Why David Carr is irreplaceable

His column was journalism's Monday-morning anchor.

Almost nobody is irreplaceable. It’s a maxim that’s just as true in journalism as it is on an assembly line. Nostalgics may think there will be a Brian Williams-sized hole in the NBC broadcast going forward, but the truth is that Lester Holt will do just fine. Viewers adjust.

And after a half-hour of schadenfreude on Journalism Twitter, reporters adjust, too. Then they careen on to the next instance of alleged plagiarism, the next momentary burst of collective outrage. Storytellers can’t resist a narrative arc’s descent, undeterred by the reality that they, themselves, are not immune. When one person flies too close to the sun, journalists witness the plunge—and then scuffle to don their own wings.

None of this applies to David Carr, who died Thursday at 58. In the fluid, esoteric world of media criticism, his weekly column—generous yet incisive analyses on our characters and foibles, our triumphant experiments and spectacular failures—was journalism’s Monday-morning anchor. The first media read of the week, it was generally the best; insidery enough for industry know-it-alls and contextualized enough that my 92-year-old grandfather felt informed. The rest of the week’s micro-scoops and hot takes are entertaining. Sometimes, they’re even thoughtful and good. But Carr was consistently great.

And he was consistently there, a voice of reason and informed optimism in an industry whose balcony Muppets veer from doomsday pronouncements to Silicon Valley magical thinking. Carr didn’t roll his eyes at digital experiments, but he also gave an older guard of media titans—Rupert Murdoch, The Washington Post, and even Brian Williams (whom Carr wrote last week shouldn’t be fired for his fabricated heroics)—the benefit of the doubt. He wrote from the view that nobody is beyond redemption.

He would know. Carr was devastatingly, brutally, beautifully public about his history of drug abuse and domestic violence (with “a little touch of cancer”). He fell before he rose, and that imbued his writing about the hardships of others with a healthy dose of compassion, something largely absent from a news cycle focused on a story’s viral potential instead of the real people behind the media scrum.

“I wrote a book some years back about the nature of memory and the stories we tell ourselves and others,” Carr wrote in his piece on Brian Williams. “Stories tend to grow over time and, if they are told often enough, they harden into a kind of new truth for the teller.”

To know that people err and fall, that it’s their own damn fault, but that flawed humans—that is to say, all humans—deserve another shot, is to be a rare sort of journalist and human: an irreplaceable one.

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Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg.