February 13, 2015
Guest: David Carr
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. David Carr, the respected and very readable media columnist for The New York Times, died Thursday night at age 58. He had collapsed in The Times newsroom hours after moderating a panel discussion on the documentary âCitizenfourâ with panelists, including the controversial Edward Snowden. Days before, one of Carr's final "Media Equation" columns addressed the controversy surrounding Brian Williams. Noting the celebrity status of the NBC News anchor, Carr wrote, quote, "even young people who wouldn't be caught dead watching the evening news know who Mr. Williams is, which is good until it isn't," unquote.
In 2008, Carr wrote a memoir, which, among other surprises, unveiled his past as a crack cocaine addict. And in 2011, he stole the show as one of the newspaper staffers interviewed in page one, a documentary about The Times media desk. Today we'll feature interviews with David Carr from both of those periods in his life. Carr was also a prolific tweeter. One of his last tweets was about the death of CBS's "60 Minutes" correspondent Bob Simon. It read, RIP Bob Simon, a television storyteller without peer. But when Terry interviewed David Carr in 2011, he admitted being dismissive of Twitter at first.
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DAVID CARR: I really thought Twitter sounded like the dumbest thing in the world. I - there's the name, to begin with. The whole nomenclature of Twitter, tweet, sort of impugns itself. I'm a person who has trouble codifying their thoughts in 800 words, which is sort of a standard length at The New York Times. And the idea that I could communicate anything of value in 140 characters I thought sounded preposterous.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: But...
CARR: But I began to understand that, as a reporter, it was an important listening tool, and that's how I first used it: less as a megaphone and more about listening. And then I realized back when I was the editor of a newspaper, I was a decent headline writer, and that links would carry far more complex information and that annotating those links and putting a little spin on them and sending them out into the world would have significant value.
GROSS: So just one - another thing about how 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?
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...
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? 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 anybody.
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 didn't communicate to them what is coming and that they - that they'll be genuinely surprised. I don't want anybody to open up one of my stories and have their nose broken by what they read.
GROSS: Do you feel like, as a reporter who covers the business of media, that you are reporting on the dismemberment of your own profession?
CARR: No, I think I'm living through a golden age of journalism, actually. I do think that there has been horrible frictional costs, but I think when we look back sort of at what has happened, I look at my backpack that is sitting here, and it contains more sort of journalistic firepower than the entire newsroom that I walked into 30, 40 years ago.
It's connected to the Cloud. I can make digital recordings of everything that I do. I can check in real time if someone's telling me the truth. I have a still camera that takes video that I can upload quickly and seamlessly.
And I think that the ability to sit at your desk and check everything against history and build in context and narrative, it's part of how, you know, newspapers ended up becoming sort of daily magazines, as all the analytics are baked in because the reporters are able to, you know, check stuff as they go. And he or she can just jam it right in there.
Now, the business model has not kept up with that, and the movie "Page One" does a really good job of capturing an incredibly scary time about whether fundamental questions of survival were being asked about The New York Times and other organizations. And did I worry that somewhere in there, when I was doing a big job-cut story, that eventually I would type my own name? Yes, I did. It was really scary for a while. It's less scary now.
Things I'm interested in, and I haven't gotten to them. So it's sort of implicates me, sitting there. And meanwhile, you know, I walk through Times Square and I see messages on the zipper. I go to buy groceries, there's more messages. I ride the elevator up here, there's more messages. And I think that it does sort of paralyze you.
My more sort of persistent concern is that I will become so busy producing media that I won't consume enough of it. So that covering a big story like 9/11 or Katrina, all of those things I've done, when you're in the middle of things and pushing out a lot of information, you really have no idea what's going on, because you have no time to watch or listen or consume. That's my problem at 55 years old. I don't notice it among my younger colleagues.
I can remember when bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces, about the time I was going, maybe we should do a blog post about this, I opened up the media blog that I work on, and Brian Stelter, my colleague, already had 700 words up there. And so...
CARR: ...I'm like, you know, it's like I'm working through Jell-O and he's not.
