David Carr died last Thursday night in the newsroom of the New York Times, soon after moderating a panel with the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras and, via video-link, Edward Snowden. Officially, Carr was a media reporter at the Times and the author of a weekly column. Unofficially, he was a father figure and friend to many of his fellow journalists, a champion of a young generation of American writers and reporters, a “one-man journalism school”, a veritable detector of bullshit, and a relentless critic of the profession he so dearly loved. He wrote 1776 articles for the New York Times, yet somehow still managed to outshine his written legacy with the impact he had on others. Brian Stelter, Alexis Madrigal, A. O. Scott, Erik Wemple, and many others have penned moving tributes.
What always struck me about Carr’s work was his ferocious insistence that a life in journalism was a life well spent. When he set out to write an autobiography of sorts, an account of his two decades as a drug-taking, belligerent, manipulative maniac, he approached the task with a reporter’s attitude: He tracked down sources who could confirm or (more often) correct his memories of himself, and submitted his life story to journalistic standards of verification.
When the founders of Vice Media scored their first deal with CNN, Carr went to report on the “brash outsiders” and – in a video that has gathered considerable fame in the journalistic corners of the internet – schooled them for their dismissive attitude towards traditional news media. “Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop, doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do”, Carr quipped. Vice produced its brand of hip videos from far-away places – popumentaries if you will –, but it fell to organizations like the Times to maintain a network of correspondents in places that often exist at the very periphery of Western attention. (Carr later softened his stance towards Vice.)
The good kind of roughness.
Many of those defiant statements come from 2008 to 2010, arguably the darkest years for American newspapers. Advertising revenue took a nose-dive, online payment systems were largely non-existent, the number of newsroom employees declined by almost one third between 2003 and 2013, and too many legacy papers either folded under financial pressure or were driven into bankruptcy by reckless investors. When the going got rough, the rough got going – and it often wasn’t the good kind of roughness.
Things have improved somewhat since 2012, in part because online monetization has been proven to be a viable business and in part because newcomers to the scene have taken the tasks of journalism seriously. Buzzfeed is now dabbling in original reporting, Vox Media and Fusion are (for now) thriving as online-only media organizations, FiveThirtyEight has grown from a blog into an independent journalistic outlet. The aggregation model of publications like the Huffington Post or of platforms like Newser (that never managed to fully resolve the question of who would provide the content they repurposed) no longer looks like the only game in town.
Layoffs continue, including at the Times, correspondent networks shrink, staff photographers are eliminated, and high-impact/low-attention investigative reporting often remains precarious (which makes the work of ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and Bill Keller’s Marshall Project all the more noteworthy). But instead of hoping that something will somehow preserve and protect journalism from extinction, the road ahead begins to rise out of the fog. It’s still steep and treacherous, but it is gradually becoming more visible.
To Carr’s great credit, he never lost faith in the future of the media industry, and (perhaps more importantly) he never lost his belief in the power and payoffs of good journalism. We now confront a world – paradoxical only on its surface – that has elevated information into a central commodity but treats the journalistic gathering and processing of information with frequent contempt. The number of journalists killed worldwide has grown considerably since 2003. Numerous states – from Hungary to the United States – have passed or are considering to pass legislation that undermines the independence of the press or diminishes the protection that journalists can give to their sources.
In Germany, recent right-wing protests have taken to ridiculing “the lying press”, and have caricatured media organizations as professional obfuscators of truth and as slaves to political correctness. On the radical left, the moniker “mainstream media” is often invoked with derision, and journalists are painted as apologists for racism, sexism, imperialism, or capitalism. And if this litany of contradictory accusations isn’t enough, journalists are told (by people like Sam Zell and Randy Michaels, whose greatest claims to fame include a habit for misogynistic remarks and responsibility for gutting the Chicago Tribune and the L.A. Times) that the logic of journalism is necessarily the logic of the bottom line: If it sells, it’s good.
A diversifying media ecology
All of that, in its definitiveness, is nonsense. One does not have to deny the frequent and inevitable shortcomings of professional journalism – which might stem from individual failure as much as they might result from the systemic position of media organizations vis-à-vis other sources of power and capital – to take seriously one of Bert Brecht’s most poignant aphorisms:
Herr Keuner came across Herr Wirr, who was known as an opponent of newspapers. “I’m a great enemy of the papers”, said Herr Wirr, “I want to do away with them.” Herr Keuner replied, “And I am a greater enemy of the papers. I want different papers.” […] Herr Wirr thought greatly of men and regarded newspapers as incorrigible. Herr Keuner did not think well of men, but saw the newspapers as capable of improvement. “Everything can be improved”, said Herr Keuner, “except man.”
Over the course of 17 years, Jon Stewart built the Daily Show around a similar brand of media and social criticism that was animated not such much by a rejection of what (cable) media did, but by a longing for what it failed to do.
Newspapers (or, more generally, traditional and professional media organizations) are no longer the only source of news and analysis, and that’s unequivocally a good thing. Journalists are forced into caring not just about their writing, but about business models and distribution as well. And while today’s “different papers” are often the result of intense and detrimental economic pressures, they are also changed by a diversifying media ecology. The voice of the anchor or the reporter has lost some of its inherited status, and that’s a good thing too. Some of the best reporting in the aftermath of Ferguson came from traditional news organizations. Much of the best analyses came from elsewhere.
All journalism is imperfect
But couldn’t the aggregation powers of Facebook or Twitter (which Carr used extensively and enthusiastically, and to which he would refer as the great “wired collective voice” of the 21st century) replace those traditional news- and fact-gathering infrastructures? Carr’s answer was unequivocal and defiant: “I don’t think so!” Information streams – and especially the incessant information streams of online social networks – always require filters. To Carr, media organizations were not the only entities capable of providing this function, but they remained uniquely positioned to do so; protected against the whims of markets and governments by virtue of their institutional position and professional ethos.
It takes significant resources and good lawyers to do some of the best public interest work. But the greatest testament to the staying power of “mainstream journalism” is its ubiquitousness: Few substantive pieces of writing can do without the information that is gathered and processed by professional journalists. Traditional media matters in part because we continue to care about it and rely on its capacities – not because information is an end in itself, but because knowledge without information sinks to the level of hearsay or dogma.
In the Venn diagram of qualifications, journalism exists at the intersection of craftsmanship and ethos. Journalism without skill becomes sloppy. Journalism without heart becomes empty. And all journalism is imperfect: Information is selectively omitted or simplified. Reflexivity takes a back-seat to reporting. But journalism doesn’t have to be perfect to be good: It has to be good enough. And then get better. And better. And better. That’s all we can expect of fallible people and institutions. To make things we are happy with, as Carr wrote in a recent syllabus for the journalism class he taught, and unleash them on the world.
Read more in this column Martin Eiermann: Monster wanted