The Education of David Carr


In the early 1980s, decades before David Carr became David Carr — the New York Times‘ authority on all things media, brash star of the documentary Page One, author of the drug-fueled memoir The Night of the Gun — he was an ambitious journalism student who had to talk his way into reporting classes at the University of Minnesota because he couldn’t pass the 40-words-per-minute typing test. Over the next fifteen years, Carr, who died tragically of lung cancer in the Times‘ office February 12, became a Minneapolis institution as a reporter and editor of the Twin Cities Reader, an alternative weekly that competed fiercely with City Pages until it shut down in 1997.

As a reporter, Carr brazenly investigated the darkest corners of the city: police brutality on the North Side, murders in gangland, and downtown politics. He had the gift of sight — the ability to see clearly the stories others could not — and the power of synthesis that allowed him to churn out long, complicated stories in one sitting at a typewriter. Carr influenced and later hired many young talented journalists, some of whom would go on to be among the best known in the Twin Cities.

But Minneapolis was also the setting of Carr’s darkest days. At times, Carr bullied his employees. He beat up his girlfriend. He smoked crack. He left his infant twin daughters in a car in the middle of a frigid Minnesota winter night so he could buy drugs. Carr was as much a part of the city’s seedy element as he was an authority on writing about it.

This is part of what makes Carr’s story so compelling: He went all the way to the edge and took a nosedive — nearly killing himself with reckless drug use — but miraculously lived to tell the tale, even if he didn’t remember most of what happened. After surviving addiction and a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Carr came out the other end a new man, sharper than ever, with a newfound capacity for forgiveness and a sense of optimism not often seen in the media business these days. And if a guy who’d been to the inferno and back could look at the news industry and all its perils and still come away thinking everything was going to be OK — well, maybe it would be.

Carr went on to do his best work at The Times, and evidence of his profound effect on his readers can be found in the outpouring of stories and emotion on social media. But even though he left decades ago, Carr’s footprint on the Twin Cities has not disappeared.

“David clearly inspired many new writers, but I also think he helped reset the philosophy about what journalists are in this town,” says former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak, who worked as publisher of the Reader during the Carr era. “Including after he left, and including after he died.”

Some interviews have been condensed and edited.

David Brauer, freelance journalist and former Reader colleague: We worked at the Anchorage restaurant in northeast Minneapolis. We had to wear, I think David called them monkey suits, but you know, stupid vests. He cut a big figure right away. I remember David Carr giving me advice about buying cocaine. I had to watch out for the guys who were selling it cut with mannite, which was baby laxative. It turned out that we both went to the University of Minnesota and we both wanted to be journalists.

Chris Ison, journalism professor and former Star Tribune reporter: He was just a student like the rest of us. But I recall even then he was a better reader than most of us in the class. He was a confident guy — he did have the gift of gab, back then even. So I think that kind of came naturally to him.

Brauer: He got a tip from his dad, who was a great guy, John Carr. One of John’s friends had gotten beat up by the cops. And so David went off and did the story.

Brian Lambert, media reporter for MinnPost and former editor of the Reader: [Carr] must have weighed about 260. And, you know, the gut’s hanging out, the shirt’s hanging out, his hair’s messed up.

I was a new editor — I don’t think a very good one, either. I really was desperate for anybody who could deliver something of substance. I mean, there was no end to people who wanted to review movies and records, but somebody who actually had an interest in the cop shop and was willing to wade into it, you know, that was somebody you paid attention to when he came in the door.

I was like, “Yeah, fine, it’s kind of a spec deal, pal. We don’t like it, you don’t get paid.” But he shot off and delivered the piece. It’s of course all typewritten, and it must have been fifteen pages or something. And he’s standing in the door of my little cubicle, and he’s explaining what he’s done and how good it might be, what it probably needs, and he should have talked to this and nobody called him back on that. And, you know, my standards were very low at this point. It’s like, goddamn, it’s a story, right? I’ll take it!

Ison: I always thought he was a little underappreciated for his reporting skills. He’s known as this great writer, and he is, or he became one, but I always thought he was a really good reporter, and he was very good at seeing the forest for the trees.

Peter Wold, defense attorney: He was curious about [things most] people aren’t curious about. That kind of drove him. He wanted to know more. He was intrigued. When a few lawyers were sitting around telling stories, he wanted to know more.