BIANCULLI: David Carr, speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. Coming up, an earlier interview with the media columnist from 2008. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. On Thursday, David Carr, The New York Times media columnist, died at age 58. In 2008, he spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about Carr's then-new memoir called "The Night Of The Gun." Before becoming a nationally-known newspaper journalist, David Carr spent years as a crack addict who often acted like a thug. When he decided to write his memoir of addiction and recovery, he knew he couldn't trust his own memory to accurately render the story. So he used his reporting skills, conducting 60 interviews and reviewing medical files, legal documents and journals to reconstruct a version of himself he barely recognized.
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Well, David, welcome to Fresh Air. I wonder if you'd begin by giving us a taste of your experience by reading this description of addiction from your book on page 91.
CARR: This is from Chapter 14, "Time Heals, Time Forgets." It begins, (reading) mornings for an addict involve waking up in a room where everything implicates him. Even if there is no piss or vomit - oh blessed be the small wonders - there's the tipped-over bottle, the smashed phone, the bright midday light coming through the rip in the shade that says another day has started without you. Drunks and addicts tend to build nests out of the detritus of their misbegotten lives. It is that ecosystem, all there for the inventory, within 20 seconds of waking, which tends to make an addiction a serial matter. Apart from the progression of the disease, if you wake up in that kind of hell, you might start looking for something to take the edge off. Nothing like the beer goggles and a nice bracing whiff of something to help you reframe your little disaster area. Just a second here. A little hair of the dog - now, that's better. Everything is new again.
DAVIES: Well, let's talk about your story. I mean, you began drinking heavily in college and then traveled around a lot, found your way into journalism in Minneapolis, where much of this story unfolds, and then got into cocaine. Is there a point at which it was clear that this wasn't something recreational, even done occasionally to excess, but something that was really what your life was mostly about?
CARR: You know, it's interesting that you say that Dave, 'cause I don't think that ever occurs to anybody. People bring such monumental denial to the mania of addiction that what is normal keeps changing and morphing until it can accommodate almost anything, which means, yeah, I stayed up till 4 in the morning, but boy, I made it to work. Yes, I got to work and I'm reeking of alcohol, but at least I'm here. Yes, I needed a bump at work to get through the day, but at least I stayed put. And somehow the new normal just keeps setting in and setting in and setting in. And so until there was employment or legal or marital intervention, I never really had epiphanies. The police department in Minneapolis tended to do for me what I could not do for myself, which is slow me down, give me some time sometimes in a holding cell to think about what I was up to.
DAVIES: How many times were you arrested?
CARR: I don't know, a bunch probably. It's all misdemeanor. I picked up one felony. I was felony charged but never convicted. I don't know, in Minneapolis and elsewhere - probably 11, 12, 13 times. The cops there got so tired of seeing me that one guy when I walked in, he looked up and, you know, he saw me and knew I was a frequent flyer and that I had been in there a lot. And he said, well, let me guess, lurking with intent to mope? Which was his way of saying you're just a knock-around guy. You're never going to amount to anything. All you do is float in and out of here. And in the meantime, I was out - when I was out at large, I was working fairly industriously as a reporter and trying hard to excel and did, in fact, do well as a reporter. It's just, every once in a while I was upstairs at the police department, every once in a while I was downstairs where they kept the bad guys.
DAVIES: You know, your addiction went through phases. And it seems that it changed a lot when you went from drinking and snorting powdered cocaine to freebasing and crack. Explain the difference.
CARR: You know, I don't even know how big of an issue crack is these days. I don't know if people are doing it. Back when I was doing it 20 years ago, I think that the issue with crack cocaine and the reason that people end up getting in such profound trouble with it is it provides all of the euphoria and rush of inject-able drugs with none of the consequences. There's no needles, there's no blood. There's no nothing. All you do is what you do with a pipe full of tobacco or a pipe full of marijuana. You put a flame to it and it metastasizes into smoke and you take it into your lungs. In the instance of crack cocaine, you have something that's specifically aimed right at your endorphins and sends the bell - sends a ringer right up to the bell almost immediately. And once you experience that, you think well, I'd like to do that again. The problem is the ringer goes up less and less high each time you do it as your endorphins attenuate. And so that chase sometimes goes on for minutes, days, weeks. And seeking that same result by now is elusive. You're in an endorphin-depleted state and the only thing you can do by ingesting smoke-able cocaine is to sort of get back to level, nothing more. I never really knew anybody who did it more than once or twice who didn't end up in a world of hurt because of it. I don't - I never actually met that social crack user.
