It is sad and apt that David Carr, arguably the snappiest turtle inside the New York Times newsroom, died on the job at the age of 58. Only hours before, he’d been moderating a panel with Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald. He had ascended to the nation’s foremost newspaper after a rocky battle with crack cocaine and alcohol that he chronicled in his journalistic memoir, The Night of the Gun.
Carr never had to exaggerate or embellish a detail, whether it was about himself or a subject. He was committed to finding the idiosyncratic absurdities in the real world and he had the stamina and the fortitude to hunt his stories down honestly, no matter how long it took. Where other critics opted for the nuclear takedown or the overly fawning profile, Carr carried out his columns with a fine finesse that rarely tilted to either extreme. He had a nail-hard knack for pounding rivets into people he liked and advocated, such as in this 1999 assessment of Washington Post writer Henry Allen:
Florid? His ledes have more bouquets than a Mafia don’s funeral. Overwritten? Twelve monkeys couldn’t kick up this much racket. But it’s astonishing stuff, the kind of writing that makes you leave the morning coffee untouched. Allen’s probably not going to get a Pulitzer, but he deserves some kind of goddamn medal for arguing all of those wacked-out tales past his editors.
And he turned this highly scrutinizing eye to himself in his remarkable book, The Night of the Gun, posting documents and video interviews on a website to hold himself accountable.
Carr’s sudden and surprising death not only serves as a vital reminder for journalists to do their best work today, but reveals how much the Times relied on Carr’s maverick energy. What other rocket can travel so fluidly between the Times‘s dowdy atmosphere and the crackling human universe? What reporter can possibly replace him?
NBC News anchor Brian Williams has been under fire for misremembering a 2003 Iraq helicopter incident. We investigate in detail how Mr. Williams has talked about his life. Can the news industry ever tolerate the human?
When a public figure goes well out of his way to tell a dubious sounding Horatio Alger story in interview after interview, especially one that is permanently soaked in a saccharine bath of American idealism, it is natural to be skeptical. It is also quite healthy to take authority figures to task for their flubs and gaffes, especially when we entrust them to tell us the truth.
I have spent the better part of a day sifting through profiles and speeches and documents, speaking with very helpful and overworked people at fire departments and restaurants, entering into email volleys with university registrars, and chatting with Catholics. I am forced to conclude that NBC News anchor Brian Williams is probably not a liar.
“My break came when Betty Endicott, news director at WTTG in Washington, called me into an office and asked me to close the door one day. She said, uh, ‘They told me you used to do this. You did on camera. You did small market television in news.’ And I said, I said, ‘Yeah, I did. Briefly. It was an experiment. A failed experiment.’ She said, ‘Do you have any tapes?’ And I said, ‘Well, they’ve long since been burned and taken to a licensed landfill facility outside of town.'” — “Brian Williams: My First Big Break,” February 2, 2012
Somewhere beneath the relentless layers of pancake makeup, an anchorman projected onto ten million television sets is as human as the rest of us. While we are privately jostled by our friends for missing a few key details in a juicy anecdote, Williams must tell the same stories over and over: building upon his narrative, embellishing it, and risking more if he slips up once. And because his highly scrutinized vocation is committed to a rigid objectivity, he’s never allowed to gush over a subjective experience like the rest of us. This accounts for why Williams repeats phrases like “licensed landfill facility” when he discusses how he buried his early resume reel as a struggling young man. The specificity sounds suspicious. It’s preposterous enough that someone would go all the way to a refuse site to dispose of an incinerated 3/4″ videotape, but why should it be called a facility? And why qualify it with the “licensed” modifier? Why not just say that you eviscerated the damn tape in grandiose despair? Well, how many of us have to willfully repeat the same stories hundreds of times with a camera watching over us?
Public figures — especially ones committed to mainstream journalism — don’t have the luxury of expressing passion and exuberance so freely. So when Williams talks of “meeting” Pope John Paul II “by positioning himself at the top of the stairs of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception” in October 1979 at Catholic University (the registrar confirmed with me that Williams was a student in the School of Arts and Sciences at the time), and an article with an accompanying photo reveals that the Pope was actually speaking on the steps (see right), should Williams be called a liar? Or can we let him off the hook by remembering a younger time when we “met” someone we admired simply by standing in close proximity?
