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'Fresh Air' Favorites: Anthony Bourdain

This week, we're listening back to some favorite Fresh Air interviews from the past decade. In 2016, Dave Davies spoke with Bourdain, the chef-turned-travel-show-host who died in 2018.

22:30

Other segments from the episode on December 30, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 30, 2019: Interview with Anthony Bourdain; Interview with David Carr; Commentary on Word of the year.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week we're continuing our holiday series of interviews of staff picks from the decade. We start today with Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain spent years in the restaurant business, eventually becoming the chef in what he describes as a working-class brasserie in New York. Then he discovered he had a gift for writing and storytelling. He wrote a bestselling book, "Kitchen Confidential," then a dozen other books. And he became a TV star through his shows on the Food Network and the Travel Channel and his CNN show "Parts Unknown," which took viewers to places all over the world, exploring local cultures, cooking and offering his own unique commentary on what we see. He died by suicide in June 2018. FRESH AIR's Dave Davies spoke with Anthony Bourdain in October 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Anthony Bourdain, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your big breakthrough came with the book "Kitchen Confidential" - huge bestseller, started with an article you wrote. Tell us that story.

ANTHONY BOURDAIN: Well, I wrote a piece intending it for a free paper called the New York Press that they give out in little boxes on the corner. You know, they offered me a hundred dollars. You know, I figured their standards were low enough that they would take it. And my intention was to entertain a few other people in the restaurant business in the New York area. I thought that would be really cool. I was a fan of George Orwell's "Down And Out In Paris And London," and that account of another dishwashers' life had thrilled me. And I kind of wanted to evoke that response in a few other cooks.

DAVIES: And for people who don't know...

BOURDAIN: Yeah.

DAVIES: What's the kind of the substance of this of the story you were writing about?

BOURDAIN: I just wanted to write about my life from the point of view of a working journeyman chef of no particular distinction, honestly. Maybe I didn't mind goosing the general public, horrifying them a little, but that was not the intention. I wanted to just write about our thing, our life, the way we spoke in the same sort of over-testosteroned (ph), high-speed, hyperbolic prose that I was familiar with in the kitchens. But the customer, the intended reader, was always a fellow professional who would get it, and I hoped they would get it and respond.

So I wrote the piece. They said they'd take it. They kept bumping it. Every week I'd run to the box on the corner, open the magazine - open the paper. And I wasn't in that issue. And eventually, at a moment of frustration, I think my mom said to me, well, you should send it to The New Yorker. You know, I know someone there. They'll read it. And I thought, OK, great. You know, of course, The New Yorker - just the likelihood of ever being published for an over the transom piece there is astronomical.

DAVIES: Doesn't happen, yeah.

BOURDAIN: So I sent it along, and to my surprise, a few weeks later the phone rings in the kitchen. It's David Remnick on the phone. They ran the piece, and, I mean, I had a book contract - a book deal within days. And when the book came out, it very quickly transformed my life - I mean, changed everything.

DAVIES: How - what did it feel like? How did it change everything?

BOURDAIN: At first, I was distrustful of what was happening. I say freely it's an unreasonable attitude to think that you could ever make a living writing. And I'd been in the restaurant business long enough where there are so many failed writers and actors and performers and artists and playwrights. So even after the book came out, even after it hit the best-seller list, I was distrustful. I thought I better keep my day job, and I continued, you know, making steak frites and salads and working in a busy kitchen until it just got crazier and crazier. And I got offered a TV show. And I just went to work one day, and there were, like, 20 journalists in the restaurant waiting to talk to me. And I said, you know, I might actually be able to milk this scam for a few more months.

DAVIES: Well, you're now on your third television show. You did a show called "No Reservations"...

BOURDAIN: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...For the Food Channel, right?

BOURDAIN: Yeah.

DAVIES: And then "The Layover," 48 hours in a...

BOURDAIN: And actually, even before that, there was "A Cook's Tour," so...

DAVIES: OK. Right. Right.

BOURDAIN: Third network, fourth show.

DAVIES: Right. And now you're traveling around the world, visiting places in "Parts Unknown." And I thought we'd begin with the clip. This is the beginning of your trip to Borneo on the series. Let's just listen how it starts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTHONY BOURDAIN: PARTS UNKNOWN")

BOURDAIN: When I first went up this river, I was sick with love - the bad kind, the fist-around-your-heart kind. I ran far, but there was no escaping it. It followed me upriver all the way. That was ten long years ago, a previous episode of a previous series in a previous life. Yet here I am again, heading up to that same longhouse in the jungle.

DAVIES: And that's from your series "Parts Unknown." You know, these are part travelogue, part personal essay and a lot about food. This seemed really personal. What did you want to - why did you want to go back to this little village in Borneo after 10 years?

BOURDAIN: I think I wanted to see how things had changed. I think - someone said - some travel writer said that, you know, you - what you're really looking at when you travel is inward all the time. I think in a lot of ways - the first time I went up that river, the Skrang River from Kuching up to a Iban longhouse in the jungle, I was heartbroken. I was coming off of a love affair that did not pan out the way I had hoped. I think in a lot of ways, the motivation for the show, the second one, was to see if it still hurt - you know, to see how I felt. So it was very personal. I thought, I'm going to go right back to the same longhouse. Yes, let's see how that community has changed. Let's do a better job with better cinematography, bringing to bear all of the things that I've learned and my crew has learned in the intervening years. But really, it was revisiting an old wound to see if it was OK now.

DAVIES: There's a moment in this - a powerful scene in there - I mean, in this episode where you're standing in pouring rain with a spear in your hand. You've been granted an honor by the village. Explain this.

BOURDAIN: Well, I think both times that I went to the village as the guest of honor - you know, they kill a pig for the feast. The whole village eats. There's an equitable division of pig parts. It's a big deal. But that first time, I don't think I'd ever killed an animal before. I mean, I'd been ordering them up as a chef over the phone, so I was culpable in the death of many animals. But here I was, being asked to physically plunge a spear into the heart of a pig. It seemed to me the height of hypocrisy, however uncomfortable I might have been with that, to put it off on somebody else. You know, I've been responsible for the death of many animals. Here, I'm being asked. I didn't want to let the team down. I didn't wanted to dishonor the village or embarrass anyone.

I - the first time was very, very, very, very difficult. My camera guys almost passed out. It was certainly very difficult for me. The second time, as much as I'd like to say that it was still really hard - I think I said in the voiceover, I don't know what it says about me - probably something very bad - that I'd become - you know, I have changed over time. I like to think in good ways for the most part, but I've also become more callous. I've become able to plunge a spear into the heart of a screaming pig and live with that much more comfortably than I did the first time. And I can lie and say it tormented me forever and since, but, you know, I felt that ugly emotion, or lack of it, and I thought I should mention it.

DAVIES: Yeah. You said, I did it this time without hesitation or remorse.

BOURDAIN: Yeah.

DAVIES: But it was a relief when the screaming stopped.

BOURDAIN: Well, yes. No one - no good person likes to hear or see an animal in pain. That is monstrous. I mean, I tried very hard to do a good job quickly. Yeah, exactly right.

DAVIES: You had a memorable episode recently where you went to Vietnam, and you - I can't remember whether you said this on an episode or whether I read it somewhere else. You said the world tilted for you in a Vietnamese rice farmer's home.

BOURDAIN: Yeah. I think - the first time I went to Vietnam, I just - I remember coming away from it, thinking, I just - I have to have more of this. This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.

DAVIES: More of Vietnam or more of that kind of travel?

BOURDAIN: I want to be able to come back to Vietnam again and again and again. And if this place is so wonderful, the world must be filled with many more wonderful and interesting and challenging and heartbreaking and inspiring and beautiful places, as it turned out to. But I really got - the first time I went there, I think I found myself sitting in a - yeah, it was a rice farmer's home in the Mekong Delta. At the time, they were a little more suspicious of Westerners with cameras, so the people who I was allowed to eat dinner with were all former Viet Cong with impeccable revolutionary credentials, the sort of people who you would think would be hostile to Americans, particularly in that area, where they caught a lot of ugly action.

I got just hammered drunk and had this sort of wonderful bonding experience. I remember this, like, 85-year-old former Viet Cong. I asked him, aren't you angry about anything? And he looked and, with amiable contempt, said, look, buddy. He goes, in Vietnam, don't take yourself so seriously. Before you, there were, you know, the French, the Japanese, you know, the Chinese, the Cambodians. Since you, there's been - you know, I've been fighting - this country's been fighting for 600 years. Don't take it personally. Now drink.

And I just had this wonderful time, and Vietnam is a country that I go back to at every opportunity, meaning as soon as I can make another show - getting away with making another show there - I do.

GROSS: We're listening back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Anthony Bourdain in 2016. We'll hear more after a break as we continue our series of interviews featuring staff picks from the decade. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBINO'S "AZAMANE (MY BROTHERS UNITED)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview Dave Davies recorded with Anthony Bourdain in 2016, when he was hosting the CNN food and travel series "Parts Unknown."

DAVIES: You go to some far-flung, exotic places and some places that are a lot closer to home. And I wanted to play a clip. This is from your visit to a place in Camden, N.J...

BOURDAIN: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Donkey's that makes cheesesteaks, which is right across the river from Philadelphia...

BOURDAIN: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Known for cheesesteaks. And you're sitting down to enjoy one with the owner. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTHONY BOURDAIN: PARTS UNKNOWN")

ROBERT LUCAS: Pleasure to meet you.

BOURDAIN: So this is the place - the best cheesesteak in South Jersey, unless I'm mistaken.

LUCAS: In New Jersey.

BOURDAIN: In New Jersey, period.

LUCAS: Yeah.

BOURDAIN: Is there a difference between Jersey style and Philadelphia style?

LUCAS: Yeah. We do ours on a round poppyseed kaiser roll.

BOURDAIN: Really? I'll have one of those. What's the way to go - I mean, anything I need to know or just...

LUCAS: No - a regular, cheese and onions.

BOURDAIN: Beautiful thing.

LUCAS: I need one, Paulie (ph).

BOURDAIN: It's round. It's got steak, spices, browned onions, real American cheese - such as it is - and a poppyseed roll.

Fantastic. Thank you, sir.

And it is sublime.

- Relish what do you think?

LUCAS: That's hot pepper, yeah. A little bit of that won't hurt.

BOURDAIN: A little bit? Oh, man, I drove a long way for this, thinking about it the whole way.

LUCAS: Good.

BOURDAIN: Man, this should be, like, a national landmark right away. This sandwich is unbelievably good.

LUCAS: Thanks.

BOURDAIN: Really, a thing of beauty.

LUCAS: That's good to hear.

BOURDAIN: Worth driving across the state in a blizzard for.

LUCAS: Well, we get a lot of people from Philly.

BOURDAIN: No way - Philly?

LUCAS: Yes, for sure.

BOURDAIN: Wow. That's treason. Do they, like, change the plates on their car and, like, wear a disguise? I mean...

LUCAS: It's different. The poppyseeds help.

BOURDAIN: Yeah, I like roll. It's awesome. That's delicious. Well, I think we learned something here today. Jersey cheesesteaks - I'm not saying they're better than Philadelphia. Yeah, I am, actually, so there. This is great.

LUCAS: Glad you enjoyed it.

DAVIES: That's fun. That joint's about five miles from here.

BOURDAIN: Yeah.

DAVIES: I'm going to get over there.

BOURDAIN: It's good stuff.

DAVIES: I'm going to get over there. Do you care about the reactions you get from the locals after their episodes appear?

BOURDAIN: I care about the - yes. I - what I want to happen ideally - it's weird. It's a double-edged sword. Ideally, I'll go to a place like - I'll find a little bar in Rio, let's say - some little local place that perfectly expresses the neighborhood. You know, it's not a tourist-friendly place. It's, for lack of a better word - I hate this word, but I'll use it anyway - authentic. I'll feature that on the show. The response I'm looking for is to hear from someone from the neighborhood saying, how did you ever find that place? I thought only we knew about it. It's, you know, truly a place that we love and is reflective of our culture and our neighborhood.

But on the other hand, that's kind of a destructive process because if I name the place - and I don't always when it's a place like that - I've changed it. The next time I go back, there's tourists. There's people who've seen it on the show. Then I might hear from the same person from that neighborhood saying, you ruined my favorite bar, you know? All the regular customers have run away, and it's filled with, you know, the tourists in ugly T-shirts and flip flops.

DAVIES: Do you sometimes protect somebody's identity?

BOURDAIN: There are times that I have looked at the camera and said, look. I'm just not going to tell you where this place is. It's too good, and I don't want to change it. It should stay like this forever. I do do that now and again.

DAVIES: You're known for being willing to eat just about anything. What's some of the most intimidating or nasty stuff you've been offered?

BOURDAIN: I don't know. I mean, at this point, if freshness and hygiene is a question - I mean, generally, it's tribal situations that are problematic, where the whole tribe - the chief is offering you something that's what they have. And often, it's - they don't have refrigeration. It's often old. Their tolerance for meat that's even spoiled is higher than my relatively sensitive stomach. Often, these dishes are eaten in one large bowl, with the whole tribe jamming their fingers in.

So yeah, rotten food, food that's clearly not clean, water that's clearly not good - those are a challenge. On the flavor spectrum, I'm pretty good with just about everything. There are a few dishes that are - you know, when you get to, like, rotten shark in Iceland, that's - I mean, I could do it, but I'd rather not. I won't be doing that again.

DAVIES: You did it?

BOURDAIN: Yeah, yeah. It's unpleasant, but, I mean, it's not the end of the world. I don't know. For sheer soul-destroying misery - like, you know, if you're talking about a bite of food that just makes me question the future of the human race and just sends me into a spiral of depression, I think eating at a airport Johnny Rockets pretty much would be the nadir.

DAVIES: (Laughter) That's as bad as it gets. In a circumstance that you just described where there's food that's rotten or not clean, how do you handle it?

BOURDAIN: You take one for the team, and you hope for the best, and hopefully, you have a good supply of antibiotics. I've lost three days of work in 16 years, three or - I think only three days that I've been, you know, down for the count and confined to bed and desperately, horribly ill. Generally speaking, if it's, like, a street food stall that's busy, even if it looks dirty as hell, if there are a lot of locals there, they're eating and they're happy, my crew will always eat at that place. You know, eating a Caesar salad at the major chain hotel in, you know, central Africa or the Middle East - that's where you run into trouble stomach-wise, generally.

DAVIES: You must have a heck of a microbiome. Is that what it is?

