The kingdom and the power of David Carr
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.
"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, and 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?
A few feeble half-sentences later, 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.
But 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 worth 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.
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."
AS BRASH AS CARR SOMETIMES SEEMS IN DEFENDING his newspaper, it's that comfort among the digital information elite that allows him to be so effective.
Page One includes a still image of Richard Nixon with that amazing audio in which he tells an adviser the Times are their "enemies" for publishing the Pentagon Papers (the analogy between Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who leaked the Department of Defense's classified internal history of American involvement in Vietnam through 1967, and Julian Assange's source in the Wikileaks diplomatic document release, occupies much of the film's time). Following that, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger appeared before the press to deliver a statement in defense of the Times' decision, the footage of which appears in the film.
"We're really a part of history that should have been made available, considerably longer ago," he told the press. "I just didn't feel there was any breach of national security, in the sense that we were giving secrets to the enemy."
The dry, dispassionate response is appropriate to the time; it wouldn't work today. Today, Sulzberger père would appear on "Charlie Rose," where, as Alec Baldwin has observed in his Jack Donaghy drag on "30 Rock," "nothing bad can happen to you." He'd have had to answer questions from a Public Editor (though possibly not particularly hard ones). There would, as there was in 1971, have been an editorial. And what's more, the media desk might have had to report on its fellow editors and reporters: the story of how the Pentagon Papers came to be published. (They did this with the Wikileaks documents released specially to The New York Times by Assange.)
But this development of the Times having a superego beyond the "daily miracle," the print edition of the newspaper that appears each morning, is actually quite recent.
Arguably, it began as a reaction to one of the most Kremlinesque Times editorships in recent memory: that of Howell Raines, who helmed the masthead from 2001 to 2003.
It was under Raines that the Times published a series of stories by Judith Miller attesting to an aggressive program to develop nuclear capability in Iraq, stories that were quoted extensively by administration officials including Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and George W. Bush not quite as rationalization for the war in Iraq, but at least as a convenient way of saying to the public, "even our enemies at The New York Times are reporting this stuff, so you know it's true." (All of this is covered in the film.)
While a lot of this stuff was going on, a young reporter named Jayson Blair, a participant in the old "8-I" program that brought young untested reporters into the newsroom on a trial basis to find more diverse wellsprings of "Times material," was discovered to have fabricated multiple stories, lied to his editors about where he was when he was reporting, and plagiarized material on multiple occasions.
It's since been pointed out, by Gerald Boyd, Raines' managing editor, that one of Blair's great betrayals to the paper was his willingness, revealed in emails from his hard drive, to leak secrets about the paper to the growing crop of "media reporters" plying Gay Talese's trade on an ongoing basis in other newspapers, magazines and websites.
Having been a media editor at the time, new to the gig and without much historical perspective, I can say that it was a time when reporters at the Times were so unsure of their positions in the company that they talked a lot: Blair was one of a crowd.
After Raines, the paper became more transparent with its staff, and thus with the public, too. Raines' successor, Bill Keller, instituted regular all-staff meetings affectionately known as "Throw Stuff at Bill" sessions, first at Times Square theaters and later in the Times' own considerable auditorium spaces in its new headquarters.
Since media reporters were getting recordings and live feeds of the early sessions from Times staffers, Keller understood that he was speaking to his staff, but in front of the public.
Meanwhile, the Times Company, nominally a public company but with a shareholding structure that privileges the decisions of the Sulzberger family when things are going well, suddenly was being tested. Tried-and-true traditions at the paper that paid for themselves somehow, and without much strategy, were starting to fall apart. As a product in the market place, the Times was no longer self-justifying. There were questions from activist members of the B-class of shareholders.
Nor as a news product could the Times continue to be sui generis: the Jayson Blair scandal, the polarization of the "news" on political grounds that made it no longer an esoteric point that the Times probably was a more liberal paper than, say, The Wall Street Journal, but a commonly accepted belief; the erosion of trust in the Times through the Blair and Miller scandals that indicated that having a Times byline did not mean that you were already vetted for poor reporting or even deceit.