Lambert: Not just curious in the professional way, like “I’ve got to get a couple quotes out of ’em and file something.” Everybody he met — and I mean that almost literally, everybody — he wanted to know their story. The junkie at the end of the bar, Carr would chat him up.

Brauer: There was nobody who could write a story off the street like David could. David was more in touch with the black community, the criminal community, the legal community than any of the rest of us were. I mean, he just went places and did things — because he was buying drugs, frankly — that none of the rest of us had very much experience with. So if you wanted to send a guy into an uncomfortable situation, and you wanted to get a story off the street, and you wanted to get a guy who could work official sources, he was your guy.

Tom Arnold, actor and comedian: We met in 1983. I had moved to Minneapolis from Iowa to do stand-up comedy, and he was at one of my first shows. He sat in the audience, and he’s a patron of comedy. We talked a little bit, and he was a fan of other things I was a fan of, and we stayed up the next three days getting into each other.

If I had an issue, I would call him. I remember I thought I was having a heart attack, I was snorting so much cocaine, and I called him in the middle of the night. And he was like, “Oh, drink a fifth of whiskey really quick.” So I did. And then I was fine and went back to snorting cocaine. I did not have a heart attack.

Whatever problem you had you could throw him. He was like a drug genius. He was always ahead of me. You know, if I was snorting cocaine, he was smoking it.

Sarah Janecek, founder of Politics in Minnesota: My first job out of college was the assistant press secretary to [then U.S. Senator] Rudy Boschwitz in 1984. David did a cover story on Rudy that I set up for him [at the state fair]. And of course David needed proper preparation for that interview, and so he said let’s go to the sky ride before. And so we did. David did a few lines of coke.

Eddie Nagle, longtime friend: Wild. I think that would be the word to describe him. I was enthralled and impressed with him since the moment I met him, and the feeling was mutual. He liked the fact that I was of that dark world. I could tell he was attracted to it. And that’s David’s nature. He’s attracted to everything: the ugly, the beautiful, the cool, the silly. It didn’t matter.

Lambert: It was almost like a relay race, because nobody could do an entire week’s worth of Carr. The average person would collapse. So it was, maybe I get Wednesday night, Brauer will get Friday night, Paul Metsa or somebody like that might get Sunday night. And you roll with him.

It was rarely an unmemorable moment. The thing is, even when you’re sort of loaded and crawling around town, you know, it was so far from stupid fratboy shit. There was a wit and engagement involved. You’d go into the fourth bar of the night and the next thing you know you turn around and he’s locked into a conversation with somebody and getting their story. And two minutes after that, that guy’s buying a round drinks.

Paul Metsa, musician and author: He was a real street cat, in the best sense of the word. He could hang in just about any situation. About as tough a guy as I ever met. He and I almost got into it a couple times, but before anything seriously physical went down, I reconsidered and backed out. I’ve seen him throw down with a few guys, and I’ve never seen him lose a fight, physically or intellectually.

Arnold: We had this running fight about who owed who drugs, which, if you read his book, we got into a fistfight about — and, you know, he lost, sadly — because he was bringing it up in front of this girl who I liked from Minneapolis. The local newspaper, the Star Tribune, had just written about how I was sober. I wasn’t sober, but she thought I was sober. She liked sober people, so I said I was sober, because I wanted her to like me.

He came up when I was talking to her and said, “You owe me a gram of coke.” And I was like, “Shut the fuck up. Get away from me.” And he was fucked up. And I could tell he was gonna not shut up. He keeps coming up, and I’m like, “Dude, I’m going to fucking knock you out. I can tell you right now, buddy, if you come up one more time — because you’re fucking this up for me — I’m going to fucking hit you in the face.”

He does it again, and I just had a feeling he wanted to get knocked out, you know, like he’s in that mood. And I turn around and I blast him and I end up with a thumb in his eyeball. And the woman saw it and she was disgusted and horrified, so it fucked up that, too. But he forgave me. He knew that he started it.

You know, he considered himself a bit of a badass. He was bigger then. We were both fat and we snorted cocaine, which makes no sense. But we both hoped for something better for ourselves. We both thought: If I get my shit together ever, I can make something out of this. I can be a writer, I can be a comic, I can be an actor.

