TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. During this holiday week, we're featuring a retrospective of some of our favorite entertainment and pop culture interviews of the year. Up next, we have David Carr. He writes a weekly column in the New York Times about developments in all forms of media, including print, digital, film, radio and television.
He also writes about popular culture for the Times' culture section. He told a more personal story about his addiction to drugs and alcohol, and his recovery, in his 2008 memoir "The Night of the Gun."
This year, Carr was prominently featured in the documentary "Page One," which followed the Times media for a year. The film will have its TV premiere New Year's Eve at 6 o'clock Eastern on The History Channel. My interview with David Carr was recorded in October.
At the beginning of the film, at the beginning of the documentary "Page One," you're on the phone with a source, and you're saying to your source: I see this as a big story. I could probably get significant space. What do you think the story is that I should tell?
I thought that was such a really interesting way of putting it. Do you say that a lot to sources: What's the story you think I should tell?
DAVID CARR: You know, we're people who just show up and declare ourselves as instant experts on all manner of stories. And we often are only taking a very sort of blunt-force guess about what's going on, and I think it always behooves us just to ask the people, especially if you're aspiring to do something good: What do you think is going on? What do you think this is about?
GROSS: And do you use that question especially when you know there's going to be conflicting points of view on a story, and you're talking to representatives of those different points of view?
CARR: Well, I strive for congruence. And by that, I mean there's an interview near the end of the movie with officials at the Tribune Company. It's far less friendly. It's far more declarative. And I'm telling the person at the other end of the phone what I think the story is about.
I don't want to be sort of a poodle dog when I'm out there and a friendly sort of presence in people's lives, and then come back and do something that's really mean or aggressive.
And if it's going to be a hard story, one of the things I always say is: This is going to be a really serious story, and I'm asking very serious questions. And it behooves you to think it through and really work on answering and defending yourself because this is not a friendly story.
And if they don't engage, I just tell them: Well, you know what? You better put the nut-cup on, because this isn't going to be pleasant for anybody.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CARR: I worked at a weekly with a lot of young reporters, and I would hear them pouring on the honey on the phone and being real sweet and nice with the people that they talked to. And then they would turn in these stories that were scabrous and really mean.
And I said: Well, you're just - you're setting this up so the phone call's going to come to me, not you. And you haven't done these people the privilege of giving them an opportunity to defend themselves.
I don't think people who read your work, who are involved as sources, should be surprised. I often read significant parts of the story to the people that are involved, because I don't want to sit up in the middle of the night and wonder whether I was fundamentally unfair to the person, that I didn't communicate to them what is coming and that they - that they'll be genuinely surprised.
I don't want anybody to open up one of my stories and have their nose broken by what they read - although, you know, I do have to say, at the beginning of the week, I wrote a really mean column, and I didn't tell anybody involved. So I guess that's not always true.
GROSS: You had a story that was headlined: "Why Not Occupy Newsrooms?" And you were basically asking how come there isn't an occupy movement in newspapers because newspaper executives are guilty of some of the same things that bank executives are. Make the analogy for us.
CARR: Well, in the instance of Gannett - Gannett is a publicly held company that owns 82 newspapers across America, in towns big and small, dailies and weeklies. And in the past six years, they've gone from 52,000 employees to 32,000 employees.
Their stock price, which is the general metric of publicly held companies' health, went from $70 a share to about - or $75 a share to about $10 a share. The guy who oversaw it, the CEO, Craig Dubow, when he left, received $37 million in health, compensation and disability benefits.
And I mean, to me, the Occupy movement is - a lot of people tag it as socialist or communist. I just think it's people who are angry about capitalism not working. If you make bad choices, you pay the price.
In this instance - and at the Tribune Company, which I also wrote about - the chief executives made choices that resulted in a lot of people getting rolled out of the back of the truck. Now, it was a very challenging environment for newspapers, but I don't think that people should benefit in the tens of millions of dollars for just firing people.
There's no innovation there. There's no magic to that, and I don't think that sort of thinking and strategy should be rewarded. So I just wrote what was basically a screed.
And oddly enough, I was writing about newspapers, and it totally connected on Twitter. And I thought: Well, Twitter does not care about newspapers, and yet this thing is rolling over and over again, being re-tweeted thousands of times. I got probably 300 emails. What it is, it's about the trashing of once-great American institutions. And that's a story that the general public never tires of.
GROSS: Now, when you started talking about this, you describe the article as - was mean the word you used?
CARR: It was mean.
GROSS: So what was different in terms of how you handled this article and how you typically handle articles that are investigative or critical of the organization that you're writing about?
CARR: Well, I had done a story a few months ago about Gannett's bonuses, and I spent four days trying to get the company to comment on what they did. And on Sunday night, just before deadline, they said: We're not going to comment on these bonuses.
