Coffee With … David Carr

In a town full of media stars, David Carr still stands out. Media columnist for The New York Times, Carr is also a prolific Tweeter with 324,431 followers and a Klout score of 66. In 2008, he came out with a memoir about his years as an alcoholic and drug addict, “Night of the Gun” — partly to help finance his twins’ college educations. Now he’s at the center of a new documentary about The New York Times called “Page One,” which opens in two weeks. Montclairions will have a chance to see an early screening on Monday night, June 6, at the Bellevue, followed by a Q&A with Carr and national pundit and author Jon Alter. The event is sponsored by the Montclair International Film Festival as a fundraiser.

Let’s start with your book, Night of the Gun, doing this tell-all kind of memoir, what that was like for your kids and your neighbors, coming out so candidly in a small town?

I would say overall it hard zero impact on my kids, zero impact on my job, zero impact on my relationship with my neighbors.

Were you worried about that?

Very. My book was pretty dark. My oldest brother John is the one who told me if you include some of this stuff it’s going to damage you and damage your career. And I said well, it’s sort of like playing Jenga. If you pull one of the sticks out, the whole thing will fall. So, I didn’t want to be out touring on the book and have someone say well how about this time you were arrested for domestic assault? I just wanted to take everything. I figured if I put it all in, apart from being a knucklehead and a junkie, I’d been a single parent, ran newspapers, been a good journalist and I thought it would all sort of balance out in the end.

My bosses had no issues with it, none.

You write about media and you’re in the media, and you’re doing both the old media and the new media. You could you talk about that, wearing all those hats. Is it particularly uncomfortable in this town, where everybody’s a journalist?

To the issue of sort of old and new media, I have four newspapers on this table right now, Star Ledger, the Post, the Times and the Journal. I have an iPad too. I don’t believe in the sort of bifurcation of old and new. The whole “we’re old world media, we make phone calls and we put them in the newspaper” and “we’re new media and we grab whatever’s in the ether and put it up.” There’s been this steady march toward each other and what you’re doing is no different from what I do.

And social media, which we viewed as a sort of threat because it grabs so much mind share, we find out now is a friend. Every four seconds there’s a link on Twitter that carries content for The New York Times. And it’s helping us access a demographic we otherwise would not have. It’s a great way for us to refresh our demographic from the bottom in terms of ages. And the Times itself, I think with the redesign of 2002 or 2003, whatever it was of their website, went out front in digital terms. Seventy blogs. I spent four years covering the Oscars. I did videos that didn’t  look like television. I don’t look like someone who would be on TV. And people are looking for verisimilitude and authenticity on the web.

So the fact that a guy who looked a little bereft or homeless was on a red carpet in Hollywood talking to people, I think that helped all of us understand a little bit, there’s real potential. I walked up to Brad Grey, who I’d never met, who ran Paramount, and I said, “My name’s David Carr and I’ll be covering the awards season for the Times” and he said, “I know you. I’ve seen you on my iPod. Every week I watch your videos.” That was kind of a moment for me.

What about the whole Bill Keller thing. Was there an intervention? Was it embarrassing for you to have him writing the kinds of things he was writing about Twitter and fighting with Arianna [Huffington]?

Let me be very very clear. I am never ever embarrassed about Bill Keller, a colleague and my boss. My argument to Bill Keller was not in the form of an intervention. An intervention makes it sound like we came up to his desk with lanterns and pitchforks.

I sent him an email. One, I said, when your boss is doing your job it’s never good for you, so I have an obvious stake in this, so take what I say with a grain of salt. But B, you pulled us across Death Valley, in business terms. Our capital structure is solid and our sales are sufficient. You have maintained journalistic footprint the whole time. You’ve prosecuted a two-front war journalistically. And you’ve landed the New York Times on the other side. Why do you want to add another leg to the stool by become the conscience of media? If you write about Fox, if you write about Huffpo or Twitter, what you say is much more important than we say. It just is, because you’re the editor.

Per se what he does is a lot more important and there’s always the chance that his writing is going to create turbulence that me and Brian and others have to report through.

But what’s important to know about that is I said to him: If that’s how it is, no big deal, we can totally manage. I just want you to know. And he responded very thoughtfully. I was listened to. And he went ahead and did exactly what he was going to do in the first place.