DAVIES: Well, you know, I found really compelling your description of what crack users are like distinct from coke users in some way - powdered cocaine users. You said that smoking crack is less of a party and more of a religious ceremony. What's the image there?
CARR: If you think of snorting coke, which I know because I live in New York, people still will take a tude (ph) here and there. They go into the bathroom and they inhale some coke and then come out and resume drinking and dancing or laughing, or whatever they do. That's not the point of the evening. When it comes to crack cocaine, it is the experience. There is only that. It's an indoor activity. It requires equipment. People generally gather in a circle, the pipe is passed from person-to-person. It's, in sort of practical terms, probably equivalent to some Native American ceremonies for passing the pipe around and sharing some ceremonial time, with the exception that everybody around that pipe is going crazy and losing their mind and just waiting for the next hit. Part of the issue with crack is it goes away very quickly so it tends to be a very chronic affair. So you do it and then you do it again, and then you do it again.
DAVIES: And there's not like, excited conversation? It's not like, enhancing, you know, the interaction among the people?
CARR: People mostly keep an eye on the flame. It seems religious in that way, just waiting, biding their time, sort of putting their hands on their thighs and waiting. People might make a remark about the size of a particular hit, but it's not like you're going to talk about the Yankees or the Mets or Obama or McCain. It's just not as compelling as your next turn.
BIANCULLI: David Carr, speaking to Dave Davies in 2008. Carr died Thursday, at age 58. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show, hear some more of his conversation with Terry Gross, and conclude with David Edelstein's review of the new movie "Fifty Shades Of Grey." I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. David Carr, The New York Times media journalist since 2002, died Thursday at age 58. Today we're listening back to two interviews Carr recorded with FRESH AIR. Let's pick up with the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Carr in 2008. At the time, Carr had just published a startlingly unblinking memoir called "The Night Of The Gun," which detailed his past as a crack addict. Carr used his investigative skills as a reporter to retrace his often unsavory past, which made him, in many ways, confront it for the first time.
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DAVIES: Well, David Carr, you were with a number of women in this period of your life, and you were apparently a charming guy. Tell us about Anna, the mother of your twins, what kind of person she was.
CARR: Anna was a smart, tough cookie from northern Minnesota, got a lot of bad breaks in terms of her upbringing. And one of the things - her adaptive characteristic was to get involved in selling drugs. She was very good at it. When I met her she was moving a kilo month of pressed cocaine and she had a weakness for losers, and that would've been me. And she tried to enroll me sort of in the business at hand, and we ended up sort of finding each other in weakness. In other words, I lost my job. I was a very successful award-winning journalist at the time. And she was somebody who was making a lot of money buying and selling drugs to the elite of the city we lived in, in Minneapolis. And probably within a year of getting together we had both lost our respected gigs and were pretty much at bottom. And then I found that Anna was pregnant - pretty clear signal from God that it's time to straighten out some lifestyle issues, but that didn't happen. My kids were born two-and-a-half months premature and were in a neonatal intensive care unit at the University of Minnesota for 30 days. And when they came out, I don't think either Anna or I were capable as parents. I mean, they lived with us, we got by after a fashion. But it was clear after a while that the center would not hold.
DAVIES: And when did you know that you had to do something and get yourself into a program?
CARR: There was this night when Anna was busy. She was out somewhere and I was at home, and I was watching the girls. And they were probably, I don't know, eight or nine months. And I was out of drugs. And I was not the kind of person that would leave them home, but I needed to go somewhere. So they came with me and I left them parked in the car while I went inside for what was supposed to be five minutes and probably turned out to be more like two hours. And when I came out, I didn't really know what I would find in that car, you know? Two babies alone in a crummy part of the city, cold night, tucked in their snow suits. And I opened up the door and I could see their breath and I just - you know, if there's any kind of moment that was when I just said, you know, I'd been a bad husband - I had been married earlier in life. I never married Anna. I'd been a bad sibling. I'd been a bad son. I'd been a bad employee. There was nothing really in my upbringing that suggested it would be OK to be a bad father. I was raised and raised well by wonderful parents. And I just got a clear feeling that I was up to something that God would not easily forgive.