Ison: It was pretty well known. People knew that he was a talented guy, but they also knew he had all these problems, and I think that’s why he didn’t get hired by the major papers here. I mean, he had a reputation for having some pretty serious drinking and drug issues. There was this strange conflict, because I think a lot of good journalists in town thought, boy, this is a guy with some real talent that we should be hiring. Yet they also understood why a paper wouldn’t want to.

Nagle: He was interviewing Rudy Perpich, former governor. And he brought Rudy Perpich to this little shit-box of a bar and interviewed him at one of the tables.

The night before, we were all out partying and having an awful lot of fun. As a matter of fact, the sun came up and David had to go and shower and get ready to interview the governor. I was at the bar when the governor showed up, and David was talking to him and interviewing him and he’s wiping his face, his nose, and he’s not realizing that what he’s wiping away is blood. He was bleeding from the nose from all the coke he did the night before. And that was that mix of those worlds.

Arnold: In 1987, Roseanne had become a big comedy star by then, and she was doing her first HBO special, and asked me to come to L.A. and be her husband on it, ironically. It was my big break. I mean, that was big.

It’s Saturday night and I’m doing a show in Rochester, Minnesota, and after the show we go to McDonald’s. I get into a fight — a fistfight — with the cops, after getting kicked out of McDonald’s. I end up in jail. It was my seventh time in jail, so I was on a 30-day hold. A psych hold. You know, I’m in a padded cell. I have one call. I have to be in L.A. on Monday morning. I have to get on, at the very worst, a red-eye on Sunday night. I have one call and I call Carr.

I was feeling so depressed. And this feeling I’ve had in my life, like, “OK, I’ve gone too far this time. It is over.” And [Carr] calls a lawyer in Minneapolis. He’s like, “I got the guy.” This fucking guy calls the judge on the golf course. The judge has them let me out of the psych hold. I get back to Minneapolis, get on the plane, and my life is completely different because of that.

If I had not showed up for that, and [Roseanne] would have found out I was in jail again, she would have just never spoken to me again. I wouldn’t have been a writer on her show.

Brauer: One of his flaws in his time here was that he was a bully. And that really worked well with some subjects. Like, I did not have the stones he did, which is why he did a lot of really good journalism that I didn’t. He had this alpha-dog thing going on. And that was uncommon for a writer, I think. And he would deploy it occasionally on co-workers and occasionally on friends.

He also did things where you’d say to yourself afterward, “Is this guy really my friend? Or what’s going on here? Like, is this a business transaction? Is he fucking with me?” He was easily the most complicated person I know.

Lambert: David used to come by the house when he was sort of at wits’ end and all messed up and stuff. And he’d bang on the door and come in, and my two boys loved him, of course. Instead of boring old Dad, we’ve got: Crazy Dave has come to visit.

They still talk about the time he’s over here and he’s got ’em out on the back deck. And, you know, what the hell’s he doing out there? Well, he’d soaked these little balsa-wood airplane things — they were just two pieces, you’d squeeze the wing into the body, you know, and sail them off — well, of course he’d soaked them with lighter fluid and given them each to the kids and set them on fire. Four-year-olds and six-year-olds love that stuff.

Metsa: He’d really developed a pretty severe crack habit. We all used to party, but there was always the room upstairs of the party, and that’s where the really heavy doping would go on. And David found himself in those situations with people who were just downright dangerous, and I wouldn’t hang out with them in a million years. David started to really drift away from us.

Brauer: He was not writing. He’d been fired from everywhere. I want to say it was, it must have been in the late Eighties.

But the crack thing was really when the word started to get back to me, like, I couldn’t hang out with him anymore, because there were guys with guns, who were not journalists. I was just not comfortable with that at all. That was when the friend group that I was still a part of — there’s kind of a brotherhood of David’s friends, in a way — that’s when they started to talk about “He might die.”

Nagle: We had a little bit of a falling-out toward the end because he was getting so bad. I sat down and I told him, “If you want to kill yourself, then you can go ahead and do that, but I will not be a part of it anymore. I can’t. I don’t want to watch you die.”

