

But then, last week, there was Sorkin's interview, and accompanying it, as Carr had darkly presaged to himself: A black-and-white glamour photo of him, his eyes looking straight at you from beneath their slightly droopy lids, the right iris only a point of reflected light in the shadow from under the black fedora he's either just put on or taken off his forehead at a severe downward angle; his ropy neck, which in real life suggests the gnarled age and harsh weather legible in the trunk of a great, desiccated oak on some Minnesota prairie, largely covered up in a high, starchy white collar. A striped tie in a neat, small, retro knot blends into the black dinner jacket, with a polka-dot pocket square poking from the front chest pocket.

"That probably is the worst decision that I have made in doing press," Carr said. "My wife was just appalled by it, as am I. I liked the interview and would have liked to tweet it out and, all due respect to the guys ... it's something I just can't look at. It is deeply, deeply embarrassing to me. If there is one image out on the Web, and there are some bad ones, that I could remove, I would remove that one."

It's not just that the hat "adds to the kind of dickish factor," as Carr put it, but the fact that it made it look like he was burlesquing one of his own great idols.

On June 10, Carr tweeted, "Far and away biggest highlight of @pageonemovie roll out? Talking about this thing of ours with Gay Talese last nite. Pinched myself."

Carr's followers, who number more than 300,000, knew what he was talking about: previews of Page One, a fly-on-the-wall account of life inside the bullpen of the world's greatest newspaper, directed by Andrew Rossi. The film's New York roll-out has consisted of an endless series of screenings and panel discussions hosted by institutions as varied as the pious Newseum in Washington D.C. and new-media bomb-thrower Gawker Media. Everyone in media is fascinated by that thing of his and Talese's, The New York Times.

Carr has been known before to bat away comparisons to Gay Talese, who is the originator of a certain kind of media writing with his 1969 book The Kingdom and the Power, a strange love-letter to the newspaper that had formed him as a writer, but whose inner workings and intrigues he chronicled with the honesty and dispassion that the greatest writers at the Times and elsewhere have always bestowed on their most beloved institutions, whatever the consequences.

THERE WAS A STORYLINE IN THE FILM OF PARTICULAR SIGNIFICANCE to those of us who work on or pay attention to the media beat, in which Carr produces what turned out to be his best story of 2010. The piece was special: an epic, detailed portrait of the precipitous fall of the Tribune Company that shined a light not just on the financial hurdles but on what the story's headline called its "bankrupt culture."

From the film, it looks as though it took three weeks to produce the story, and in fact, it seems like a luxurious timeline in a journalism universe that sometimes seems to be universally on Adderall. In fact, Carr worked on the story for more than four months.

It started in the spring semester of 2010, when Carr made an appearance at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Having grown up in Minnesota, Carr had always looked up to The Chicago Tribune as the Upper Midwest's great broadsheet.

"I took the El down from Evanston to downtown Chicago and put my 75 cents in the machine, and thought, is this what The Chicago Tribune has become? I couldn't believe that this was the version of the newspaper I had grown up with."

He stayed, he says, a day or two extra and made some phone calls and set up meetings, trying to figure out if he could write a story that explained what had happened to this newspaper.

"Nobody in Chicago had written the story," he said. (Who would have?) "And everybody was ready to talk about it."

He returned to New York with a pile of what he called "bar-room stories," and a copy of a letter, written anonymously to the Tribune Company's board of directors in late 2008, charging that the new leadership of the company was creating a hostile work environment, and detailing incidents of inappropriate sexual activity and innuendo in the office and preferential treatment in hiring based on personal relationships. And then there was the bankruptcy filing: the company had filed it back in December 2008, but it was enormous and full of untapped reporting potential, Carr believed.

"I did a lot of phone work, a lot of—I went through the whole bankruptcy file, there is a whole half of the story that didn't make it in there," he said. "So I spent the summer working on an outline, on the document."

He went to various departments of the paper looking for a co-writer or researcher.