I don’t care what he says about Twitter. I think he’s dead wrong. And I know it’s an important reporting tool for me. But am I worried about the New York Times as crotchety and old media? Please. Damn what we say, watch what we do. To me, the whole idea that we’re somehow embarrassed to be associated with Bill Keller, I don’t give a rip about what people on Twitter say about Bill Keller. He has accomplished amazing things in the job and is probably one of the most talented journalists of our time. Remember, he was not the first choice, and it was an accident of history. And the crown with him never exactly fit. He never was the imperial executive editor of the New York Times, and he turned out to be a fabulous one.

But you know, most people would be uncomfortable talking about their boss as candidly as you are now. Of course it is your job to opine on media and media tsars of all kinds. But most people would be afraid to do it. They’d say, Oh that’s off the record.

I’m never off the record. And in terms of like oh I think he’s wrong about Twitter, I’ve already said that to him. So I just think you’ve got to have a congruence. Like what I wrote in that note is what I think out here [on his back porch]. It’s the same as the book. If I tell this story, if I tell it truthfully, everything will be okay. No harm will come to me.

I think people underestimate the candor within the New York Times. You have all these really smart women and men. And the paper that comes out is a negotiation of disagreements. The paper emerges from the spaces between people.

Everyone works for someone. I can remember when the first iPad came out. I blogged about it. I had been on Charlie Rose about it. And the bosses, I think it was John Geddes said, “Enough with the iPad. Enough.” And I hadn’t written my big heave about the iPad. And I was writing Bruce Hedlam, my boss, just to explain, well you don’t understand. And they’re like, that’s fine. You’re not doing it.

One of the things that I love about the movie is the role of editors is writ. In the New York Times, you don’t push a button on stuff.

What about on the blogs?


But obviously you tweet whatever you want.

Good point. I’ve gotten in jams too.

What tweets got you into trouble?

When four of our people got grabbed in Libya, after they got back they wrote a two-part story about it. It was an amazing story and it demonstrated, sort of, how the power of the institution pulled them back to safety to look after their interests. And the tweet I wrote was: Tune in tomorrow for part 2 when Arianna Huffington aggregates everybody back to safety.

And one of my followers said to me, seems like you shouldn’t be making jokes about something that serious and I said, you know what you’re right. And I pulled the tweet. And then Jeff Jarvis, serving as conscience of the internet, said, “What are the Times’ rules about pulling tweets?” And I said, “I don’t know what they are, but somebody raised taste issues about what I wrote and I got rid of it” and he said, “That’s not how we do” and I said, “Well that’s how I do.”

You saw the movie poster for “Page One” at the Clairidge the other night?

That’s the first time I thought, some of this is going to be fun and cool. All the rest of it has been not that great.


Your job at the New York Times, partly at least, is to fit in. And I love my job and I love the New York Times and I would hate to do anything that would damage its luster.

Is there resentment from colleagues?

I have no idea. How would I know? The important thing to me is that they’re all going to see it a week from Tuesday. And I wasn’t willing to participate in any promotion for the film unless they showed it to them. I don’t think anybody from the New York Times should have to stand in line, buy a ticket, to see that movie. Whether they like it or not, they should be able to just see it at work. So the day we’re doing the Times Talk, which will be me, Bill Keller and Gay Talese doing a Times Talk, [there will be two screenings for staff at the Times Center.] Which is great. The important part is that my colleagues get a chance to see it. The night after the New York premier.

I’m surprised they talked people into letting them show it in Montclair the week before the New York premiere. That just seems wild to me.

To be honest, I was not super eager to do a Montclair screening. Even though I like the people [at the MIFF]. I’m doing all this crap, and they’re late to the game, and I’d love to just skate around this. Just because I’m nervous and self conscious in my hometown.

And then the whole [media] Mafia kicked in. Jon Alter said I must be misreading these emails. It doesn’t seem like you’re really responding. And Evie [Colbert] dropped me a note. She’s as sweet as pie and somebody I see at church and super smart. It doesn’t matter what I want to do. I’m going to do it.

So basically you’re part of the Montclair media establishment so you have to do your part?

These guys all have really busy lives and are working hard to get a film festival established in Montclair, and they’re not people who like are short on hobbies. So they’ve put a personal priority on it. And if my small part is I have to sit still for a Q&A, I am course and happy to do it.

It’s easier for me to do a screening in LA at Norman Lear’s house. It just is. Those are not my people. I don’t even care what they think of me.