This was the groundwork for the beginning of the Keller era, and the beginning of Carr's ascent as the friendly face of the Times to New York's media elite.
By May of 2009, just before Rossi started filming, the paper had revamped its approach. That was when, in an article by John Koblin at The New York Observer, New York P.R. man Ken Sunshine summed up the situation for the Times by saying,“The Gray Lady needs to adapt to a drastically changed media environment. They’re doing some of it probably grudgingly, and they need to do more of it and to get a little more street sense.”
The advice came a little late: A week before, after Gawker published an internal memo from the competing Wall Street Journal's editor, Robert Thomson, that was nasty about the Times' prospects as a business and its editorial point of view, a Times spokesperson wrote a personal email to Gawker editor Ryan Tate that began "Dear Ryan." It went on to document what it called Thomson's "strange analysis" of the Times.
The email was printed in full on Gawker, of course. And so, the Times P.R. department, six years after publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. assured Charlie Rose in an interview that the Times had little responsibility to account for itself to a minor pink newspaper, was writing personal letters to a Gawker editor that were meant for public consumption.
The Observer at the time played the story as the Times getting tough (disclosure: I edited the piece, and wrote the headline). "The Times is Mad as Hell and … Well?" it read. The article documented a staff meeting at the Times Center in which business-side folks like public relations chief Catherine Mathis and C.E.O. Janet Robinson were taking questions from staff:
Metro reporter Glenn Collins stood up and asked why the paper didn’t combat negative press more—or stress the positive—since the paper is battered so routinely in publications like Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, the Post and everywhere else.
Ms. Robinson said that there had been some efforts, and then handed the mic over to Catherine Mathis, The Times’ longtime spokeswoman.
She comforted the staff by saying that she had gone on a “charm offensive” with members of the press, according to a person present. She said she had reached out to Michael Wolff; she said that trying to combat the Post’s negative coverage wasn’t worth the candle; and she said that after much wrangling, she even got a correction from The Observer.
In that article, Mathis, who has since left the company (replaced by Robert Christie, former P.R. chief for News Corp.!) told the Observer: "One of the best ways for people to know about The Times and to know our journalism is to know our reporters.” She was talking about appearances on NY1, "Charlie Rose" and "Today" to pump their articles; what she could not have imagined was that, shortly after her exit, the rise of Twitter and self-generated Times reporter accounts might organically develop into places where the Times image was subtly changing, and where the reporters, beyond publicizing their own work, might voluntarily promote the work of their peers, defend the Times against attacks on business and right-wing media sites and in new-media-evangelist Times-hating Internet bubbles.
Carr portrays himself in Page One as a reluctant adopter of Twitter. Carr was at South by Southwest when the new paywall went up at the Times. He tweeted, among dispatches from parties, panels and lunches, that what surprised him was how many people in that crowd told him they were willing to pay for the Times online.
IT CAN BE EASY TO FORGET THAT CARR HAS DAILY reporting responsibilities to the paper, if you're following him online as well. The paper every Monday is the most effective reminder, and in the movie, that's always what's at the forefront. First and foremost, Carr will tell anyone, he has the best job in the world: He's a reporter for The New York Times. And in Page One we get a taste of what that's like for him.
After Carr has made his phone call to the Tribune company, he goes to his boss and editor, Bruce Headlam, to ask for two weeks to report it and a third to write it. Headlam gives his approval.
Next, Carr is in Headlam's office again, warning him that Tribune's lawyers are going to call. Headlam reassures Carr that he knows what to do; the phone rings on Headlam's desk, and he ushers Carr out of the room. The camera stays on Headlam, who is telling a Tribune Company lawyer, "One thing I can tell you is David Carr is the most fair-minded guy I know."
Rossi cuts out there, and brings the camera back to Carr's desk. "This is where the institutional muscle kicks in," Carr says, as he leans back precariously again in his chair, awaiting orders.