"I was nervous about my ability to get my arms around the whole thing," he said.

Then he found Sydney Ember, a Brown University student.

"She partnered with me in August, at the other end of the phone, and did a lot of work on the story. Three days after I gave her access to my documents … she wrote a very synthetic lead-all, and the happy part of that is I know she's down in Metro right now as an intern."

The bankruptcy filing gives the piece a lot of its structure and purpose. But those anecdotes he collected in Chicago, negotiated later in painstaking phone conversations, and that letter, were the meat and flesh of the story. Carr spent much of the summer negotiating with his source over the use of the letter in his reporting, he told me, finally agreeing that he could use the contents of the letter but could not post it online.

Rossi was filming at the Times throughout this process, which was slow to progress and probably not all that interesting to watch on film. And Rossi's approach, which was to shoot the film with one small camera so that he could get in close and create as little artificial disturbance as possible, meant he could only be in one place at a time.

So it wasn't until the very final stages of reporting the story that the camera catches Carr working on it, three weeks before its publication in early October.

Carr said Rossi was wandering around the bullpen, and could tell that something was happening at Carr's desk when he made his big phone calls to the Tribune company, to put all his reporting in front of them.

"I was terrified about those phone calls," Carr said.

In the film, we see Carr going through a series of accusations against Tribune C.E.O. Randy Michaels and other top executives with the company's top press person. Had Randy Michaels, in the presence of employees, offered to pay a cocktail waitress $100 to show him her breasts at a hotel bar? Had a sex act taken place on a balcony in public view in Tribune offices? Had executives in a meeting offered to trade their secretaries to each other to perform sexual favors?

It's that kind of impossible phone call that Rossi captures, that final moment in which the chickens come home to roost. In Carr's lap is shown a copy of that letter to the Tribune board. In a near-final cut of the movie, some names Carr had scribbled into the document were visible. Rossi agreed to blur them out, for which Carr told me he's "grateful."

Negotiating that with Rossi was important to Carr; he had his source to protect. And Rossi's time at the Times must have been full of such negotiations. Being allowed to film inside the newsroom in the first place was a negotiation, and one largely spearheaded by Carr. It was, after all, Carr who was meeting with Rossi sometime in the middle of 2009 on another matter completely, "[expounding] on the changing role of the Times in an evolving media landscape," according to the film's production notes. It was then that Rossi got the idea for this film, and it is the raspy, refractory and infectious voice of Carr that dominates not just the film, but its making, and its many subtexts.

It was Carr, according to the Times' executive editor Bill Keller, who finally persuaded him to let Rossi in, an act of transparency on the part of the Times that could hardly have been imagined before Keller's misguided and less-well-thought-out invitation to "The Daily Show." (That ended in disaster for the company, of course, largely because it looked like a failed junket, rather than a successful "embed"—Rossi's own term. In fact, at a screening of the movie at the Times building Tuesday night, Keller brought it up, saying: "I don’t know what the hell I was thinking about that one.")

But if Carr has become a broker of the Times' image and its relationship with the rest of the media, he is an unusual one. He has neither the sententiousness that has usually characterized the paper's top brass who speak for the paper, nor quite the rashness of its youngest reporters, the ones who are still internally referred to as "Times material," still in formation. Carr is not "Times material," as he tells Sorkin; it's a part of his shtick and his story that he's there by a sort of chain of accidents, and how could he possibly complain, and what would he ever do to jeopardize that? By his own confession in the movie, the maintenance of his special connection to the paper is a fairly major focus of his life.

In his memoir, Night of the Gun, in which Carr reports out through secondary sources the period in his life when he was under the influence of drugs, he talks about his current status in the universe: "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."

This is one version of David Carr, which he endorses: a veteran of the alternative newsweekly scene, and the media-focused Web 1.0 craze; a former crack addict and single father on welfare who has written a memoir all about it without sparing himself, who tweets with abandon, moves comfortably among the paper's enemies at dinners, parties and media events; a journeyman reporter who is content to have the ear of the executive editor and the cub reporters alike on an informal basis, grateful as he is to have the job he has.