BOURDAIN: I would think so. I think everyone on our show - all of our veteran crew are pretty good about that. We have pretty good resistance. We don't get sick easily. And when somebody new joins the team, you know, we tell them the rules of the road. But if after we've told them general do's and don'ts, if we find ourselves sitting at a - as happened in, I think, Kurdistan in Iraq, and we're - some new member of the team says, oh, look - Zuppa Di Vongole, like, seafood - you know, like, a seafood stew. And we're awful far from the ocean right now. We all looked at each other, and we're like, should we tell him? Should we say something? And we all just, like - no. Let him learn.

GROSS: We're listening to Dave Davies' interview with Anthony Bourdain recorded in 2016. In the next part of their conversation, they got back to talking about Bourdain's CNN series "Parts Unknown."

DAVIES: Some of the episodes - a lot of them are about food, some about travel, some about, you know, your personal feelings. And sometimes - I mean, like, the episode on the Congo - a lot of that is about just the history of that nation and it being brutalized by Westerners and their...

BOURDAIN: That was - there was no expectation that - it would be obscene to go to the Congo looking to do a food show. We do many food-centric shows. We do comic shows. But some shows are agenda-driven, and I had an agenda here, and that was to, for an hour of television, talk about the history of this tragic, incredibly tragic, afflicted history that most people are unaware of. This wealthy in natural resources, this massive country, such a - I was sort of obsessed with this - the tragically little-known history of this very complicated country, and I wanted to talk about it. I also have long - it's a repeating theme on the show - both "Apocalypse Now" and Conrad's "Heart Of Darkness." So that was an irresistible impulse to go up the Congo River.

DAVIES: You sometimes visit places where there are really contentious political issues.

BOURDAIN: Yes.

DAVIES: You say you're not a journalist. You're a storyteller. But you must think carefully about how you deal with that stuff.

BOURDAIN: Well, there's nothing actually more political than food. I mean, who's eating? Who's not eating? Also, it's - I found it's just very, very useful to not be a journalist. I mean, journalists drop into a situation, ask a question. People sort of tighten up. Whereas if you sit down with people and just say, hey; what makes you happy? What's your life like? What do you like to eat? More often than not, they will tell you extraordinary things, many of which have nothing to do with food.

So yeah, we've shot in some pretty contentious places. We shot in Beirut during the war and since. Congo, Gaza, post-Benghazi Libya - I'm not a journalist, but I think it is useful as an addition to journalism to have seen what people are like in Libya, for instance. I mean, who are these people we are talking about when we talk about Benghazi or Libya? Is it not useful to see them with their kids, to see how their lives, their everyday lives, are doing seemingly ordinary things or trying to do ordinary things; to show what people actually live like in Iran, who may not support their government at all? What are ordinary people like in Iran? We seem all too eager and willing to ignore those things.

And I think in southern or, you know, sub-Saharan Africa in particular, we seem to be so used to seeing people of color in these disastrous situations that we become inured and callous. So it's always useful to, especially in Africa, say, look. You know, there are lives happening here. This is what's involved in getting water for the table, you know? This is how nice people can be or how gentle or complicated. It just seems to me the more you are able to show people's everyday lives, often as they revolve around food and daily tasks, when something happens in the news, you have a better idea who we're talking about here.

DAVIES: Anthony Bourdain, thanks so much. It's been fun.

BOURDAIN: Thank you.

GROSS: Dave Davies spoke with Anthony Bourdain in 2016. Bourdain died by suicide in 2018. After a break, we'll continue our series of interviews featuring staff picks from the decade and listen to my 2011 interview with journalist David Carr, who covered the media and wrote a media column for The New York Times. He died in 2015. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "POINCIANA")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to continue our end-of-the-decade series featuring staff picks of the decade with my 2011 interview with journalist David Carr. He died in 2015 of complications from lung cancer. Carr investigated the business side of journalism, analyzed new developments in media and wrote a media column for The New York Times. I'm one of the people who still misses his Monday column. In 2008, he wrote a memoir about his addiction and recovery called "The Night Of The Gun." He was the breakout character in the documentary "Page One," which followed the Times media desk during a tumultuous year. I spoke with Carr in 2011 when the documentary was released.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: David Carr, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your journalism is changing because it's on different platforms. When one of your articles is in the New York Times online, if there's any mistakes that were made in the article, those mistakes are corrected at the bottom of the article. It used to be that corrections were kind of buried in, like, page two or something. Nobody ever saw them. So your mistakes, your errors weren't, like, following you around. But they are now. What's that experience like of having the mistakes corrected at the bottom of the article?

DAVID CARR: You know, I have to tell you, when I got to the New York Times, which was about 10 years ago, I was paralyzed by the idea that my reporting lacked the professionalism and efficacy required to be in The New York Times. I had done a lot of writing and done a lot of reporting, but I now was at a place where kind of the size of the megaphone and its sort of history made it all the more powerful. And then if I said something that was unfair or untrue - that I could snap somebody's career in half like a dry winter twig.

And sure enough, after I started, I quickly ended up on page two, in the corrections. And you used the term buried. They're not buried to us. That is a hall of shame there, and it's a page you want to totally stay off of. And it's material to your sort of career there. So it's very, very important. And it doesn't matter where error occurs. It always follows you around.