The most significant inconsistency I found was in Williams’s flight from George Washington University to Pittsburg, Kansas, where Williams began his first (and unsuccessful) anchoring job at KOAM TV, working for $168 each week. In a 2013 interview with Alec Baldwin, Williams claimed that he packed up his belongings in the backseat of his Dodge Dart, along with his dog Charlie. But in a May 3, 2005 Landon Lecture at Kansas State University, Williams noted that he had bought a Ford Escort at Coffeyhouse Motors and claimed, “I rented a truck and I threw my trusty cocker spaniel in the front seat and I pointed my truck west from Washington and I moved to Kansas to start a new life and a new career.” Howard Kurtz’s The Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War reports yet another version:
The unpaid bills and college debt piled up as Williams labored for meager wages, and when his Dodge Dart died one day in a cornfield, Bengston helped arranged a loan for a Ford Escort. But not even a new set of wheels could get Williams to a bigger market….Clearly, he had failed. Williams packed his dog, Charlie, into a Ryder truck, drove to Washington, moved into a basement, and took a courier’s job at the National Association of Broadcasters, delivering documents in a red station wagon. It was a huge comedown.
It’s worth pointing out that all of this occurred thirty-five years ago, a year before Williams got his big break at WTTG with news director Betty Endicott. Williams had landed a job as a chyron operator. Endicott learned that he had once been a reporter and promoted him on the spot. Willilams was covering the Pentagon not long later and on his way to an illustrious career. There is, of course, no way to confirm the conversation that transpired. Endicott is dead. The talk was behind closed doors. We have only Williams’s word for it. But it’s these details that are clear, not the struggle that led up to it. And why not? A successful person defines himself by the first moment of success, not necessarily by the incremental “fail better” moments that came before.
Which brings us back to Williams’s snafu with the helicopter. His memory, which is riddled with inconsistencies, is pitted against the memories of the Army officers. But Williams’s statements over the course of twelve years get opened up to public scrutiny. This isn’t the case for the officers. While it is undeniably interesting to see how Williams’s story changed, it also gives Williams an unfair disadvantage.
If CNN reported how I remembered an episode on December 31, 2000, it would probably read as follows:
January 1, 2001: In a largely illegible journal entry, Champion tries to recall what happened the night before in a drunken haze. “Clothes discovered on floor the next morning. Who is this woman lying next to me?” He doesn’t say that he made it with the woman in question, much less her name, only that he learned about her the next morning.
September 2001: Champion self-publishes a chapbook, Tortured Youth, that details the New Year’s Eve incident. The account is vague. A friend, who generously hands over the three dollars for this undercooked offering of autobiographical nonsense, credits “one of the Goth girls I see hanging at Elbo Room” for spotting Champion during that celebratory evening. The reader is told “We entered the apartment,” but the passage doesn’t state who made the first move, or Champion’s exact location. Whose apartment was it?
March 2004: During a secretly recorded chat, Champion speaks of that day in 2000 to an acquaintance who insists on documenting every moment for posterity. “I think I made the first move, but I can’t be sure. I was trying to put one foot in front of the other. Some stranger may have thrown a bottle at us.” This description suggests that Champion was under attack.
March 2006: Champion refers to the bottle attack, but cannot remember the woman’s name. Someone suggests that what happened on New Year’s Eve five years ago was probably nothing, but Champion recreates his artful leap from the exploding bottle on the ground, which he seems to recall more vividly than the woman.
February 2015: Champion tries to remember how he remembered that New Year’s Eve evening while writing about Brian Williams, realizing that if he had to deal with such insufferable media scrutiny on a regular basis, he’d be called a goddam liar for the rest of his natural life.
The above silliness is inconsequential to me. But if I were in any truly influential position, I am certain that it would be used against me.