DAVIES: So you left the kids with your parents and made your way into rehab, which was a long road. You point out the importance of time and getting out of it. There's a point where you have 12 rules for recovery - not the, you know the 12 steps that one hears of, but, one of them was to go into a rehab place that you'd never, ever want to go back to. Avoid treatment centers with duck ponds, good food or a record of admitting Britney Spears. What was your rehab center like?
CARR: It's still there - 1025 Portland Avenue. Low bottom, meaning people probably dually diagnosed with what would be called MICD, where they're mentally incompetent, chemically dependent. Most of the place was criminal justice referrals, so it was people coming out of county jails, state prisons. And some of them were gaming and trying to find a way to shorten their sentence. Some of the people were really actually done. But it was like, a house full of 60 knuckleheads. And you know, I don't want to pretend it was Abu Ghraib, but it was a very serious place full of very serious people. And sort of the soft, white boy from the suburbs who used to be a journalist who had self-invented some kind of half-cocked gangster - I didn't get a lot of play there, I've got to say.
DAVIES: You know, I wanted to ask, you know, part of the premise of your book is that a story of addiction and recovery, which as you said has been written many times before...
CARR: And some of it really grand and wonderful, you know? And I tried not to read those books before I got started.
DAVIES: Why not? You wanted to...
CARR: Just because you know, you're sort of living the cliche. It's not enough that you spent so much time with your life wrapped around - you know, your lips wrapped around a bottle or a crack pipe or God knows what. It's - now that you've finally sobered up, why not just shut up about it and get on with it? Why do you have to squeeze something else out of it?
DAVIES: And what's your answer to that?
CARR: My answer is that after 14 years sober, from very low bottom, I sobered up. I got custody of my twins, I got them off welfare. I got cancer - Hodgkin's lymphoma - as a single parent. Survived, prospered, kept my job. Ended up running newspapers, met a wonderful woman, married her, had a wonderful kid. And after 14 years of all these promises sort of piling up around me, I decided to pour whiskey on it and give it a try, give being a suburban drunk a try. And it didn't go very well. It lasted about two-and-a-half years. I got arrested for drunk driving. And about six months after it happened, I really needed to write a book. I had kids going to college. And I thought to myself, you know, for me to do what I did, I've done a lot of forgetting. I don't think - if I ever knew who I was, I had forgotten who I was. And worse things could happen for me - and for the other people who might read this - than for me to really go back and look at what happened. And it's been - it's been a nice thing for my health.
DAVIES: You know, I guess one of the things that I wondered was, when one writes a memoir of addiction and recovery solely from their memory, then they're - as you noted - probably getting some very inaccurate stuff, memories of the version that they wanted to hear, and not remembering things that are simply clouded by their substance abuse. When you do it more thoroughly - as you did - and interview people, and go through documentary evidence, and really try to reconstruct it honestly, do you think the story is fundamentally different? Are there lessons - are there different lessons that you learned from a more...
CARR: Wow, what a cool question. I love that. Because the baseline story is the same, you know? I was normal, then I drank or did drugs, then I lost my mind, then I sobered up, now everything is new again. So, whether you're sitting in your basement typing about that or going and talking to people, here are some things that I found out - one of the things I found out is, it's a tenet of recovery that you must always recover for yourself. Well, I never managed that until I had two sort of defenseless children in my life and they needed parenting. So regardless of what the cliche said, in my own instance I needed to come to grips with, you know, yes I'd like to feed the monster but I'm not willing to destroy children to do it. The other thing is, is recovering narratives are often read in personal heroic terms where you - like, the story I told standing there with the snow suits and deciding well, I'm never going to be this man again? Hey, guess what? My parents were there to take the kids. They put them in temporary foster care with Patrick and Zelda. They looked after them. When I had cancer, my sister came over every single day because I couldn't stand to have anybody else in the house. This whole cliche of the village pulling and lifting the fabric, the fact that we're all in this together, became so manifest in the reporting because when people would talk to me, a lot of times the talk would turn away from me and turn to the people around me - the people who lifted me and pulled me at every single turn. And I think you forget that. I think people who make it to the other side seem to think that they had a moment of clarity, and then everything was made new again. It didn't happen that way.
DAVIES: Well, David Carr, thanks so much for speaking with us.
CARR: It was an absolute pleasure.