And part of the deal with working at The New York Times is that your readers - a portion of whom are kind of church ladies and copy-ninnies and fact-freaks - they wait like crows on a wire for you to make the slightest error and then descend, caw, caw, cawing every time you screw up. And it still is something that I - that wakes me up at night. After I've written something, I wonder if I got something right. And so the fact that now they follow me around like tin cans on the Internet, at least on the Web...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CARR: At least on the Web, you can amend. You know, the ethic of the Web is to say what you know as quickly as you can and then reiterate over and over again. The Web is kind of a self-cleaning oven, and what you have up there could grow more efficacious, more accurate as time goes by. That's never true of print. It's always there for the ages, to haunt you if you got it wrong.

GROSS: At the beginning of the film, at the beginning of the documentary "Page One," you're on the phone with a source, and you're saying to your source, I see this as a big story. I could probably get significant space. What do you think the story is that I should tell? I thought that was such a really interesting way of putting it. Do you say that a lot to sources - what's the story you think I should tell?

CARR: It's a funny thing because it - that's experience that came off - I wrote a book a couple of years ago, and I did significant press at the time, and there were two kinds of interviewers. There were ones that would make sort of speeches about what I had done and have a grand theory about what my book was about and many of them quite marvelous and well-thought-through. And then were people who asked simple, direct questions. And almost to a person, the best stories came from the people who asked simple, direct questions. And you'd say, well, that's only logical, except historically, I had been a reporter who was very fond of making speeches and very fond of telling people what their stories were about.

And so that was very sort of hard-won information on my part, that I had to ask and then stop talking and asking people what they think the story is. You know, we're people who just show up and declare ourselves as instant experts on all manner of stories. And we often are only taking a very sort of blunt-force guess about what's going on, and I think it always behooves us just to ask the people, especially if you're aspiring to do something good, what do you think is going on? What do you think this is about?

GROSS: And do you use that question especially when you know there's going to be conflicting points of view on a story, and you're talking to representatives of those different points of view?

CARR: Well, I strive for congruence. And by that, I mean there's an interview near the end of the movie with officials at the Tribune Company. It's far less friendly. It's far more declarative. And I'm telling the person at the other end of the phone what I think the story is about. I don't want to be sort of a poodle dog when I'm out there and a friendly sort of presence in people's lives and then come back and do something that's really mean or aggressive.

And if it's going to be a hard story, one of the things I always say is, this is going to be a really serious story, and I'm asking very serious questions. And it behooves you to think it through and really work on answering and defending yourself because this is not a friendly story. And if they don't engage, I just tell them, well, you know what? You better put the nut-cup on, because this is not going to be pleasant for anyone.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CARR: I worked at a weekly with a lot of young reporters, and I would hear them pouring on the honey on the phone and being real sweet and nice with the people that they talked to. And then they would turn in these stories that were scabrous and really mean. And I said, well, you're just - you're setting this up, so the phone call's going to come to me, not you. And you haven't done these people the privilege of giving them an opportunity to defend themselves. I don't think people who read your work, who are involved as sources, should be surprised.

I often read significant parts of the story to the people that are involved because I don't want to sit up in the middle of the night and wonder whether I was fundamentally unfair to the person, that - I don't want anybody to open up one of my stories and have their nose broken by what they read - although, you know, I do have to say, at the beginning of the week, I wrote a really mean column, and I didn't tell anybody involved. So I guess that's not always true.

GROSS: At the beginning of this week?

CARR: Yeah, I wrote about bonuses...

GROSS: Yeah, you had a story that was headlined "Why Not Occupy Newsrooms?" And you were basically asking, how come there isn't an occupy movement in newspapers? Because newspaper executives are guilty of some of the same things that bank executives are. Make the analogy for us.

CARR: Well, in the instance of Gannett - Gannett is a publicly held company that owns 82 newspapers across America, in towns big and small, dailies and weeklies. And in the past six years, they've gone from 52,000 employees to 32,000 employees. The guy who oversaw it, the CEO, Craig Dubow, when he left, received $37 million in health, compensation and disability benefits. In this instance - and at the Tribune Company, which I also wrote about - the chief executives made choices that resulted in a lot of people getting rolled out of the back of the truck. Now, it was a very challenging environment for newspapers, but I don't think that people should benefit in the tens of millions of dollars for just firing people. There's no innovation there. There's no magic to that, and I don't think that sort of thinking and strategy should be rewarded.

GROSS: So what was different in terms of how you handled this article and how you typically handle articles that are investigative or critical of the organization that you're writing about or the company you're writing about?

CARR: Well, I had done a story a few months ago about Gannett's bonuses, and I spent four days trying to get the company to comment on what they did. And on Sunday night, just before deadline, they said, we're not going to have any comment on these bonuses. And I just said, really? You're a newspaper company. You're a publicly held company. These bonuses are a matter of public record, and you have nothing to say about them. And I just found that appalling. And I think some of that was sort of reflected in the fact that A, I didn't bother to call them, and B, that I was angry after I'd written about their last set of bonuses that they clearly were a life beyond consequence, and they just stepped up and did it again and gave this guy a huge bag of money on the way out the door.