Is it that you don’t want to be a movie star with your friends? You’re on a block that having a big block sale. Everybody’s out there with their junk in front of their houses. And you don’t want to be David Carr movie star with these people?

Let’s start with the fact: People always congratulate me after the film. What did I do really, though? I just went to work.

That’s one thing. Two is, I want people on the block, if they’re going to talk to me, it’s like Is that the guy with the grubs on his front lawn? That’s the relationship I’m interested in.

The thing is Montclair’s really like Manhattan. There are people so much more important than me here. And it’s part of the social contract that people don’t make a big deal out of it.

It’s like rich people don’t talk about money.

Correct. Andy Rosenthal lives here, he runs the op ed page. Stephen Colbert, he runs one of the most important commentary shows in America. Jonathan Alter is on television all the time. I’m pretty small beer in that context.

I’m sure I’ll be fine.

But it’s one thing for the movie to get it’s one, two, three weeks downtown, whatever it’s going to get. And I think the movie’s going to do very well, here and elsewhere. It’s another thing for me to be onstage, talking about it.

Movies are really important to me. I go to them all the time. No I don’t like the screens at the Clairidge but I love how they’re programmed. I’m going to Bellevue for this one. And I’m always the guy in the fourth row on the aisle with the big bucket of popcorn. Even though I didn’t like the Woody Allen movie, I sat down expecting it would be great. And so, I’m comfortable sitting where you are doing what you’re doing. I’m more comfortable sitting in the fourth row. It’s not about humility. It’s not like that. I’m certainly as ego involved as the next person. It’s just a matter of comfort, of what your role is. And if I’m going to gain some notoriety for an article, I’d just as soon be the one writing it as the one in it.

But it was fun to see the poster?

That was the first moment when I said, okay it’s going to be cool. Because I’d been just wandering along about thinking Am I going to get jammed up with my colleagues? There is no economic upside for me. And so what is the good part.

One thing that made me sort of excited is, poor Maddie [his daughter] through a variety of circumstances, has had to sit through this movie three times. I adore the film. And it’s not just a documentary. It’s a real movie movie. It’s super exciting. But a 14-year-old, three times. And she asked me the other day, can I bring some friends to the Monday night event? And you could have knocked me over with a feather. That’s great!

The ability of this film to connect with young people, not people her age but people 18 and 20 is just breathtaking to me. And as somebody who writes about newspapers – and my stuff is never ever read by young people – what did he do that I need to learn from? I think that you’ll agree that it’s incredibly engaging.

From what I’ve read, he didn’t set out to make a movie about you. You emerged.

He started out making the movie about me. He came to me, he said I want to shoot it over your shoulder. And I asked my bosses, figuring for sure they’d just say no way. And they said yes. He was with me for four days. I couldn’t stand it. I said, “You know what you’ll get your story but I will not get mine. So you’ve got to broaden out.” And those other characters that you see in the movie are the result of that. And after he shot it, in post, it sort of narrowed back down on me a little bit. But the other characters in the film, you’ll understand, are really important.

Do you think you’re the star? Or are you just a character?

I find it appalling to watch the film. I can’t believe how I walk, that my neck is so bent over. And like my daughter Erin who lives in Brooklyn said, “Dad you’re always yelling in the movie.” And I said, “Why should work be any different from home?”

Part of the reason there’s so many men in the film and not that many women, is as men we’ve been taught to be self important, to be these little banty roosters strutting around and thinking whatever we talk about is really important. Whereas my colleagues who are women really looked at it and said, no good can come from this. And Jill, who is now the editor of the paper, there is no way she would sit in front of the camera. No way.

MIFF Screening of “Page One”
Clearview’s Bellevue Theater
260 Bellevue Avenue, Montclair
Monday, June 6th
7 p.m. Doors Open
7:30 p.m. Film Begins
9 p.m. Q and A Begins

Buy tickets here.

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  1. I look forward to seeing this on Monday but Jonathan Alter is a jack ass. Why is that fool going to be there?

  2. The thing is Montclair’s really like Manhattan. There are people so much more important than me here. And it’s part of the social contract that people don’t make a big deal out of it.

    So he’s not very important compared to the other luminaries in Montclair but he doesn’t want to call attention to the fact that he actually is pretty important, and he only agreed to do the interview because “Evie” and “Jon” wanted him to?

    I think Carr is a really smart, interesting guy, and I always read his cols, but this passage just goes to show you what a minefield it is to talk about yourself candidly in public. Which I suppose was his point.

