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?
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.