GROSS: We're listening to my 2011 interview with journalist David Carr, who was a media reporter and columnist for The New York Times. We'll hear more of the interview after a break as our end-of-the-decade series continues. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "FOUR ON SIX")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. This week, we're featuring some of our staff's favorite interviews from the decade. Let's get back to my 2011 interview with David Carr, who was a media reporter and columnist for The New York Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: A few years ago, you wrote a very personal memoir about being addicted and recovering from the addictions. And the addictions were coke and crack, and you had alcohol problems, too. The book is called "Night Of The Gun." And, you know, I'm just wondering, like, did The New York Times - when you got your job after you were clean, after you were sober and you got your job with the New York Times, how much did they know about the addiction part of your past? I mean, it's not the kind of thing you put on your resume. (Laughter) But did you talk to them about it?

CARR: I think I did...

GROSS: Did you really?

CARR: ...In terms of, like, my communication to them. I mean, part of - I didn't want there to be any surprises about sort of who I am and what I've done. But what I tried to emphasize is, you know, I was a very low-bottom, poly-addicted crackhead, drunk, whatever you want to call it - number of misdemeanor arrests, violence against all sorts of people. And what I wanted to point out is that since then, you know, I'd been a single parent. I had gotten off of welfare, that I had taken any number of the assignments and done a good job, that I had run newspapers, that I'd done a few things since then.

But still, when I did the book, you know, I went to my boss, Sam Sifton at the time, and he said, I'll walk the book down there, but I think you probably should do it. And I said, well, do you have a pair of tongs or oven mitts or something that I can use to hand it over? Because it was a very - it's kind of a dark book. And when I gave it to him, Bill Keller said, you know what? We don't hire nones (ph). We have no problem with your book. You know, they said they were proud of the book. But...

GROSS: But getting back to them hiring you, you know, before the book existed. They were okay with it? Like, you told them your story, and they had faith that you would remain sober and do a good job.

CARR: Yeah. It's not something that we committed to directly. I mean, I didn't, in fact, remain sober. So - and I don't think that that's part of the contract. I did try drinking again. It didn't go very well. My work never suffered, per se. My work rarely did. It's always the last thing to go. But if you took all of the functioning alcoholics and addicts out of the American economy, you'd be taking out a lot of firepower and a lot of talent. In the main, while I've been at the New York Times, I have been completely sober, highly productive, true to my word, doing my best, like everyone else there, to get it right.

But they don't - I've seen people at the Times tumble and get in personal trouble. And you know what? That place - it's weird, but it will pick you up and accommodate all manner of human frailties because people are pushed to the limit at the place. And when somebody stumbles, it's an incredibly humane place. And I know that sounds gooey and horrible, and I never really needed it or required it, but I've seen - it's like when you're on deadline there and you really can't quite get it done and there's not enough room, and somehow, everyone around you will sort of lift you up and throw you across the goal line. And then you're the one who stands up the next day and puts your arms above your head because you made a touchdown. Everybody there is working very hard to make it better.

GROSS: So this question is probably way too personal. So just...

CARR: I bet not.

GROSS: Well, just tell me if it is because I don't want to be intrusive. For a lot of people who are giving up an addiction, they're encouraged to, like, find a higher power that they can, you know, turn to and believe in, whether it's religion or something else that will function in that way. Was there such a thing for you?

CARR: You know, it's funny you should mention that because I'm in the middle of sort of a struggle with that. And it's not that - I am a churchgoing Catholic, and I do that as a matter of - it's good to stand with my family. It's good that I didn't have to come up with my own creation myth for my children. It's a wonderful group of people that I go to church with, and it's community. It's not really where I find God. And sort of what the accommodation I've reached is a very jerry-rigged one, which is: All along the way, in recovery, I've been helped - without getting into the names of specific groups - by all of these strangers, you know, who get in a room and do a form of group-talk therapy and live by certain rules in their life.

And one of the rules is that you help everyone who needs help. And I think to myself, well, that seems remarkable. And not only is that not a general human impulse, but it's not an impulse of mine. And yet I found myself doing that over and over again. So am I, underneath all things, just a really wonderful, giving person? Or is there a force greater than myself that is leading me to act in ways that are altruistic and not self-interested and lead to the greater good? And so that's - that's sort of as far as I've gotten with the higher power thing, is I'm - you know, I'm kind of a pirate, kind of a thug. I mean, I've done a bunch of terrible things, and yet I'm able to, for the most part, be a decent person. How is that? Do I have some inner strength of character? I think not. I think something else is working on me.