And I just said: Really? You're a newspaper company. You're a publicly held company. These bonuses are a matter of public record, and you have nothing to say about them? And I just found that appalling. And I think some of that was sort of reflected in the fact that: A, I didn't bother to call them; and B, that I was angry after I'd written about their last set of bonuses, that they clearly were a life beyond consequence, and they just stepped up and did it again and gave this guy a huge bag of money on the way out the door.
GROSS: What's your typical media diet in the course of a day or a week?
CARR: When I wake up in the morning and the gun goes off, I'm checking Twitter. I'm checking RSS feeds, and I get four newspapers at my house every day. I get the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the Star Ledger - because I live in New Jersey - and, of course, the New York Times.
And the reason I do is because the day before this, all this stuff has gone whizzing past me, and I seem to know a lot. But I don't really know what part of it is important. And I used to think it was so silly that newspapers would - like, I'd go to our page one meeting, and they'd be organizing the hierarchy of the six or seven most important stories in Western civilization.
Meanwhile, the Web is above them, pivoting and alighting, and all these stories are morphing and changing. And I thought: Well, how silly is this?
But you know what? I came to want that resting place, where someone yelled stop and decided, look, this is stuff you need to know about going forward. Newspapers have become a kind of magazine experience for me, where they're - where it's a way to look back at what has happened.
GROSS: Do you ever feel like your brain isn't really equipped to sort through and synthesize all the information that you're inputting into your brain?
CARR: I'm sorry, what was the question? I'm kidding, Terry. Yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CARR: I worry about it constantly, because number one, in writing terms, if I become good on Twitter, will I lose my ability to think long thoughts? Number two, my nightstand is groaning with Netflix, with an iPad, with books that, you know, my friends have written about things I'm interested in, and I haven't gotten to them.
So it's sort of implicates me. Meanwhile, you know, I walk through Times Square and I see messages on the zipper. I go to buy groceries, there's more messages. I ride the elevator up here, there's more messages. And I think that it does sort of paralyze you.
My more sort of persistent concern is that I will become so busy producing media that I won't consume enough of it, so that what I produce becomes less and less rich over time. When you're in the middle of things and pushing out a lot of information, you really have no idea what's going on because you have no time to watch or listen or consume. That's my problem at 55 years old. I don't notice it among my younger colleagues.
They don't - Brian Stelter, who is also in the film, the act of producing media and consuming media, those are not discrete things to him. He does both at the same time in a way I don't. I can remember when bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces, about the time I was going, maybe we should do a blog post about this, I opened up the media blog that I work on, and Brian Stelter, my colleague, already had 700 words up there. And so...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CARR: I'm like, you know, it's like I'm working through Jell-O and he's not. He's in a different sort of universe. But I'm familiar with all the platforms, have engaged in them. I mean, I set up a fully equipped studio in my basement and wrote and edited video and sent it out to the world every day. They ended up looking like hostage videos. They were horrible.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CARR: You could almost smell the dead bodies. But still, I got the experience, and I learned to do it. And I never understood some of my colleagues saying, oh, that crap's for someone else. It's, like, that maybe would have worked five years ago, but that isn't going to work anymore.
GROSS: My guest is David Carr. He writes a weekly media column for the New York Times, and he's featured in the documentary "Page One" about the New York Times media desk. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Carr, and he writes about the business of media and about popular culture for the New York Times. His media column is Mondays in the business section.
A few years ago, you wrote a very personal memoir about being addicted and recovering from the addictions. And the addictions were coke and crack, and you had alcohol problems, too. The book is called "Night of the Gun."
And, you know, I'm just wondering, like, did the New York Times, when you got your job after you were clean, after you were sober and you got your job with the New York Times, how much did they know about the addiction part of your past? I mean, it's not the kind of thing you put on your resume.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: But did you talk to them or tell them that...
CARR: I think I actually did in terms of...
GROSS: Did you really?
CARR: ...of like my communication to them. I mean, part of - I didn't want there to be any surprises about, sort of, who I am and what I've done. But what I tried to emphasize is, you know, I was a very low-bottom, poly-addicted crack head, drunk, whatever you want to call it, number of misdemeanor arrests, violence against all sorts of people.
And what I wanted to point out is that since then, you know, I've been a single parent, I had gotten off of welfare, that I had taken any number of the assignments and done a good job, that I had run newspapers, that I'd done a few things since then.
But still, when I did the book, you know, I went to my boss, Sam Sifton at the time, and he said I'll walk the book down there, but I think you probably should do it. And I said, well, do you have a pair of tongs or oven mitts or something that I can use to hand it over? Because it was a very - it's kind of a dark book.
And when I gave it to him, Bill Keller said, you know what? We don't hire nuns. We have no problem with your book. You know, they said they were proud of the book. But...