It's not wrong, but it's not complete. It doesn't begin to hint at his influence, and the way in which he projects the power of his institution. I don't think it's too much to suggest that to the industry, David Carr is the battle-hardened face of The New York Times, that kind of zealous convert every clerical magisterium (and the top of the Times masthead is a sort of Vatican) wishes for but could never intentionally create. He is its most important champion.

THIS IS NOT CARR'S JOB, EVEN IF IN THIS FILM, and sometimes out and about in New York City and on Twitter, it seems like much of his larger vocation. David Carr is a reporter for The New York Times, and one of the best ones there.

That is something we do get to see in this film. Early on in the film, he's opened his laptop at the Williamsburg headquarters of Vice, the rapidly expanding hipster media empire. He's seated at a conference table across from a group that includes one of the founders, Shane Smith, who'd produced a video for Vice magazine's documentary-production partnership with CNN called "The Vice Guide to Liberia."

"I don't do corporate portraiture," Carr says, barely looking at his interlocutors after they've given him a few lines about how CNN had brought them in because they want new ways of telling stories that will engage young viewers. "What does CNN actually get out of this partnership?"

Now, that's interviewing. But less orthodox is what happens a little further on. Clips are shown from the documentary about life in Liberia in which subjects talk about the prevalence of cannibalism; other clips about how, lacking proper sewage, the local residents tend to "use the beach."

Smith is protesting that, no, he's not a reporter, and that's why he was able not to hold back, to just show what he was seeing. Meanwhile, he said, the Times was nearby, working on a piece about Liberia as a surfing destination.

Carr turns off the recorder. "Time out," he says. He proceeds to berate Smith: There's the entire history of the Times' reporting in Liberia: genocide, coups, civil war, and Smith means to stack that up against his poop footage and win?

After a few feeble half-sentences, the recorder is back on and the interview is back on track.

After an interview like that, it would be understandable if the Vice guys were a little bit on edge waiting for the story to come out (though, on the other hand, a pan from the Times might be just the thing for their audience, spun the right way).

What came out, in Carr's Monday column on the front page of the Times' business section, certainly was not worshipful of the manly, "countercultural" ethos of what he called the "Vice tribe," and in a certain way there was a kick in it: None of this stubbly Ray Ban fly-by-the-seat-of-your-cargos machismo reportage, not even the cannibalism and the human excrement, "is enough to scare away big companies like CNN, Dell and Nike, all of which have entered partnerships to capitalize on Vice’s brand of hipster insouciance."

Touché, in a way.

So even when a story subject has desecrated his religious order, he's fair.

NEAR THE BEGINNING OF THE MOVIE, CARR ADMITS to the camera, while driving in what looks like the near environs of his cute white colonial in Montclair, N.J., that 2009 was a big shock to the Times' system. He does not scruple to separate himself from the institution as a whole.

"There was just this sort of decades of organizational hubris about, you know, our own excellence and our own dominance," he says. "And then in a matter of like 18 months, all of a sudden...everybody started like asking a question: could The New York Times, like, go out of business?"

And here, elsewhere in the film, he is working—again, it seems, on this piece about the Tribune Company—on the little back porch of his house, an ashtray with an barely-smoked stubbed-out Camel Light and a cellphone next to his laptop, which is propped up in the back, presumably to keep the dreaded carpal tunnel syndrome at bay, by a copy of new-media evangelist Jeff Jarvis' book What Would Google Do. 

Carr does his routine in a voiceover, coordinated by the film's writers and cobbled together from several moments of self-revelation across the span of his Monday Business Day columns: He's just hangin' on and grateful; when it comes to questions of the Times' survival, when so many newspapers are dying, he is a "New York Times exceptionalist."