I don't - like, I think it's OK to sort of like have a superstitious belief in God and not really have thought it through. I think it's OK to just - I think there's freedom in allowing for the possibility of it. Like, I don't have a presence. I don't have some idea in my mind of a woman or a man figure or anything like that. But I find the spaces between people, whether I'm making a newspaper with them or in recovery or living with them as family or friends or - I find something really godly in that. I don't have trouble acknowledging that.

GROSS: So you've found something godly, but there isn't a theology that you're following.

CARR: Yeah. I've been watching sort of this debate over Mormonism that's gone on because of the folks that are running for president, people making fun of their theology. And then I think, well, I'm a practicing Catholic. We suggest that - in churches all over the world that there is a metamorphosis of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, which we proceed to eat and drink, which, when you really take a step back, is sort of creepy, right? But that's who I'm running with.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CARR: So I - you know, whether it's the kind of underwear people where or the hats they wear on their head or the turbans or whatever, again, I make no judgment. I find comfort in those traditions.

GROSS: Well, David Carr, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

CARR: It was a pleasure to speak with you, Terry.

GROSS: David Carr recorded in 2011. He died of complications from lung cancer in 2015. Our series of FRESH AIR favorite interviews from the decade will continue tomorrow. After a short break, our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, will choose his word of the year. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHUCHO VALDES'S "OCHUN")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Americans have been aware for several years how easy it is for foreign nations to systematically spread falsehoods and spurious rumors on social media. But it's only recently that we fully appreciated the political ramifications that such campaigns can have. That's what's led FRESH AIR's linguist, Geoff Nunberg, to make his word of the year for 2019 disinformation.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: As always, this year's word of the year candidates came from all over. There were the viral memes like OK Boomer and weird flex but OK. But they won't endure any longer than earlier years' candidates like FOMO and man bun. Quid pro quo had a moment, but the jury's still out on that one. And a surge in dictionary lookups led Merriam Webster to pick nonbinary they. My choice of disinformation needs some explaining. It isn't a new word, just one of the family of names we give to the malignancies that contaminate the public discourse, along with propaganda and, in particular, misinformation and fake news. Each of those last two was chosen as word of the year by some dictionary or organization in 2017.

But over the last couple of years, disinformation has been on a tear. It's 10 times as common in media headlines as it was five years ago, to the point where it's nudged its siblings aside. That rise suggests a basic shift in focus. What troubles us now isn't just the plague of deceptive information on the Internet but the organized campaigns that are spreading the infection. Most of those headlines concern the Russians. There was their weaponization of social media during the 2016 elections, which The New York Times called the Pearl Harbor of the social media age, and the fears it will be repeated next year. There were also the stories about their interference in recent elections in the U.K., Italy and other nations. And most recently, there was the Russian success in planting the conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, rather than Russia, who interfered in our 2016 elections, despite its being debunked by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Disinformation is as old as human conflict. The great Chinese military theoretician Sun Tzu wrote that all warfare is based on deception. But the Russians can take credit for inventing the word itself. The term dezinformatsiya was reputedly coined by no less than Joseph Stalin in the 1920s as the name of the section of the KGB tasked with deceiving enemies and influencing public opinion. Over the decades, that unit disseminated rumors by means of forgeries, moles, front organizations, fake defections and sympathetic fellow travelers, which, by the way, is another term with Russian origin. The Soviets put out that Pope Pius the XII was a Nazi sympathizer and that the CIA had assassinated Kennedy and invented the AIDS virus.

Dezinformatsiya was anglicized to disinformation during the Cold War era and extended to Western intelligence operations. The characters in John le Carre's spy novels are always talking about planting disinformation to deceive the KGB, using the same clandestine techniques the Soviets did. But the advent of social media created a new field of play and a new panoply of tools for diffusing and amplifying disinformation - trolls and troll farms, bots, hacked accounts and microtargeting. The Russians weren't the only ones to see the possibilities. In a recent report called "The Global Disinformation Order," the Oxford Internet Institute identified organized social media campaigns in 70 nations.

Authoritarian regimes use social media domestically to discredit political opponents. A dozen or so nations like Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia use it to influence opinion in foreign nations. Dictionaries typically define disinformation as the dissemination of deliberately false information. And modern disinformation campaigns all make use of the mendacious techniques we associate with the Orwellian propaganda of the totalitarian states of the last century. They generate a deluge of deceptive narratives that some describe as the firehose of falsehoods concocted to glorify a leader or a cause or malign their enemies. But these campaigns are not all lies. They're also aimed at sharpening tribal divisions and sowing confusion or apathy. And a lot of their effort just goes into building out networks of followers. And for those purposes, a true report or even a benign cat photo can sometimes be just as effective as a blatant falsehood. You have to win friends to influence people.

In fact, as the Clemson University researchers Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren point out, a lot of the disinformation produced by the Russians is just spin. And they've taken their tactics from modern public relations and advertising. As Linvill and Warren put it, they're less like Boris and Natasha than like Don Draper. An ad man like Don Draper would've recognized the classic marketing tactic that led the Russians to fabricate the rumors of Ukraine's interference in the 2016 election. You undermine a competitor's product by creating a counternarrative to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt - what marketers call the FUD factor.

