Earlier: “Carr’s Time in D.C.”
The New York Times’ David Carr, who edited the Washington City Paper for five years in the 1990s, is out with a new book — “The Night of the Gun” — and we’ve culled it for his recollections of his time in D.C.
Join us after the jump…
“With its history of narrative glories, City Paper was a kind of literary fantasy to the likes of me. I could recruit from the top of a class of nascent journalists, young people in a hurry who had come to Washington, DC, looking for a fast track. The staff ran the gamut from Eddie, a former ice-cream truck driver who generated legendary portraits of entropy; to John, who wrote tart political features with frightening ease; to Stephanie, with her big investigative heaves; to Amanda, a student of the District life, who did amazing profiles. We had Jason on cops, Erik doing the “Loose Lips” column, and Brad, an arts editor who was actually a newsman. Darrow, a quiet, hugely talented photographer gave the paper its trademarks black-and-white elegance. And when I was finally able to recruit and publish great black writers who reflected the minority culture — Neil, Ta-Nehesi, Jonetta, Jelani, Holly, Paul — it gave the paper a new measure of credibility and salience.
When I first arrived, in 1995, I was full of plans and full of shit. At our first meeting, the staff got a load of me and my brutal Midwestern accent and decided I wouldn’t last long. They had run the interim editor out on a rial with such ferocity that he had felt compelled to leave behind a dead fish in the ventilation system.
It was not that they weren’t talented–many of them went on to do great work at the City Paper and elsewhere–they were just privileged young people who had never experienced much of life beyond the hot-house of the fancy colleges in which they had come of age. There was a lot of smirking, eye rolling and notepassing — it reminded me a lot of high school. I took their manifest disrespets as a kind of provocation. They were, collectively, smarter than me. But tough? Not so much. Having been in rooms with people I owed money to — people who had guns and unknown intent–working in an office where people gossiped about what an idiot I was did not make a strong impression.
There were some issues of adjustment. Coming from Minnesota, a land of white people who eat white food in a frequently ;white landscape, Chocolate City, with its black middle class, political leadership and cultural legacy was a complete mystery to me. My first week, Jonetta, a black writer with deep connections in the political community, wrote a scathing indictment of the talent and intentions of the city’s leadership. Always in search of a snappy headline, I slapped this one on the cover: “Black Hole: Why Isn’t the Black Community Producing Leaders Worth Following?” I got mau-maued from every corner, but it both reminded me to watch my cracker mouth and steeled me to push back when it was required. Some marginal dude self-selected as a spokesperson would call and say, “We in the community have discussed your most recent issue…” and I’d say, “You mean the community I work in, live in, my kids go to school in, and I pay taxes in, or some other community I don’t know about?” Or they’d begin with, “You can’t say that,” and I would respond, “Well, we just did, so let’s work from there.” …
Erik, who worked as a freelancer, a columnist, a deputy editor and eventually ran the place, talked about that when I went to see him on a trip to Washington in 2006.
“I do believe that I heard whispers among really smart people around Washington or people who had known you that held the view that your ambition was greater than your skill. There was a disparity there that was eventually going to have to play itself out.” …
And I partied. Not drinking or using, but lots of going out, lots of dinners, lots of people over. The work was objectively good. My job was not to screw up a good paper, and I managed that. We beat the Washington Post on a couple of important stories, and published a paper that people talked about — perhaps not always with a great deal of fondness.
I still had some growing up to do as a manager. I often treated people’s carefully wrought stories as little more than dots on the screen and then more or less dared them to take issue with what I had done. Not that I could not pull good work out of people–I just had a tendency to grind them down at the same time. The office of Brad, the emphatic and talented arts editor, was known as the Cape of Good Hope, while my end oft he office was known as Cape Fear. …
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