One of the voices I’ve missed in this crazy election season is David Carr’s. He was The New York Times media reporter and author of The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own. (Simon & Schuster, 2009). He would have something to say about the way the media has covered Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and how each candidate has manipulated those same media outlets in return. It has been quite a feeding frenzy, and Carr would know what to make of it and possibly, how to make sense of it.
Working in an academic institution, I am struck by the kind of snobbery those in the ivory tower have for journalists. Evidently, it is more courageous and intellectual to research and write a paper on some obtuse and disconnected corner of the universe than it is to go out into the desert embedded with American soldiers and report back on the war against ISIS. When one teacher heard that I called myself a journalist, he responded that I would have to “up my game” in the academic arena. Journalists are some of the smartest people I know. If they’ll have me, I’d rather run with their crowd.
I reread Ta-Nehisi Coates' piece in The Atlantic that he wrote about David Carr after he passed in early 2015. I am a fan of Coates’ work, and it came as no surprise that Carr was an early champion of him and his writing. He explains Carr’s genre as that of a “reported narrative.” It is journalism with a twist. Not just the facts, if you will, but drawing conclusions from those facts and stories, or better yet, allowing the reader to draw conclusions from the journalist’s presentation of facts. Whatever way one wants to think about it, this kind of factual writing is truth with a clear agenda.
When Carr edited the Washington City Paper, he made it a point to challenge his writers to tell compelling stories with solid “reporting, direct quotations, and vividly rendered scenes.” Coates goes on to write that Carr “was constantly imploring his writers…to do something different, to tell stories differently, to break the form.” There is a technique to storytelling, and it is elemental and necessary to a human being, maybe going back to our camp fire days. “Let me tell you a story…” was a way to hook the reader. We are a gossipy, story-obsessed bunch, we humans. Carr believed one could learn factual storytelling from the masters, and he continually challenged his writers with articles from the leading publications. His newly minted journalists studied these pieces, broke them down to their constituent parts, all just to see how they worked. Carr implored the writers in his employ to reach beyond their capabilities. Take on too much. PUSH YOURSELF! Good journalism had room for poetry, imagery, characters, and the well-formulated opinion. According to Coates, “David had no interest in objectivity, but he always believed that the truest arguments were reported and best bounded by narrative.”
I have no interest in academic writing because as it is practiced these days, it is abstract and obtuse. It lacks, quite often, narrative and character. It is written for the tenure committee, not for people in the real world. It is not tied to anything real. Are there exceptions? Yes, but most peer-reviewed journal writing is devoid of blood and guts. It is sanitized and distanced from the scene of the crime.
Carr was a tough editor in a field where weak editors can ruin a career. He went hard on his people, but that is what it takes: a thick skin and dogged determination. Teachers must go hard on their students because the world will be hard on them when they “grow up.” Really, soft landings are hard to come by and for the most part, not in line with human experience. We get our asses kicked and then we learn. Such is education in its truest and most real form. Flubbing a story or confusing the facts is death for a journalist, and Carr would have none of it. His dictum to his writers was to get it right or no one will take you seriously. Being right in the facts and the reporting is the hallmark of journalistic excellence. Carr advocated being “twice as good” as journalists at other papers, and that a writer must set a “higher bar” for him or herself than others do.
Coates talks about the fears of the student-journalist: “the fear of offending, of asking impolite questions, of intruding.” Much to Donald Trump’s dismay, journalists don’t back down when threatened. They have a story to tell and the story will be written, lawsuits and threats be damned. Like any petulant-Hitler-want-to-be, Trump thinks he can blame journalists for his own inadequacies, including his small hands. But in the end, a good journalist, according to Coates, approaches “people you did not previously know and barrage them with intimate questions,” although he admits that this is “one of the hardest things to do.” To see how Carr handled this, look no further than the excellent film, Page One: Inside The New York Times (2011) where we see him eviscerate Sam Zell and his cronies when they laid waste to the Tribune Company. He displays “the principle” of “violent and incessant curiosity” best “represented in the craft of narrative argument,” as Coates tells us. What happens to bad editors, the career-damaging kind? “Some of these editors end up working in public relations. Some of them become voting-rights activists. Some of them are hired by universities [BINGO!] to have their tenured years subsidized by aspiring young writers.” For shame. This view is seconded by no less than Susan Sontag in her Paris Review interview: Academia kills the writer.
The irony in all this is that towards the end of his life, David Carr entered academia as an adjunct at Boston University, and when he died during the early spring of 2015, it was Ta-Nehisi Coates who assumed his professorial duties to finish the semester. But that’s okay because the best writers are teachers in their own right. I think students in the stream of college academic life would be the welcome beneficiaries of the wisdom of journalism as personified by David Carr, and later, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Embrace the story and jettison the obtuse. When in doubt, ask yourself: what would David do?