But Draper would've marveled at how porous our online discourse was, how easy it was to inject an implausible rumor into its bloodstream. And he would've been astonished at how quickly the rumor would find receptive hosts in public life. Stalin maybe not so much. Call it disinformation or call it computational propaganda or cyber-enabled information warfare, as some have done. The struggle against it is our new forever war. And our vocabulary is having to catch up with it.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll continue our series of interviews featuring staff picks from the decade. We'll hear this year's interview with Howard Stern and our 2010 interview with the late Joan Rivers. I hope you can join us. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Americans have been aware for several years how easy it is for foreign nations to systematically spread falsehoods and spurious rumors on social media. But it's only recently that we fully appreciated the political ramifications that such campaigns can have. That's what's led FRESH AIR's linguist, Geoff Nunberg, to make his word of the year for 2019 disinformation.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: As always, this year's word of the year candidates came from all over. There were the viral memes like OK Boomer and weird flex but OK. But they won't endure any longer than earlier years' candidates like FOMO and man bun. Quid pro quo had a moment, but the jury's still out on that one. And a surge in dictionary lookups led Merriam Webster to pick nonbinary they. My choice of disinformation needs some explaining. It isn't a new word, just one of the family of names we give to the malignancies that contaminate the public discourse, along with propaganda and, in particular, misinformation and fake news. Each of those last two was chosen as word of the year by some dictionary or organization in 2017.

But over the last couple of years, disinformation has been on a tear. It's 10 times as common in media headlines as it was five years ago, to the point where it's nudged its siblings aside. That rise suggests a basic shift in focus. What troubles us now isn't just the plague of deceptive information on the Internet but the organized campaigns that are spreading the infection. Most of those headlines concern the Russians. There was their weaponization of social media during the 2016 elections, which The New York Times called the Pearl Harbor of the social media age, and the fears it will be repeated next year. There were also the stories about their interference in recent elections in the U.K., Italy and other nations. And most recently, there was the Russian success in planting the conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, rather than Russia, who interfered in our 2016 elections, despite its being debunked by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Disinformation is as old as human conflict. The great Chinese military theoretician Sun Tzu wrote that all warfare is based on deception. But the Russians can take credit for inventing the word itself. The term dezinformatsiya was reputedly coined by no less than Joseph Stalin in the 1920s as the name of the section of the KGB tasked with deceiving enemies and influencing public opinion. Over the decades, that unit disseminated rumors by means of forgeries, moles, front organizations, fake defections and sympathetic fellow travelers, which, by the way, is another term with Russian origin. The Soviets put out that Pope Pius the XII was a Nazi sympathizer and that the CIA had assassinated Kennedy and invented the AIDS virus.

Dezinformatsiya was anglicized to disinformation during the Cold War era and extended to Western intelligence operations. The characters in John le Carre's spy novels are always talking about planting disinformation to deceive the KGB, using the same clandestine techniques the Soviets did. But the advent of social media created a new field of play and a new panoply of tools for diffusing and amplifying disinformation - trolls and troll farms, bots, hacked accounts and microtargeting. The Russians weren't the only ones to see the possibilities. In a recent report called "The Global Disinformation Order," the Oxford Internet Institute identified organized social media campaigns in 70 nations.

Authoritarian regimes use social media domestically to discredit political opponents. A dozen or so nations like Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia use it to influence opinion in foreign nations. Dictionaries typically define disinformation as the dissemination of deliberately false information. And modern disinformation campaigns all make use of the mendacious techniques we associate with the Orwellian propaganda of the totalitarian states of the last century. They generate a deluge of deceptive narratives that some describe as the firehose of falsehoods concocted to glorify a leader or a cause or malign their enemies. But these campaigns are not all lies. They're also aimed at sharpening tribal divisions and sowing confusion or apathy. And a lot of their effort just goes into building out networks of followers. And for those purposes, a true report or even a benign cat photo can sometimes be just as effective as a blatant falsehood. You have to win friends to influence people.

In fact, as the Clemson University researchers Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren point out, a lot of the disinformation produced by the Russians is just spin. And they've taken their tactics from modern public relations and advertising. As Linvill and Warren put it, they're less like Boris and Natasha than like Don Draper. An ad man like Don Draper would've recognized the classic marketing tactic that led the Russians to fabricate the rumors of Ukraine's interference in the 2016 election. You undermine a competitor's product by creating a counternarrative to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt - what marketers call the FUD factor.

But Draper would've marveled at how porous our online discourse was, how easy it was to inject an implausible rumor into its bloodstream. And he would've been astonished at how quickly the rumor would find receptive hosts in public life. Stalin maybe not so much. Call it disinformation or call it computational propaganda or cyber-enabled information warfare, as some have done. The struggle against it is our new forever war. And our vocabulary is having to catch up with it.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll continue our series of interviews featuring staff picks from the decade. We'll hear this year's interview with Howard Stern and our 2010 interview with the late Joan Rivers. I hope you can join us. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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