David Carr: Truth and Lies in Life and Art, Capilano University NSCU Centre for the Performing Arts, Sunday, Feb. 3, 7: 30 p.m. Tickets $28/$25 (capilanou.ca or 604-990-7810).
TWO police officers beat a man who questioned their methods.
It was becoming increasingly typical on the southside of Minneapolis, but in this case the object of that abuse was only one degree removed from would-be reporter David Carr.
Carr, now a media columnist with the New York Times, was not a journalist at the time, but many people thought he was.
"It just seemed like a cool thing to tell people . . . 'I'm a journalist.' I never wrote any stories, I just said that," he recalls.
The year was 1982 and President Richard Nixon's undoing by the typewriters of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein hung in the collective memory, inspiring Carr to write the stories he felt needed to be told.
After an initial push from his father, Carr mined the records room of the police station, ultimately unearthing a pattern of violence that became his first front page story.
"They were bad guys. They were what were known in the trade as thumpers. They eventually got fired," he remembers.
Carr's voice is both worn and warm, like the twang of a blues singer trapped beneath the hisses and pops of an acetate record.
Speaking from his office at the end of the work week, Carr seems to have retained his enthusiasm for journalism.
"I filed and my editor liked what I wrote, so there's probably no better feeling than that," he reports.
Carr has just interviewed South Park co-creator Matt Stone, but during the course of our conversation he can't quite get the video of his conversation into the New York Times system.
"I'm trying to upload it and get it into the system and I find that totally maddening," he says. "We have what is called a simple uploader where you can just upload off your phone, but it's turning out to not be that simple."
Carr was featured in Page One: Inside the New York Times, and there are few people as intrigued or as intriguing when discussing the intersection of technology and journalism.
In the long-ago era when Internet access could be derailed by a housemate dialing a non-cellular telephone, people were bound to major media: the morning paper, the six o'clock news.
"I'm deeply concerned about the evaporation of the village common, and that people will assemble over time into verticals of interest," Carr says.
Now, with what Carr calls, "the filter bubble," stories with a particular slant seek likeminded readers, rather than readers being forced to adapt their opinions to what they read.
"People only know what they know and they go out on the web and they can find exactly everything that agrees with what they said. I end up talking with some of those people on email and I'm horrified by their lack of open-mindedness. I try not to think about it very much because I find it very depressing," he says. "I have my laptop open right now and if I wanted to prove that the U.S. loaded explosives in the front of the aircrafts that crashed into the World Trade Centers I could prove it in a heartbeat."
With the United States currently embroiled in debates over gun control and
women serving on the front lines of their military, Carr is mindful of disparate perceptions, particularly among those who opposed Obama for fear the Democratic president would try to remake American culture
"I think a lot of what's going on in politics is people only drinking their own flavour of Kool-Aid," he says. "I try to listen to current events with a wide set of ears."
Carr, who now boasts 400,000 Twitter followers, was an early convert to the Internet age.
"I was fully engaged in whatever digital revolution was underway," he says, recalling his nascent web efforts at a Washington D.C. newspaper.
"We were working through a little telephone line," he remembers. "All that was training for when the pipe opened up."
Now that the Internet has formed as the ultimate vessel for mass global communication, Carr has felt the ramifications of trying to fill that insatiable digital beast.
"The idea that you would finish out like Fred and Barney from The Flintstones and punch out at the end of the day, that ended," he says. "Supposedly I've turned in my column for the day but I'm still working on this f#@king upload."
Despite his numerous accomplishments, Carr remains tethered to a past that includes cocaine addiction.
He eventually sought treatment, but those days remained murky in Carr's memory.
In an effort to recover some sort of truth about that part of his life, Carr went back to Minnesota and interviewed friends he'd wronged and family members who witnessed his breakdown.
It's the time of his life when he became a father to twin girls. It's also the time when he hit their mother.
The unfailing politeness innate in many Minnesotans helped facilitate the interviews, but each session exacted its own price.
"I went to see my ex-wife," Carr says. "I spent 40 minutes in their living room and it was a nightmare. It was like the worst 40 minutes of my life."
Those "incredibly mortifying" interviews ultimately became his book Night of the Gun.
The book reveals a selfish, volatile man in the throes of addiction, as well as a determined, loving father in recovery.
It helped pay for his daughter's college education, but it didn't provide the epiphany Carr had hoped for, something he recalls one of his daughters predicting.
"She said, 'Let's talk about you doing this book,'" Carr recalls.
'I never thought you'd do a book like this.' "Really? Why?" Carr replied. "And she said, 'I just didn't think you'd find catharsis in it,' and she was right. I didn't. She hit me right between the eyes with that one."
The experience made Carr more skeptical about people's stories, and more careful about his own, a trait that has shaped his work with the Times.
"Here I was working at an institution where a serious story in the wrong direction could snap somebody's career in half like a dry winter twig," he says. "It seemed like a lot of gravitas to place in the hands of someone like me. I gradually became OK with it and became more careful as I went along."
Carr is scheduled to speak at Capilano University on Feb. 3. He eventually uploaded the Matt Stone interview.