  3. ROC, judging from Mr. Carr’s come hither look and cool hat, the answer is YES!!

    And ‘Boss is dead right: not only is Alter an ass, at times when he’s talking about Obama, I can almost hear O’s zipper opening as Alter prepares to be, ah, “objective.”

  4. Yikes! Who says crime doesn’t pay? Apparently cashing in on being a an alcoholic and a drug addict is a viable option for putting ones’ kids through college. Guess that’s where I went wrong… that and not having the good fortune to be born one of those “little banty roosters strutting around and thinking whatever we talk about is really important.” Goody gumdrops for you Mr. Carr!

  5. Iceman,
    Having met Jonathan Alter 4 times, having listened to him speak about his bout with cancer, having listened to him speak about the research he put into his bio on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, having attended a tour of his office along with a class of local elementary school kids, including one of ours, (his invitation) a number of years ago, and, once several years ago, having had an enjoyable chat with him and his wife at a local party,
    I can honestly say that I cannot disagree with you more.

    You seem to see him as a political stick figure, nothing more. My view is more tied more into Jonathan Alter as a Montclair resident and writer. As such, he’s a gentleman and a scholar.

  6. Spiro, Glad to hear he was nice to you.

    So, I guess I’ll amend my comment: personally he seems to have been very nice to Spiro, his kid, and his kid’s class, he’s done research on books he’s written and he’s (thankfully he’s fine, really because his cancer fight sounds just awful) battled cancer.

    BUT, he is IN DEEP LOVE with Obama, and this love comes through every time he discusses Obama. Not only do I get the impression that he carries Obama’s water, I think he soaps Obama down, then bathes him with it.

    He is, though a very nice guy (he was on my softball team a few years back and seemed nice enough).


    In fact, I just found this video Alter made about his love for Obama:

  7. What’s this? Professor 07043, on a softball with 07042 homeowners like Jonathan Alter?

    Surely the Second Coming is nigh.

  8. (The game was at Mountainside Park, which is in the 43– and since we 43 folks are an accepting bunch, it was fine. Although, now that I think about it, a few were down in the 42 at Nichuane (sp?) park, and I found the folks to be very kind too. So maybe, just maybe there is NOTHING to this whole 42/43 thing…. JUST KIDDING. We know there is, but we 43 folks are very good at putting on airs, and sometimes, heirs.)

  9. Well, judging from your avatar, prof,
    “airs: and “heirs”, but certainly not “hairs”.

  10. I don’t know too much about Jonathan Alter other than the handful of columns that I’ve read, most recently and surprisingly on Bloomberg. My most recent takeaway is that he is a strident proponent of the current administration’s economic policies and utterly contemptuous of opposing viewpoints, without feeling any particular need to weigh their merits or the logic behind them. Other than that, he’s probably a decent enough local guy that I recognize on the train occasionally.

  11. Don’t know Alter
    Don’t know Carr
    They ain’t Gonzo like Hunter S….A shooting star
    Put them in a graphic novel
    and they might go far
    Anime for the Montclair glitterati scene
    42 & 43…. the double trouble team

    At least they’re not wall St. paper shuffling suits
    or end of the world prognosticators
    Nor Million dollar jocks crying the blues

    Just word processors for the split second attentioned spanned literate.
    Pounding those keys getting all Sqwertyoped and squintyeyed late into the night…..God bless each & everyone of us and God bless the Corporate States of America.
    P.s. Send this to the immunity officer.

  12. yes fellas,

    try to make your criticism as cogent and deptful as:

    “I’m willing to bet my paycheck that Alter has more brains in his pinky finger than you have in your entire rear end, boss.”

  13. ROC, in all fairness, Walleroo was performing a rather complicated calculation incorporating both math and neuroscience.

  14. PAZ, You’re behind the times. Picking Lotto numbers from fortune cookies, while not totally without it’s merits, has got to give way to the plethora of new smart phone apps that are designed for the purpose. It’s easy. All you do is agree to give the developer access to all of your personal information, contacts, location, web surfing data, etc., and they provide you with the weekly winners!

  15. “I think people underestimate the candor within the New York Times. You have all these really smart women and men. And the paper that comes out is a negotiation of disagreements. The paper emerges from the spaces between people.”

