If not for land grant universities, I might never have met David Carr.
We were seeking an Ohio State School of Communication speaker as part of the Stewart Lecture Series, and I was asked to suggested the best journalist we could get. I said, “Let’s try the top; let’s ask David Carr.”
David’s celebrity was heading for a peak after his appearance in the documentary “Page One,” which chronicled the life of the New York Times. But a look at his Facebook page revealed his college to be a “Landgrant university in middle place with no prestige.” I told him in an email I was from a land grant university with a decent amount of prestige, and it was hoping he would come visit. His reply: “Am cutting back on speaking for the most part, although I’m partial to landgrant institutions…Let’s give it a whirl.”
Our meticulous planning was initially sabotaged by United Airlines, and we had to abort his first visit, which would have included a formal speaking space and catered food.
But David had promised to come to Ohio State, and he was not backing out. Two weeks later, he was safely on the ground in Columbus, for a whirlwind two days of lunches and dinners, class visits, newsroom sessions and a formal panel.
David was a mythical sight to behold, with rumpled tweed blazer and lurching gait, black round-framed glasses, his hair bit disheveled like he had just been stirred awake. His body bore the scars of being, well, lived in.
My wonderful student Patrick Maks picked David up at the airport (and has since gone on to emulate his hero and write for the New York Times). The three of us then shared a dinner at the Varsity Club and digested world and life news along with our pizza before he spent the night at our on-campus hotel, The Blackwell.
We picked up David the next morning–he was impressed to somehow have been elevated to an apartment-sized suite–and headed for our full day of student interactions. He spent an hour sitting and sharing with our Lantern editors before joining a news writing class. There he shared tales of his first successes and mistakes, from covering his first police beating in Minnesota–“I knew where the police station was for other reasons”–to the feeling of seeing his name in print for the first time–“my story and my name underneath it, that was just electric to me. I couldn’t believe it.”
David told us reporters need a level of narcissism and ego, but to always remember who is the most important in any journalistic piece.
“We are,” he said, “the people who stand next to people who do things. We are not the people who do things.”
But David was someone who did things. He was an recovered alcoholic and drug addict who researched and reported his own life for a best-selling book. He traveled the country revealing and analyzing journalism to keep the rest of us honest about the craft. He broke down the complex and made it more simple, more clear, but never mundane, for few could turn a phrase like he–a poet in newsprint.
He crafted long form and tweets with equal power. He made you feel smart while you were being educated.
He may have been on display and performing on his visit, but David made students feel important and valued. He was profound and profane. He showed them the marrow of the career they sought without gloss or crust.
During a break in the academic action, we shared a Diet Coke in my office, and talked the joys and challenges of raising kids (he has three daughters, I one son), especially as one of his prepared to choose a college. We talked about Lymphoma, the cancer diagnosis he and my husband both shared. We connected through mutual friends.
In short, David was just David.
Near the end of our university-wide panel, which attracted a standing-room only crowd, a student asked David his thoughts about “The Newsroom.” He responded that as a journalists he was predisposed not to like shows about journalism. And he really hated the clapping.
“Every time … somebody does something good, everybody else in The Newsroom stands around and claps like seals,” he said with his best seal bark imitation. “I hate that. We are not clappers. We don’t do that. It’s like, ‘Hey, good story.’ That’s what you get.”
With David we got far more than a good story. We got a man who gave everything to the industry he loved and respected, and that meant we got the best of David. We got a man exposed the inside of that which fascinates us–including himself–so we might think and live smarter.
We got a many who was honest with compassion, a seeker of clarity, a guide on our the never-ending quest to know things, who made us feel at least one person was telling us the truth.
Thank you, David.