By Briana Neuberger and Jodie Mann
He was a cocaine addict and a single parent. He was on welfare. He was a faded journalist who hadn’t worked in a long time. And in 2011, he was the subject of a documentary about his work at the most famous newspaper in the world.
“Who you are going into the world, that’s what you got,” said David Carr, the culture and media writer for the who is also the central figure of the documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times. “All of this life experience becomes who you are.”
With a distinctive limp and a gravelly voice ravaged from years of hard living, Carr came to Stony Brook as a part of the School of Journalism’s “My Life As” lecture series, in which journalists from all walks of life tell their stories.
Throughout the years Carr has written about all things media, from the White House’s use of the Espionage Act to the recent deaths in Syria of Marie Colvin, the American-born correspondent for the Sunday Times of London and Remi Ochlik, a French photographer. But his road to journalism was far from traditional.
Carr admitted to not being very keen on the idea of college until his father insisted he give it a try. He attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls before transferring to the University of Minnesota. After seven years, Carr graduated with a degree in journalism, only because it was “the cool thing to do.”
Carr said his career in journalism truly began after he heard of two police officers who “beat the snot out of” young black males in the Twin Cities. His father persuaded him to write a story, and it was published in the Twin Cities Reader, an alternative weekly paper. After the two officers were fired, Carr said he was “instantly hooked.”
His career took a turn for the worse when he tried to follow in the footsteps of Hunter S. Thompson, a writer known for his drug use and first-person narrative accounts.
“I ended up way down the rabbit hole,” Carr said. “I pretty much washed out of journalism even though I loved it.”
Carr’s wake up call came when he got his girlfriend pregnant. He sobered up, went into a treatment center for six months, and a halfway house for another six. His girlfriend didn’t. After getting custody of his young twins, he turned again to journalism as a way to support his family.
Carr described reporting on September 11, 2001 as one of the defining moments of his career. He wiggled his way from his New Jersey home, past the Port Authority and into Manhattan, just in time to see a wall of debris coming down the street. He dove under a car where he encountered a pigeon and a copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, one of the most famous books in the history of professional writing.
“It gave me a little bit of comfort,” he said, “and something to hold on to.”
In 2002, Carr was offered a position at the New York Times. He was hesitant to accept the job, convinced he wasn’t good enough. Nine years later, when the makers of Page One filmed him reporting on widespread corruption in the management of newspapers owned by the Tribune Company, Carr proved his worth not only as a hard-hitting columnist, but a voice of reason in the face of the new 24-hour news cycle as well.
He said the feeling that “someone smarter and better equipped with more knowledge” should be doing the job never really goes away. “We all walk this earth feeling like frauds, like we’re not smart enough to do what we do.”