Sometimes, I find, conversations about The New York Times and its future as a business are fun and interesting, and then someone says the Times is actually totally done for. At that point it's like someone farted; the smart people excuse themselves and make for the broccoli dip. 

For Carr, who is extremely smart, it's never an excuse to get away from idiots. He sticks these conversations out: I've seen it myself.

It's at this point a truism and hardly woth noting that private and public lives are blurring, as are personal and professional lives, in the march toward a constant personal 24-hour news cycle on Twitter and Facebook that broadcasts live from each of our lives, however boring or fascinating.

Carr is, in that respect, despite his 54 years and 31 years in the news business, a practiced blurrer. A reporter for the Times who sometimes broadcasts news from his beat, links to his articles and links to other articles on Twitter, he's also capable of broadsides, usually against critics of the Times, there and elsewhere.

He tweets from conferences, of which he seems from the movie to attend a fair number.

(I asked Carr whether he did a lot of these events at the behest of the Times; in fact, he does them all on his own, and is never asked to speak on behalf of the paper.

"None of it goes through [public relations chief Bob] Christie, none of it goes through Keller, none of it goes through Headlam," he said.

What's more, he almost never responds to invitations to speak on behalf of the Times, it's just that the Times is frequently where the conversation ends up going when he's in the room.)

In a hotel conference room in Minneapolis, he's shown addressing a conference session at the Minnesota Magazine and Publishing Association meeting, talking about whether digital doom is before the book publishing industry. His message: First of all, you are all still here. Don't think about who's gone. You're all survivors.

Carr bestows no such kindness upon Michael Wolff and Markos Moultisas, founders respectively of the websites Newser and DailyKos.

In a scene shot at South by Southwest, the Sundance of national interactive technology conferences, Carr shreds Moulitsas in what feels like a cross-examination about whether there is anything his site can produce that compares to the political reporting corpus of the Times. The camera points at a finally speechless Moulitsas, looking like he might be about to cry.

("I admire what he's built," Carr said to me, but: "He is a person who gives The New York Times blame for everything and credit for nothing, and I think it's fatuous, and helps build his franchise.")

A more ambitious demonstration of contempt is aimed at Wolff, at a more obscure conference called Intelligence Squared. Wolff has said already, in a talking-head moment to the camera in this documentary, that the business of gathering original reporting by professional staffers is dying or dead. To be fair, he overstates his own case for effect, too; whatever one may think of them, the publications he's recently taken over and assembled under the banner of the old Adweek is, finally, both a print publication and a website, and is at its core original reported material.

Nevertheless, Carr knows better than to pass up the dog-and-pony show when Wolff is in the room.

After telling the audience in this auditorium that Newser is a nice site and that they might want to check it out, Carr holds up a pretty color printout of the Newser homepage, all bright boxes in a big grid advertising links to stories personalized to the reader's interests. But he calls Wolff on his melodrama: "I don't think he's telling the truth when he says it'd be fine for all the original reporting to go away," he says, and holds up high a second version of the page in which all of the stories originally reported elsewhere have been roughly cut out of the paper with a scissors.

The audience, presumably one that does not self-select for old-media enthusiasts, goes wild.

(What's more: The camera comes back to Wolff, who looks suddenly like he's swallowed a fishbone at a dinner that's too fancy for him. Among Carr's friends, there is a Zapruder-like analysis gang organically assembled to figure out whether the expression was an edit that favored Carr or an irrepressible, single-shot pan.)

Talking about Wolff, Carr said to me: "He is a much hated figure here at The New York Times. … But I saw him downtown eating at a restaurant and he was with one of his young colleagues. I stopped and chatted him up. He's not like some Nikki Finke character, typing in his basement and never coming out. He's willing to stand behind his opinions. … I don't think he is a good person but he's not a baby; he doesn't say stuff and run away. He called me Snooki of the media world—it's kinda good though and its kinda funny. And he's willing to admit to his vanity and say he does look wonderful in the movie. He's got balls, right?"

Carr called him a "necessary person."