    If only Baristanet worked the same way. We do have some very smart men and women (to balance Carr’s politically correct order) on this blog, and then we have… well, never mind. You have to go through all our polarizations (or ignore them) to reach the negotiation of disagreements. Still, kind of like The New York Times, Baristanet does beat daytime TV.

  16. “I think people underestimate the candor within the New York Times. You have all these really smart women and men. And the paper that comes out is a negotiation of disagreements. The paper emerges from the spaces between people.”

    Precisely! That’s my main problem with the NYT. The paper would benefit greatly from being less of an ideologically homogeneous, narcissistic mutual admiration society and more of an objective source of news. The above quote captures a major problem with the culture. If a reporter’s output is valued more for it’s consensus with an echo chamber of like-minded peers rather than it’s value to the reader, they’re doomed. They’re wringing their hands over their falling circulation. No one wants to hear the same blather over and over, and yet the bunker mentality that seems to have developed prevents them from realizing that they should constrain their editorializing to the editorial pages.

  17. “And the paper that comes out is a negotiation of disagreements.”

    Between the polarized forces of the “Obama is perfect in every way” camp and the “Obama is perfect in the ways that matter” camp, for example.

  18. I think a town is in real trouble when two of its “media stars” are supposedly Alter and Carr.

    Alter is, as the good prof noted, more than a bit stuffed full of himself. Probably revels in being termed a “pundit.” (It was thus touching that reliably affable old walleroo rushed to his defense above, if only to prove his total affability by defense of the politically somewhat toadyish Alter.) As for Carr, his book was simply an unpleasant read. What comes through in both the book and the interview (of sorts) above is of someone who is hardly fun to be with. Not good enough, I’d suggest, for even the determined Will Rogers-like chirpiness of you, walleroo. (I also note that you didn’t defend Carr’s brainpower above as you did Alter’s, roo. Is that because you know one or maybe both of these, uh, media stars?)

  19. Oh for goodness sakes — all of you! Stop carping already. Who’s this. Who’s that. You all sound like little snippy office mates in your cubicles going after the guys who just got best salesman of the year award.

    Gotta take down those media intellectuals, right? Or as Spiro Agnew said “an effete corps of impudent snobs.”

    Good to see no one here is above all that.

    What, pray tell, have you all done that’s so fantastic?

  20. “Between the polarized forces of the ‘Obama is perfect in every way camp and the ‘Obama is perfect in the ways that matter’ camp, for example.”
    Whoops! There goes your knee again! Maybe they should hire Glenn Beck to give them more balance? Or perhaps Colbert? (That would confuse everyone.)

    I think I have been on this blog about five years now, and I don’t believe any of the Usual Suspects has swung a fraction of a degree from their initial political positions (ranging from Left of the Salad Fork to Right of the Soup Spoon) toward the center or either one of the opposite poles. Whether the rhetoric comes from the brain, the heart, the other brain, or the person upon whose knee you sit and who works your voicebox, there really hasn’t been a post I can think of where someone said “X, you are right, and I am changing the way I think about Y.” Actually, one of the more right-wing posters did credit Obama for getting Osama (whilst many of the others still confuse the names), but I think that sentiment faded away shortly thereafter when the Donald continued to demand the long-form birth certificate.
    But, as I stated earlier, Baristanet is still better than day-time TV, especially the stuff that is on in the morning.

  21. While I may not have changed my views, Conan, I think I’ve gained an unserstanding of opinions that are different from mine. It’s always enlightening to see the reasoning behind a particular viewpoint.

    I’ve been here here for three years now, and I’ve always had the utmost respect for those who are able to disagree without being disagreeable. While discussions about religion and politics can bring out the fight in the best of us, keeping a cool head can keep the focus on the issues and not yield a personal attack on the person expressing a viewpoint.Name calling doesn’t solve anything…

    And in my case, B-net can be much more stimulating and interesting than work (which I better get back to now!)

  22. B’net is a community of unlike minded intellunatics banging out our spare thoughts on keyboards rather then side swiping someone on the GSP or brandishing weapons while shopping for Jerky.
    Walleroo….I use Tarot cards to pick my numbers, the only problem is the clerk at Krauser’s can’t read Roman numerals!…And Nellie, it can be more stimulating then working for the man but like Little Joe the mover said at a truckstop in Rochester NY….”Money ain’t everything but it sure quiets the nerves.”

  23. Hmmmm, he broke the law, engaged in underage drinking AND used illeagal drugs…..But, all is not lost, for he is a prolific Tweeter – That God for that !!

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