GROSS: But getting back to them hiring you, you know, before the book existed. They were OK with it? Like, you told them your story, and they had faith that you would remain sober and do a good job.
CARR: Yeah. It's not something that we committed to directly. I mean, I didn't, in fact, remain sober. So - and I don't think that that's part of the contract. I did try drinking again. It didn't go very well. My work never suffered, per se. My work rarely did. It's always the last thing to go. But if you took all of the functioning alcoholics and addicts out of the American economy, you'd be taking out a lot of firepower and a lot of talent.
In the main, while I've been at the New York Times, I have been completely sober, highly productive, true to my word, doing my best, like everyone else there, to get it right. But they don't - I've seen people at the Times tumble and get in personal trouble.
And you know what? That place, it's weird, but it will pick you up and accommodate all manner of human frailties because people are pushed to the limit at the place. And when somebody stumbles, it's an incredibly humane place.
And I know that sounds gooey and horrible, and I never really needed it or required it, but I've seen - it's like when you're on deadline there, and you really can't quite get it done and there's not enough room, and somehow, everyone around you will sort of lift you up and throw you across the goal line.
And then you're the one who stands up the next day and puts your arms above your head because you made a touchdown. Everybody there is working very hard to make it better.
GROSS: So this question is probably way too personal, so just...
CARR: I bet not.
GROSS: Well, just tell me if it is, because I don't want to be intrusive. For a lot of people who are giving up an addiction, they're encouraged to, like, find a higher power that they can, you know, turn to and believe in, whether it's religion or something else that will function in that way. Was there such a thing for you?
CARR: You know, it's funny you should mention that because I'm in the middle of sort of a struggle with that. And it's not that - I am a churchgoing Catholic, and I do that as a matter of - it's good to stand with my family. It's good that I didn't have to come up with my own creation myth for my children.
It's a wonderful group of people that I go to church with, and it's community. It's not really where I find God. And sort of what the accommodation I've reached is a very jerry-rigged one, which is: All along the way, in recovery, I've been helped - without getting into the names of specific groups - by all of these strangers, you know, who get in a room and do a form of group-talk therapy and live by certain rules in their life.
And one of the rules is that you help everyone who needs help. And I think to myself: Well, that seems remarkable. And not only is that not a general human impulse, but it's not an impulse of mine. And yet I found myself doing that over and over again.
So, am I underneath all things, just a really wonderful, giving person? Or is there a force greater than myself that is leading me to act in ways that are altruistic and not self-interested and lead to the greater good?
And so that's - that's sort of as far as I've gotten with a higher power thing, is I'm - you know, I'm kind of a pirate, kind of a thug. I mean, I've done a bunch of terrible things, and yet I'm able to, for the most part, be a decent person. How is that? Do I have some inner strength of character? I think not. I think something else is working on me.
You know, I think it's okay to sort of like have a superstitious belief in God and not really have thought it through. I think it's okay to just - I think there's freedom in allowing for the possibility of it. Like, I don't have a presence. I don't have some idea in my mind of a woman or a man figure or anything like that.
But I find the spaces between people, whether I'm making a newspaper with them or in recovery or living with them as family or friends or - I find something really godly in that. I don't have trouble acknowledging that.
GROSS: So your voice has a kind of hoarseness to it.
GROSS: A little raspy. Was it always that way or is that related to the drugs that you did back then or to the cancer that you had after that?
CARR: You know, it's a little tough to pin down because I smoked on and on all my life, tobacco. A lot of people who smoke tobacco sound like me. When you smoke cocaine you're taking in vapors that are coming into your lungs at a really high temperature, Could that have made a problem?
I had Hodgkin's lymphoma, and I took a lot of radiation to the mouth and throat, so could it have been that? I mean I have, I walk around and you can see in the movie, "Page One," I walk around with my neck bent, that's from the muscles sort of getting shot out by all the radiation.
I will tell you something interesting though. I spent a couple weeks working 9/11, you know, working the pile, just my job was to cover firemen. I never had a hoarse voice before that.
CARR: Yeah. So I think that's when it declared itself. And it sort of comes and goes based on the amount of fatigue I have. I could have surgery to remove the vocal nodes but I've had a lot of surgeries. I've had a very medicalized life. I have no spleen. I have one kidney. I have no gallbladder. I have half a pancreas. And the idea of sort of willingly allowing people to cut into me, I'm probably not for that. I'll just deal with the hoarseness of the voice.
GROSS: Well, David Carr, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
CARR: Oh, it was a pleasure to speak with you, Terry.
GROSS: My interview with David Carr was recorded in October. He writes a media column for the New York Times published Mondays in the business section, and he's prominently featured in the documentary "Page One" about the Times' media desk. It will have its TV premiere Saturday on the History Channel. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.