All week, I’d been writing a Valentine’s Day letter to my husband in my head.
Then Brian Williams fell and Jon Stewart quit and Bob Simon lost his life in traffic and David Carr — oh, God, no, not David Carr — dropped dead in the newsroom after yet another week of covering the hell out of one of the most heart-wrenching weeks in American journalism.
So sorry, spouse-that-I-love, my Valentine goes to journalists today.
My Valentine’s card to Brian Williams is a heart, ripped in half. When the suave, good-looking face of NBC News revealed, at long last, that he “misremembered” his role in covering a story in Iraq, he became just another hack with a tall tale.
For Jon Stewart, I offer a Valentine of thanks – thanks for serving as watchdog of the watchdogs, thanks for making news cool with college kids, thanks for adding levity to some of the worst news stories of the past 17 years. But no thanks for keeping me up past 11 far too many nights.
For Bob Simon, I offer a Valentine apology. I wish I knew your work better. I wish I’d shared it with my students. I wish I remembered to watch “60 Minutes” more often.
For David Carr, I offer a Valentine pronouncement: You were the heart of American journalism.
I “met” Carr a few years ago when I invited him to Skype into a class. I read a Media Equation column I loved, I shot him an email, and I asked if I might book him for a virtual visit to class. He came through – and spent an hour answering questions from students he’d never met at a university he’d never visited. With his legendary wit and wisdom on full display, students were wowed by him – and the family dog cavorting around his kitchen.
When I began assembling a class called NYC Media a few years later, he was top on my hit list. Lucky me, he said yes again – in 2014 and 2015.
When we visited in 2014, he offered generous praise of his employer and colleagues. He said his bosses were smart to push The Times’ digital initiatives (“That’s the pony we’re going to ride.”), deep reporting (“We’re almost never going to be first. But we’re almost always going to be best.”), and supportive editing (“This place will pick you up and throw you over the goal line on deadline.”) He also extolled students to be open with sources, especially in tougher stories. He recommended one of his own lines: “Put the nut cup on. It’s not going to be a very friendly column.”
When he chatted with a new group of students just last month, on Jan. 14, he had a whole new script from recent columns and stories.
In the wake the Charlie Hebdo deaths, he lamented changing attitudes toward journalists in hot zones or dealing with hot topics. “It used to be we got a pass.” He also said he disagreed with Times’ management decision not to run the relevant Hebdo cartoons, saying, “When you hide stuff it gives it power.”
On Sony Pictures’ decision to hold release of “The Interview,” he said, “Do not tell me what I can f—‘g watch.”
On the growing number of tools that make us all our own media curators, he wondered, “What happens when we have no serendipity?” (Of those tools, he noted that Snapchat “doesn’t satisfy my need for story or narrative.” The app, he said, seems to say: “ ‘I’m here. You see me.’ That blows a whistle I don’t hear.”)
On “The Night of the Gun,” his 2008 memoir, he said he aimed to tell a reported tale of his 1980s drug and alcohol addictions while raising money for his daughters’ college funds. But he worried his bosses might not be on board. “I gave it to them with an oven mitt,” he said. The reaction: They published an excerpt in The New York Times Magazine.
And he talked a lot about Twitter, with its power to award instant gratification and inspire uncivil behavior.
- He’d just tweeted out a photo of daughter Madeline and a friend after they visited him at work — “and it made me feel good for a minute.” (The friend loved Twitter exposure from Carr, who had more than 469,000 followers; the daughter, not so much.)
- He avoided tit-for-tweets, believing “I get to say what I get to say. They get to say what they get to say.” (His imitation of a Twitter war: “You’re a moron.” “No, sir, you are a moron.”)
- He tried to disarm hostile tweeters with a “thank you for writing” reply – and said that was sometimes enough for “hotheads (who) feel like they are yelling into a well.”
When he died, the Times’ obit recounted his gruff demeanor, his gravely voice and his reputation as a Tough Old Coot. Just as many tributes noted that David Carr was also a kind and generous man who made a singular impact as the nation’s most informed and erudite media critic.
Some 50 Miami University journalism students, and their instructor, were among the legions who got a taste of both sides of the Man Who Decoded The Media Equation. On this day for sharing affection, I feel safe in saying they would join me in this love letter to his wizened wisdom.
(Happy Valentine’s Day, honey. I’ll write about you next year.)