It's perhaps worth reproducing the lead of the story that was finally published, which draws nothing from that initial letter to the board really, at length. It's not a genius decision to have led with this; but it is reporting genius to have gotten this story firm enough to put it there with such confidence.
In January 2008, soon after the venerable Tribune Company was sold for $8.2 billion, Randy Michaels, a new top executive, ran into several other senior colleagues at the InterContinental Hotel next to the Tribune Tower in Chicago.
Mr. Michaels, a former radio executive and disc jockey, had been handpicked by Sam Zell, a billionaire who was the new controlling shareholder, to run much of the media company’s vast collection of properties, including The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, WGN America and The Chicago Cubs.
After Mr. Michaels arrived, according to two people at the bar that night, he sat down and said, “watch this,” and offered the waitress $100 to show him her breasts. The group sat dumbfounded.
“Here was this guy, who was responsible for all these people, getting drunk in front of senior people and saying this to a waitress who many of us knew,” said one of the Tribune executives present, who declined to be identified because he had left the company and did not want to be quoted criticizing a former employer. “I have never seen anything like it.”
Mr. Michaels, who otherwise declined to be interviewed, said through a spokesman, “I never made the comment allegedly attributed to me in January 2008 to a waitress at the InterContinental Hotel, and anyone who said I did so is either lying or mistaken.”
Two weeks later, Randy Michaels was out. Rossi shows the front-page headline, and prints on the movie screen that Daniels was ousted.
What, one wonders, might have happened if Gawker had gotten a copy of that board letter in June and published it online, and asked for horror stories from Tribune employees? Would the anonymity of submitting their stories for publication (never a guarantee) have been enough for those sources to come forward? Would these stories have emerged if Carr had not sat down with these people, and negotiated with them for months?
Gawker is a force to be reckoned with, for sure, and has shown time and again that it is capable of exposing inconvenient truths and kicking off national and international controversies. But in this case, would the Tribune Company have been forced to fire Michaels after revelations from anonymous commenters and submitters charged sexual misconduct in the workplace, with no vetting by one of the media industry's most respected reporters, and nothing hard to go on?
The question is not rhetorical, or judgmental. The fact is simply that that is not the way it happened. One thing is for sure, though: We wouldn't have gotten the story Carr wrote. This, in fact, is where the institutional muscle kicks in.
THE "@PAGEONEMOVIE ROLLOUT," AS CARR HAS BEEN CALLING it on Twitter, began in January at Sundance, where the film got snapped up quickly by Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media, with some help from the History Channel. Carr was the darling of Park City. As the movie's release approached, Carr's "public schedule" as the Old Media's greatest advocate who can also speak Twitter Jive only intensified.
He tweeted about just making a train to D.C. the other day, to make an appearance at a screening at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and at the Times building earlier this week, he, Gay Talese and executive editor Bill Keller shared the stage for a panel discussion following yet another screening. Last night Gawker Media hosted a viewing of the film on the rooftop deck of its Elizabeth Street offices followed by a panel discussion. And then, there was that Interview interview by Aaron Sorkin. It was a match made in heaven: As recently as late May, Sorkin told Atlantic Wire, for its "What I Read" series, "I can't really get on board with the demonization of credentials with phrases like 'the media elite' (just like doctors, airline pilots and presidents, I prefer reporters and commentators to be elite) and the glamorization of inexperience with phrases like 'citizen journalist.'" And of course, both Sorkin and Carr have talked publicly about their addictions.
Sorkin recycles the bon mot about "citizen doctors" to Carr's approval; Carr makes his case for the "rigor" of traditional journalism a little more deftly. He's saying the same thing as Sorkin, only there is room, it might seem to a young blogger or "citizen journalist," for her in this view of the future of journalism Carr is painting. Not a nice room, not as nice as the room the Times has, but … room.
(Carr said he was surprised, actually, at how the final interview came out, since, he said, "his version of The New York Times and my version of The New York Times are very different," though it's hard to see how.)
