Birney Imes: David Carr's grand caper


Birney Imes



Media personas were prominent in the news this past week. NBC News anchor Brian Williams' career went up in flames; former 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon was killed in a car crash in New York City; Jon Stewart announced plans to leave The Daily Show and Thursday night New York Times media critic David Carr collapsed in his paper's newsroom and shortly after was pronounced dead. 


News of Carr's death hit me like a punch in the stomach. He was 58. 


Newspaper columnists rarely achieve the celebrity of TV people, but if you're a regular reader of The New York Times or happened to see "Page One: Inside The New York Times," the documentary in which he was the unintended star, the name David Carr resonates with you. 


A former drug addict, alcoholic and cancer survivor, the wizened, raspy-voiced media critic was an unlikely candidate for celebritydom. Even so, in a media universe where brilliance and movie-star good looks are a stock-in-trade, Carr stood out. 


At a time when the avatars of social media were questioning the relevance of newspapers, Carr was the cavalry to the rescue. 


Take the memorable scene in "Page One," the 2011 documentary about the inner workings of The Times, a film made at a particularly perilous time for newspapers. A proponent of new media, an amalgamator, speaking on a panel with Carr avers the media landscape would be just fine without newspapers. Carr responds by holding up a piece of paper that looks like the throw-away from a string of paper dolls. 


Here's what your homepage would look like without content provided by traditional media, he tells the pompous executive. 


Carr wrote "The Media Equation," an eagerly anticipated Monday column in The Times. When criticism was merited he meted it out. It could be his employer, or even himself for writing a puff piece on Bill Cosby for an airline's in-flight magazine. "Calling Out Bill Cosby's Media Enablers, Including Myself," he titled the column. 


Here he is in a recent column about revelations NBC anchor Brian Williams lied about being in a helicopter under fire in Iraq in 2003: 


"We want our anchors to be both good at reading the news and also pretending to be in the middle of it. 


"That's why, when the forces of man or Mother Nature whip up chaos, both broadcast and cable news outlets are compelled to ship the whole heaving apparatus to far-flung parts of the globe, with an anchor as the flag bearer. We want our anchors to be everywhere, to be impossibly famous, globe-trotting, hilarious, down-to-earth, and above all, trustworthy. It's a job description that no one can match." 


And this on Jon Stewart and Williams from his final column: 


"Oddly, Mr. Stewart will leave his desk as arguably the most trusted man in news. And Mr. Williams will find his way back to his desk only if he figures out a way to regain the trust he has squandered. Mr. Williams is now all but locked in his own home -- he might as well have an ankle monitor on. There is no playbook on how to come back from such a fall." 


I worry we undervalue the work of opinion writers -- these diviners, who help us make sense of a confusing world shrouded in obfuscation. And, while David Carr wrote for a newspaper with seemingly little relevance for us here in Mississippi, he was part of a national conversation in which we all have an interest. 


Even so, from that highest of pinnacles he paused occasionally to pinch himself. 


"I now inhabit a life I don't deserve," he wrote, "but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn't end soon." 


The caper is up, at least as far as David Carr is concerned. And our media landscape is poorer for it. 



Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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