Do news people have the right to tell their own stories even as they maintain objective stances on stories that they merely report on? Given the Choppergate ballyhoo, probably not. Or perhaps it’s just Williams who isn’t allowed to. He has made appearances on The Daily Show to demonstrate that he has a sense of humor, even as his nightly appearances on NBC suggest that he is something of a stiff. Television does not allow Williams to merge the two identities. Williams must carry on with these roles, adhering to the mandate embossed into the desk by top brass. Television news would be far more honest if Williams were to appear one night with a chainsaw, destroying his desk with a savage violence while reciting the news in a calm and objective voice. But if we can’t have that, maybe we should cut the guy some slack.
[2/6/15 UPDATE:Think Progress‘s Jessica Goldstein consulted several noted psychologists about the science of memory and how it applies to Williams. From Professor William Hirst: “You build your memories as you go along. We consolidate memories. There’s also evidence that, every time we retrieve a memory, it makes it vulnerable to reconsolidation. So if we retrieve something and tell that story at a dinner party, and slightly exaggerate your role, it reconsolidate to incorporate that exaggeration. And the next time you’re telling it, you’re building on that. You can see how the story can grow. And the stories we end up telling reflect the social framework in which we live.”]
On February 3, 2015, a bold wave of joy and jubilation jolted the dry fields of the publishing industry. Harper Lee had written a second novel, Go Set a Watchman. It was set to be published in July. It was a 304-page sequel to her celebrated masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, and was set twenty years later, following Scout’s further adventures as she revisits her principled father, Atticus Finch, in the 1950s.
It didn’t take long for the skeptics to pop out of the funhouse. One cri de coeur came from Jezebel‘s Madeleine Davies, who cited Lee’s problematic relationship with her attorney Tonja Carter and pointed to how Alice Lee claimed that her sister did not always understand the contracts she signed (a charge that can equally apply to many writers, who traditionally aren’t in the habit of minding the store). There was also Lee’s copyright lawsuit against her agent Samuel Pinkus, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Pinkus had transferred the Mockingbird copyright to his company Veritas Media Inc. as Lee’s health declined. It was a classic case of a venal opportunist exploiting an undisputedly brilliant artist and moving in for the kill. With the settlement terms behind closed doors, we still don’t know how much of the copyright or the Mockingbird commissions Lee has actually received. (Lee and Pinkus’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment from Business Insider‘s Erin Fuchs.)
So there are underlying concerns about Go Set a Watchman. Was the publication of this second novel motivated by financial need? Had Lee been pressured to dust off a manuscript that had been sitting around for decades? Why did Lee’s attorney, who discovered the manuscript, push to have Watchman published? This was, after all, the manuscript that Lee had set aside before writing Mockingbird. It may be an embryo rather than a bouncing baby.
Watchman will undoubtedly be of great interest to the waning population that still reads. But doesn’t an author have the right to keep her early manuscripts unpublished? Lee obviously made the choice, but if she was squeezed into this last hurrah, there’s something unsavory about an author so beloved and renowned, one who has steadfastly avoided publicity, being coerced into showing off her apprentice work, especially if this manuscript has not been significantly edited or revised in the years since.
Indeed, when a genius’s undercooked work gets published, it can often backfire. In 2012, David Foster Wallace’s remaining nonfiction scraps were published as Both Flesh and Not and the mixed results, accompanied by a condescending list of vocabulary words used by Wallace, diminished his clear talent. And because of efforts like this (and the rushed D.T. Max biography), a DFW backlash developed.
It’s possible that Watchman will be a great book. As someone who was deeply moved by Mockingbird the three times I read it, I certainly hope it will be. Of course, one should certainly not venture an opinion about it until reading the damn thing in full. But if Watchman is a dog and there are any honest literary critics left in this gutless age of “No haters!” and trigger warnings, then Lee will be alive to witness the excoriations. The public may likewise measure Watchman by Mockingbird‘s yardstick.
