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.
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.
Carr’s career has followed a remarkable arc. He began at the Twin Cities Reader, an alternative weekly in Minneapolis, and later spent five years editing Washington City Paper, another alternative. Along the way, he became a coke addict who sold drugs, beat up women, and lost his kids to foster care. (He wrote a best-selling book about his days as a junkie).
At the Times, he began as a grunt on the media beat, but he quickly rose. In 2005 he started the paper’s Carpetbagger blog, in which he handicapped the Oscars and interviewed stars on the red carpet. Since then, he’s been lionized in a documentary, been interviewed by Aaron Sorkin, and written a column that allows him to mix with the famous and powerful. He’s become, in short, the very type of insider that the hard-hitting David Carr would gleefully expose.