Lambert: It wasn’t any good talking to him about it. I mean, “David, we’re worried about you, this isn’t good.” And at that point, it was just “none of your fucking business.” There were times where all of us kind of lost track of him, had no idea where he was or what he was doing. And then there’d be some kind of group gathering and David would blow in looking like shit. And he’d move around a little bit and disappear and then it’s another couple weeks, and we all thought, in the not so distant future, he would be found dead on some hellhole floor somewhere. And when I say hellhole — it was junkie dungeon shit. It was awful.

Metsa: He started to go to meetings and went to treatment. It took him awhile, and I’m sure it was an uphill struggle, but he took it like he took everything in his life. He took writing, drinking, getting high, love, and treatment all equally seriously.

Arnold: I have to say, when he told me he was sober, I was like, how does that even happen? Because he was so fucked up. But it definitely laid the scene for my sobriety. Like, if that guy can do it, I can do it.

We’re both so blessed. A lot of people didn’t make it out of Minneapolis alive. But I am 100 percent sure that anybody could do it if Carr and I could do it, because we were fucking crazy.

Brauer: I didn’t necessarily expect it, but I wasn’t totally surprised, because David had things to live for, because he loved those girls. Even when he was so messed up, he loved those girls. It just made sense for me that David would figure out a way to live for his kids. And I think that’s basically what happened.

Jon Tevlin, Star Tribune columnist and Reader alumnus: He was looking for legitimacy again. He was pretty low on the totem pole. I think he was writing stuff for a parenting magazine, you know, just trying to get people to trust him again.

Brauer: He wrote a column about being a single dad for Family Times. That was some beautiful writing.

Metsa: He became in a way like a postmodern Father Knows Best. He became a family man, just a hell of a dad.

Lambert: It’s an amazing story arc, which is what a lot of people relate to and accounts for some of the outpouring here in the last few days.

R.T. Rybak, former Minneapolis mayor: He came to me, I think about a year after he’d gotten [hired as editor in chief at] the Reader, and like all of us he was really concerned the paper was on its last legs. And he said they were hiring a publisher. This was not on my radar at all, or anything that I was the least bit interested in at the time. I had a good consulting business and all that. But somehow David talked me into this, partly out of the mission of trying to save a paper we had both grown up with.

David had a pretty fearless editorial direction, but he was also nurturing a really incredible group of young writers. And then that intensified when we convinced Claude Peck to come over from Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine.

Claude Peck, Star Tribune senior metro nights editor: That was around Christmas time of 1994. He’d transferred some of that dark energy into journalism. And it wasn’t really dark anymore. It was a positive energy. It was really great to be around.

Rybak: I was David’s boss, but absolutely nobody was David Carr’s boss. So my job was to try to keep some balance within the organization. He was very dramatic at work and he was a big personality. And I remember we were arguing about something, and I can’t remember what it was, but I think it was almost the color of the toilet paper or something really minuscule. And I said, “Well, I disagree.” And David pounds the desk and says, “Then the issue is joined!” Like he’s going off to battle with me.

Peck: If you were a young writer, you had to bring story ideas. If you did not bring story ideas you would get stuff thrown at you.

We had a lot of interns and it was fun to watch because they would just quake in their boots around David. He’d be yelling at them, like, “I’m gonna put a staple in your forehead if you don’t have a better idea next meeting!” He was a no-bullshit guy, and the talent that he recognized was true talent.

Tevlin: If he would overhear you or sense that you were treating a source like a girlfriend, and talking to them really sweetly on the phone, and he knew in the next day’s paper you were going to stick them with a dagger in the neck, he thought that was totally unfair and stupid. Because he was of the school that you tell people what they’re going to see in the paper when they pick it up.

He would say stuff like, “You’re not going to like this story that I’m writing. You may not want to go in to work tomorrow.” And it was effective in a couple of ways.

It was uncanny how he could write a really tough profile of someone, they’d probably stay up all night worrying about how bad they were going to look, and inevitably they’d wake up in the morning, read the piece, and say, “Huh, that wasn’t so bad.” So in the course of ripping them a new one, he somehow seemed to make a lot of friends who were the subjects of less-than-flattering profiles. And I thought, not only was it fair, it was genius.

Rybak: My job was, David, you write what you want and I’ll run the business side and try to bring in some resources. And that was really difficult, because often it would be, you would just land a big account and there’d be something in the paper that would really trash it.