Harper Lee is a national treasure. Given Mockingbird‘s great reach into the American cultural landscape, she has more than earned her right to be heralded, celebrated, and otherwise declared the bee’s knees. But Watchman is not Lee’s most recent work. To Kill a Mockingbird is. Watchman is a historical document, a book that should be published after Lee’s death when people are in a better position to judge her totality. It is a crassly commercial decision, not a scholarly one, that motivates this publication.
On the morning of February 3, 2015, ten aspiring entrepreneurs, all men, ranging in age from their mid-thirties to their mid-fifties (“I’ve been in this business for forty years. There is nothing you can say that will hurt me,” said the oldest man), gathered at a Brooklyn Starbucks to discuss their great plans. They took up the entirety of a long table constructed of affordable wood and talked extremely loud.
The men confused this common space for a boiler room. They seized one stool, a precious seat in a crowded place, because some arcane section in the business plan required that one of their sparsely packed backpacks could not rest on the floor. After all, these men were not riff raff. They were meant to be tycoons.
These men believed themselves to be paragons of originality, altogether different from other captains of industry. Yet not a single man at the table sported a suit, much less a tie or a shirt selected with an iota of care. Indeed, the men had not bothered to dress well at all. They regularly looked down at their laptops and often made references to “being on the same page.” They swapped such invaluable tips on how to send an Excel document to other colleagues by email and the best way to swallow a cough drop.
They were the team. They meant business, even though it often took ten minutes to set up a five minute meeting. They were going to kill.
What follows is an actual transcript of their conversation. It is presented here as a litmus test, a way to determine whether the men who are talking loudly in your Starbucks are, indeed, on the same page:
“Let me do my damn job!”
“I want you to do your damn job.”
“I have to do my damn job!”
“Relax. I want you to do your damn job. We’ll get you cold-calling tomorrow. Now about this guy…”
“He’s a good guy. But he’s very predictable.”
“Not like us.”
“No. But if he talks about salmon, you talk about salmon. If he talks about brisket, you talk about brisket.”
“And you’ll be able to do your damn job. Because you’re an original.”
“Alright, so let’s say Friday. We’re going to say 8:30. Now what time is the meeting?”
“Let’s be realistic. He’s on a train. You’re on a train. Let’s say it’s a 4:00 drop dead time on Friday.”
“Well, I should think we should have the meeting a little bit earlier.”
“We had a 4:30 cutoff on Friday. Realistically…”
“I don’t care. I’ll come home at 7.”
“We’re getting snowed in.”
“Let’s say we do a 4:30. We can concentrate on the meeting.”
“Is that okay with everybody?”
“Okay. 8:30 we meet, 4:30 we eat.”
“Alright. So the next thing that we got throw at us. The Brooklyn Initiative. The theme is pretty much handling the scheduling on that, which is fine by me. Now here’s the thing with that. What day is it? February 3rd? What day do we got?”
“We sat down with them and put together a strategy.”
“The Brooklyn Initiative.”
“Yes. These guys are conversating. The way I see it, they get compensated.”
“They get compensated?”
“In forty or so accounts.”
“We have the list.”
“The problem is that the person in charge of this Initiative wants more, which is pretty much impossible from a logistics standpoint. It’s going to be intricate changes. Impossible. So I’m going to make the Wednesday meeting with one of you guys.”
“Here’s the deal, guys. These guys are seasonal businessmen. I mean, it’s criminal. With that said, there’s not a lot of business out there. But those guys have about a twenty to twenty-two week season. So here’s the deal. Their owners start coming back in March. Whatever it is. By April, they’re back. These guys want to start. These guys gotta start putting their deals together.”
“Right. Swinging. But the moral to the story is — well, this is…”
“That puts it through to the end of April.”
“They’re going to start fluffing their pillows at the end of March.”
“I think we have four to five weeks with them tops.”
“Here’s more on that note. Thank you for opening that door for me. Because I’m going to walk through it. I need to make out the items that we’re going to sell.”
“We got beat up on Friday for saying that. I’ve seen the invoices.”
“So take ’em. This is all I suggest to you. Because the veterans of this table know about planning. No plan has failed.”