In this moment, it's possible to believe David Carr is becoming more famous as a spokesman for the Times than he deserves to be, even as he has always deserved more widespread fame and fortune for his writing and reporting on media and for his memoir, which set an almost impossibly high bar for future memoirists.
It would be an intervention to read his tweet about Talese this way, but let's try it out. Why would a conversation with Talese be "far and away" the best thing about the rollout of Page One? Because for decades Talese was what Carr is—even, what Carr is dressed as in this Interview piece: The public's trustworthy guide to the strange folkways, the majesty, and the enduring gravitas and importance of The New York Times. He could spew acid at the paper when it did wrong. He was, like Carr, refractory. His glamour is old-school, and Carr's is new, but they are both celebrities: Carr manages the kind of strange star-power in the crowded bars of SXSW, in Park City, in obscure Bushwick pizzerias and among his fellow members of the Times bedroom community in Montclair that Talese managed at Elaine's, at the clubs, and on the Upper East Side.
In 1969, when Talese's book was on the verge of publication, Time did a feature on him and this strange new story subject, The Times. This is where Talese says the thing that has launched a thousand media blogs, the mantra of The New York Observer in its most Times-obsessed moments: "I consider the New York Times news," he said. "Fascinating news. It has been sitting in judgment of America for more than a century and it, too, should be looked at in detail with the same objectivity."
Pointing out the many barbs he threw at the paper's internal power elite, the author of the piece returns to Talese.
Perhaps most startling is Talese's unflattering portrait of Executive Editor James ("Scotty") Reston, one of the best-liked and most respected journalists in the U.S., who is depicted as a master of corporate tactics and intrigue. Talese calls him a "Times-man in the old sense, a man emotionally committed to the institution as a way of life, a religion, a cult." As Washington bureau chief in the early '60s, Reston developed a first-class staff and a close friendship with the publisher, the late Orvil Dryfoos (husband of an Ochs granddaughter). It was virtually impossible for editors in New York to over rule Reston, even though some out ranked him. "His artistry as an administrator could not be measured simply by the fact that he usually got his own way," writes Talese. "What was more interesting was that Reston's way, as he presented it, seemed solely designed for the greater glory of the New York Times."
Though he is in a sense a rebel against the old Times, Talese emphatically says that he is not trying to "get" the newspaper for any past grudges. "I was trained by the Times and when I left the paper I cried."
At the time, Talese's book was regarded as an act of treason. Now, Talese is vindicated as a Times patriot. Times history, especially lately, will look kindly on Talese as a friend of the paper.
I ASKED CARR ABOUT THAT LINE from Night of the Gun: "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."
My question was, "Is this for real?" It was the first time it took him a second to start talking again.
"The idea that I would have the megaphone of the Times when I might have had a more outré …" He started again. "Here you are in a place where you can snap someone's professional life like a winter twig. It is not falsely modest to wonder whether you're up to the task, so in that sense it's not made up. Sometimes in my professional life people will tell me how weird I am, how strange, and I sorta brush that off. And then I saw this movie, and I thought, that guy is weird, and I've got the wife and the family and the house in the suburbs, and I don't see it. I may be advantaging myself on what would it be called ... I may be advantaging myself on idiosyncrasy."
"Here's what I would say, is: There's been no management of it. I am—I rise or fall by what I put in the paper. The fact that I am in the magazine this week will help my stock. I don't really—no one's ever talked to me about it. So I don't know what to make of it. You're seeing two things. One is I am very tribal in my loyalties. Even though I grew up throwing rocks, the first 20, 25 years I was mostly hacking on daily newspapers and their foibles, and now I've not only gone native, I have turned into a reflexive defender of them."
"I am extremely Irish and tribal in terms of my loyalties. I don't think, until the movie put a frame around that stuff, people would say that was part of my book of business. That's—it's such a small part of what I do, it just is tightly focused in this film, which I believe is a document where I think the organization is well represented. And I don't like everyting in the movie, but I think the filmmaker did a good job at precisely the moment that we are asking people to step up and pay for the content. The movie shows you what goes into that and how it's done."