Truth, Lies and Media: New York Times' David Carr

Ahead of Sunday's talk, the news culture vulture on tweeted fakery, Lance Armstrong's lies, and more.

By David Beers 28 Jan 2013 |

David Beers is editor of The Tyee. He will engage David Carr in an on stage conversation and field questions from the audience at Sunday's event at Capilano University.

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David Carr: 'People don't think anyone hears them.'

If there's a hero at the centre of Page One, the documentary about Big Media's digital meltdown, it's New York Times media and culture columnist David Carr. We watch him get the inside story of a rival newspaper chain's demise even as the decks of his own ship heave and buckle. But among reasons to root for the survival of the Grey Lady is that one of her brood could be a David Carr -- a smart reporter and acerbic analyst who also happened to defeat a wicked cocaine addiction and write a riveting memoir about it all.

Carr, who will speak Sunday evening at Capilano University, is charged with making sense of not only where the news business is headed, but how media filters everything in public life, from presidential elections to quivering lipped confessions by celebrities to Oprah.

Carr will discuss "Truth and Lies in Life and Art" at the Feb. 3 event in North Vancouver, including an on-stage conversation with yours truly. Reached by phone last week, Carr mused that the web was, on balance, a better friend to truth than lies, though an obvious facilitator of both.

"The web is a great manufacturer of untruths and half truths but it's better at cleaning them up than the old system." As a result, "We're probably in the end going to end up with the most efficacious journalism ever -- but it's going to be ugly along the way. The warts are more visible but treated more quickly and effectively."

If, as happened recently, a Notre Dame star football player gets hoaxed into believing he has a digital girlfriend and then knowingly extends the ruse, Carr just places that on a spectrum of fakery enabled by social media. "Everyone's digital identity is a lie to some degree. My Twitter persona is nicer and wittier more than I generally am -- and swears a lot less. In the social media world, everyone is sort of their better self. I was approached by someone the other day who said, 'We know each other ... on Twitter.' My reaction was, 'Yes, but you don't look like that picture of yourself.' "

Then again, sparring via avatars can erode some basic civilities, muses Carr. "People who spend a lot of time online tend to get locked into digital worlds. It leads to a hermetic way of thinking. You become more capable of clobbering somebody because at some level you don't think they are real. People say things to me on email they'd never say to me in person." But when Carr engages those attackers in a way that lets them know he is a real and interested person, "they settle down."

Why such a common impulse to shout and bully online? "People don't think anyone hears them. But when I ask why they are being rude, usually they will become civil, and say something like, 'I was having a bad day and your paper pisses me off.' "

Carr has seen humane moments emerge from purely digital communities, such as "people on Reddit calling for action when somebody talked about suicide." But in service of his truth versus lies theme, he offers this: "Your social media friends are not your real friends."

Given that Carr is one of the world's busiest journalists, I let him loose after 15 fast minutes and turned to some of his recent columns to provide a further sense of the range and insight he will bring to bear on Sunday's discussion.

On moment of death snapshots and a world where recording devices are everywhere:

"Soon enough, new boundaries will be tested. In an era when most people have a camera in their hand or pocket, mass shootings will be memorialized on cellphone videos and ubiquitous security cameras will dish up fresh horrors. I'd like to think that the people's right to know will be leavened by the people's right to live in a world where mayhem is not a commodity." (New York Times, Dec. 5, 2012)

On how digital tools are creating new ethics questions for news media:

"The Journal News in Westchester County, N.Y., decided, in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, to publish a map with the names and addresses of people who had applied for handgun permits in two suburban counties. I followed a simple logic: the records were open, the public interest was high and journalism that blends both those things makes sense.

"But on reflection, was it really journalism? Not so much...

"It is one thing to have a public database available that lets me look up whether the neighbour I am feuding with might have a gun permit. It is quite another to publish the names and addresses of all my neighbours who own guns. The decision lacked a rationale. It was what we in the business call 'b matter' in search of a lead." (New York Times, Jan. 14, 2013)

On Lance Armstrong, Oprah Winfrey, and mea culpa as digital spectacle:

"Confession and forgiveness are fundamental parts of the American media narrative. It is familiar to all of us and, in a way, comforting. But when Mr. Armstrong arrives at some version of the truth in his interview with Ms. Winfrey, one question will linger. Is he sorry for what he did or sorry he got caught?" (New York Times Media Decoder blog, Jan. 14, 2013)

On Neil Young:

"Young, who has never been a graceful stage presence, lurched to the front. He is old -- he began playing in this town more than 40 years ago -- and bent over his guitar, but he is not old and bent. Young has never been physically whole, but that brokenness has annealed rather than slowed him. He is anything but a frail man when he has a guitar in his hand." (New York Times Magazine, Sept. 23, 2012)

On who's really winning the news media business shake-out:

"'The era of the media mogul is over, or at least on a very significant hiatus,' said David Bank, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, suggesting that companies would no longer get bigger for the sake of scale and nonexistent synergies. He added that most of the big media companies are, in one way or another, cable content companies with lots of leverage in negotiations when it comes to distribution.

"Writing for Deadline Hollywood, David Lieberman pointed out that cranky old media far outperformed a sexy technology group composed of Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Yahoo, Google and Microsoft. Take that, digital overlords!

"We will skip past the cliché about content's royal status, but suffice it to say that strong entertainment brands -- the backbone of traditional media companies -- are tough to build, tough to rub out and tough to compete against. Yes, cable and broadcast networks have to risk hundreds of millions to find a hit, kill off the losers and eat the costs. And then do it again for the next season. But once it works, it can kick up returns in more ways than one." (New York Times, Jan. 7, 2013)

David Carr speaks at Capilano University's NSCU Centre on Sunday, Feb. 3, at 7:30 p.m. For more information click here.  [Tyee]

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