Since joining The New York Times in 2002, David Carr has become America’s most visible and influential writer on the media. His weekly “Media Equation” column is closely followed by people in the industry. Last year, he was featured in Interview magazine (interviewed by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, no less), and he was the star of the 2011 documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times, in which he comes across as a gruff and indefatigable truth-teller.
That documentary showed Carr in the act of reporting his stellar article on the disastrous decline of the Tribune Company under Sam Zell. For the piece, Carr interviewed more than 20 current and former employees of the company. He then described how, under the direction of Randy Michaels, a former radio executive and shock jock chosen by Zell to run the company, the Tribune Tower in Chicago came to resemble a frat house, full of sexual innuendo, profane invective, and poisonous workplace banter. Carr showed how Michaels and other executives received tens of millions of dollars in bonuses while laying off hundreds at the Chicago Tribune and other papers. It was a devastating account of the hubristic destruction of one of America’s top media companies.
This is the hard-hitting David Carr—a relentless interviewer, incisive analyst, and gifted writer all rolled into one—and the piece on Zell and company showed the powerful effect he can have when he applies those qualities to an important subject.
But there’s another David Carr, one who is breezy, knowing, star-struck, and insidery, and it’s this David Carr who, alas, more often than not shows up in his weekly column. Take, for example, “Digital’s Ever Swifter Incursion,” which ran on June 18. Carr opened with a description of a magazine launch party on the rooftop of the Gramercy Park Hotel, with an “open bar ringed by thirsty media reporters, groaning trays of shrimp, a D.J. playing music just soft enough that it didn’t drown out the chatter.” In the past, Carr noted, he had attended many such events for print magazines, but this one was for Huffington, a sleek new online weekly created by Arianna Huffington, to be available in tablet form. It was, he wrote, “a particularly acute reminder” of the transformation taking place in journalism, away from “legacy media” and toward digitally based ones. Last year, he observed,
The Huffington Post was sold to AOL for $315 million, less than a year after Newsweek was sold for a dollar, and in April the site won its first Pulitzer, for David Wood’s 10-part series about wounded veterans. More unique Web visitors now go to The Huffington Post each month than The New York Times, according to the research company comScore.
In the past, Carr went on to note, he had complained that The Huffington Post, though “one of the fastest build-outs of an editorial brand in history,” derived much of its value from “digitally kidnapping the work of others.” But, he continued, he now saw that
it doesn’t matter what I think is right and wrong, or what I think constitutes appropriate aggregation or great journalism. The market is as the market does.
It’s a valid point: The market rules, good journalism or no. But in this column, as in many others, Carr seems bewitched by the market, evaluating everything by its judgments. Rarely does he get around to the journalism itself. Of the 1,200 words in this column, for instance, he spends virtually none of them assessing content. But if, as Carr insists, the transition from traditional to new media is inevitable, doesn’t the quality of the journalism on the latter matter? I’d like to know how much of the content on The Huffington Post resembles that 10-part Pulitzer-winning series and how much resembles “Kris Humphries Makes Outrageous Claim About Kim’s Sex Tape” or “The Shocking Reason Why Adele’s Ex Supposedly Dumped Her” or the nonstop parade of titillating and gossipy links along the site’s right rail. Carr doesn’t bother to say.