I think the best example was, I had just landed the Target account, which would have been enough to really keep the paper in a much stronger position for the next few years. And literally I walked in from getting the agreement and looked at the paper they mocked up and there was something about Santa Bear on the cover trashing Target and Dayton-Hudson, and they pulled the ads. So I didn’t get the account. And that to me was really rough, but exactly what we were supposed to be doing.

Ison: When I first saw that [he started working at the New York Times], I felt like I shouldn’t be surprised, given his talent. But I was still surprised, knowing his background. And I thought, “Boy, the Times really took a chance on this guy.” I gave the Times a lot of credit for being willing to take on a guy with that much baggage. And in hindsight, you have to say, what a great move. But, you know, we all wanted to go work for the Times at one time or another, and who’d have thought David would be the guy who would get there?

Arnold: I knew he was important in Hollywood when I was at the Vanity Fair Oscar party and I saw Harvey Weinstein make a beeline for me. And I’m like, oh he probably wants to talk about whatever he’s working on. And he’s like, “Your fucking friend David Carr is an asshole.” And then he walks away.

Brauer: He was very, very unsure of himself, very restless. He loved working for the Times, but he felt like the gig he got was not the gig he should have. And somehow, other people at the Times figured it out and decided to just let him have a voice, and that was key.

That was something that all of us in the alt weeklies always wanted out of the dailies. Like, don’t you guys recognize that we’re good reporters, but we’re here because we get to have a voice? And you know, your papers might be better if you let us have a voice too. Well, the Times actually fulfilled the dream for at least one of us, and look what happened, he became a beloved figure and a figure of national acclaim. A guy who ended up with his obit on the front page.

Peck: Late January, I was in New York for four nights, so I said, let’s have coffee, let’s have lunch on that Friday. It was the 25th. And he said, “I can’t, I have to go to a doctor’s appointment, and I’ve got to have a procedure.” He didn’t go into it in detail, but his tone about it was more sober than usual.

Janecek: I got a one-word text that said: Carr. And I just knew exactly what it was.

Arnold: I’m doing a stand-up show live onstage, televised. I do my first set, I come off, I check my Twitter, and David Carr’s died. And I’m like, nobody else in that room knows. And I have to go back there and be funny. And I think, “Oh, fuck, what would Carr do?” He’d carry on. That’s what you do.

Peck: It wasn’t a complete surprise, in that I’ve been nagging him to quit smoking for twenty years, and he never did. He got mad at me for nagging him, so I kinda quit nagging him.

I don’t know if he knew how sick he was, and David didn’t tell people. It’s a cliché, but he did die in a newsroom that he loved to be in and that he felt very proud to have achieved.

Brauer: It was a shock to me. I remember him being this big linebacker kind of guy. The hardest slams on the dance floor. It seemed like he could do anything.

I ended up staying up until one or two because I was so wired, so emotional about the whole deal. He was the biggest professional influence of my life. He was somebody I thought about all the time and tried to reconcile all the time. It’s like losing a wall you pushed against.

Janecek: I think too often the rap on him is that he was interesting because of his past, and I think that minimizes David Carr the person. He was a charismatic personality, interested in the world.

Arnold: David was a guy that, you know, I felt, when he died, very selfish. I felt, My life’s not going to be as good. I lost a little chunk of the good part of my life.

Wold: He’s way too young. I said it about John Lennon, Belushi, David Carr. We’re gonna miss him. We got cheated out of time by losing David.

Ison: Two weeks ago, I emailed him to ask him to try to come and be a keynote speaker at the associated collegiate press convention in L.A. in March — next month. And he said he’d do it. He said he didn’t need a speaker’s fee. I was really looking forward to it. I was thinking a bunch of young college journalists were gonna have a blast listening to him talk.

Rybak: David didn’t practice aberrant journalism. David practiced journalism that should be much more the norm. In this era where so many media stars are stars and are crafted by polls, David was popular by not trying to make everyone love him. He was really comfortable getting in people’s faces and associating with people up and down the food chain without much bias about it. I just think that as people from here watched David grow and become this big national force by being even more Carr than he was early on, it just reminded people that this is what journalism is supposed to be.

This story was originally published in the Voice‘s sister paper, the Minneapolis City Pages.

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