Of course, Carr’s column appears in the business section. Most of the Times’s media coverage does. It seems more interested in serving investors and insiders than ordinary Times readers—in describing the latest IPO and ratings battle rather than, say, the stupidities at Fox News or the false balance in the coverage of Washington politics. But even here, Carr’s column falls short. One of the key questions about The Huffington Post is its profitability. “Since AOL (the site’s owner) doesn’t break out financial data for its individual companies,” he observed in his column, “there’s no way of knowing whether it makes or loses money.” He then quickly moved on. As I myself discovered when looking into this matter three years ago for The New York Review of Books, HuffPo’s finances are indeed difficult to penetrate. But Carr doesn’t even try.
While the other David Carr occasionally shows up in his columns, too many of them are like the Huffington party one. Caught up in the glitter and pomp of the moment, the pieces rarely look beneath the surface. They abound in hip new-media lingo: startups, roll-outs, branding, titans, platforms, portals, showcases, search optimization, and legacy media (a loathsome term). They frequently feature parties, meals with media honchos, and investment deals.
And celebrities. Rather than expose the practice of access journalism, as any good media critic should, Carr routinely practices it. When CNN announced it was signing up Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef and host of the show No Reservations on the Travel Channel, to do programs for the cable news network, Carr could barely contain himself:
Anthony Bourdain tends to get noticed. The chef turned televised tour guide is macho but not overbearing, profane without being coarse, and tall and handsome. How handsome? I was at an outdoor social event with my wife some years ago when he passed by, and she was so transfixed by him that she walked into a bush. I hate him for that, but am unsurprised that his charmed life is about to add a new chapter.
Carr did not pause to consider what such a soft hire might say about CNN and the direction in which it’s going.
For another celebrity piece, a profile of Keith Olbermann for the Times Magazine last year, Carr first went to dinner with him, then accompanied him to a Mets-Yankees game. Writing about Brian Williams and his new show Rock Center, Carr went to his apartment in Midtown Manhattan to interview him. (“I have heard people in Midwestern V.F.W.’s say nice things about him, but he also received favorable mention at a breakfast of digital media savants I recently attended. In a niched-up world, Mr. Williams is someone we all seem to hold in common, not because he is Uncle Walt, but because he reflects an appealing mash-up of earnestness and knowingness.”)
Even Rupert Murdoch has gotten the star treatment. In October 2007, Carr showed up for a media party hosted by MySpace at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and attended by a “guest list of Silicon Valley luminaries.” At one point, there was a ripple of excitement as people pointed toward the door. When the crowd parted, it was not Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan who was causing the tittering, but Rupert Murdoch, who two years earlier had bought the social-networking site for $580 million. Carr was impressed:
The same characteristics that make Mr. Murdoch a nonmember of the club in the East—a lack of correctness and, occasionally, business civility—make him something of a folk hero in the context of the new economy, which is peopled by insurgents who see him as a fellow pirate, even though he already captains a giant ship.
Kvelling about Murdoch throughout, Carr praised him for his willingness to invest in newspapers and quoted Murdoch’s boast that MySpace “was probably worth 30 times what he had paid for it.”
Not long after that event, the traffic and revenues at MySpace began to plunge, and in June 2011, after a desperate search for buyers, Murdoch’s News Corp. finally managed to unload it, for a reported $35 million—about 6 percent of what he had paid for it.
Since the start of the News International hacking scandal, the other David Carr has shown up and written some tough things about Murdoch. In one column, he even ate some crow, noting that “Mr. Murdoch was hailed as a visionary when he bought MySpace—by me among others—but that did not end up working out so well.” Carr did not draw the obvious lesson, though—that the market often errs, that all those shimmery deals that now seem so brilliant could turn out looking just as bad, and that in the end it’s content that matters most.