BIANCULLI: David Carr, speaking to Dave Davies in 2008. He had just released a provocative memoir called "The Night Of The Gun." Carr died Thursday after collapsing in the Times newsroom at age 58. Coming up, we'll hear more of the interview Terry Gross recorded with Carr in 2011. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's conclude our salute to New York Times media columnist, David Carr, by returning to his 2011 interview with Terry Gross.
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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 "The Night Of The Gun." And you know, I'm just wondering, 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 actually did...
GROSS: Did you really?
CARR: ...In terms of, like, my communication to them. I mean, I didn't want there to be any surprises about sort of who I am and what I've done. 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'd gotten off of welfare, that I had taken any number of assignments and done a good job, that I'd 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 them, Bill Keller said, you know what, we don't hire nuns. We have no problem with your book. You know, they said they were proud of the book.
GROSS: But getting back to them hiring you, you know, before the book existed. They were OK 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've 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 'cause 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. 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 its 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 sort of as far as I've gotten with the higher power thing, as 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.
GROSS: So your voice has a kind of hoarseness...
GROSS: ...A little raspy. Is - was it always that way, or is that related to the drugs that you did back then or to the cancer that you had after that?
CARR: You know, it's a little tough to pin down because I've smoked, on and off all my life, tobacco. So a lot of people who smoke tobacco sound like me. When you smoke cocaine, you're taking in vapors that are coming into your lungs at a really high temperature. And so could that have made a problem? I took - I had Hodgkin's lymphoma, and I took a lot of radiation to the mouth and throat. So could it have been that? I mean, I have - I walk around - and you can see it in the movie "Page One" - I walk around with my neck bent. That's from the muscles sort of getting shot-out by all the radiation. I will tell you something interesting now. I spent a couple weeks working 9/11, you know, working the pile. Just - my job was to cover firemen. I never had a hoarse voice before that.
CARR: Yeah, so I think that's when it declared itself. And it sort of comes and goes based on the amount of fatigue I have. I could have surgery to remove the vocal notes, but I've had a lot of surgeries. I've had a very medicalized life. I have no spleen. I have one kidney. I have no gallbladder. I have half a pancreas. And the idea of sort of willingly allowing people cut into me - I'm probably not for that. I'll just deal with the hoarseness of the voice.
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.
BIANCULLI: Media columnist, David Carr, speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. Carr died Thursday at age 58. Coming up, film critic, David Edelstein, reviews the new movie adaptation of the publishing sensation, "Fifty Shades Of Grey." This is FRESH AIR.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Under the pen name Snowqueens Icedragon, former British television executive E L James wrote a series of stories on the Internet inspired by the "Twilight Saga," stories that became the basis of her bondage-infused novel "50 Shades Of Grey." The first book in her phenomenally best-selling trilogy is now a film, starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: I am not a masochist. That's why I couldn't bring myself, until the day before I saw the movie, to read E L James's S&M romance "50 Shades Of Grey," which began as fanfiction, meaning published online for free, and in a better world would've stayed that way. This is writing so painful it leaves welts. Fortunately, it didn't take long to get the gist. Bookish, virginal narrator Anastasia Steele needs someone to liberate her from her cocoon while the object of her ardor, sleek billionaire Christian Grey, needs someone to liberate him from his need to dominate, which compels him to maintain a so-called playroom filled with whips and machines for doing I don't know what.
Though the film has already been denounced by decency brigades, remove the bondage element and you're left with the stuff of a million corny romances in which good women try to help male control freaks lower their defenses and open themselves up to love. Media sadists have long predicted that the film would be an epic turkey, their hopes stoked by a publicity tour in which stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan basically owned up to loathing each other. The bad news for haters is the movie doesn't stink. The direction by Sam Taylor-Johnson, a woman, is sensitive, at times even elegant. And Dakota Johnson is extraordinary. The biggest surprise is how mild it is. Even more than the book, the film is a powerful affirmation of traditional values. It's "Jane Eyre" with ropes. Anastasia is enlisted by her flu-ridden roommate, a journalist for their college paper, to interview the forbidding Mr. Grey and goes tottering into his high-in-the-skyscraper office. She trips, then rises up to gaze through her blue eyes upon our master of the universe, who is also an Adonis. Or rather, he's supposed to be.
Dornan was cast at the last minute when another actor bolted, and he cuts a less-than-commanding figure. I came to like his earnest, straight-ahead performance, but it's clear he's not sending much heat Johnson's way. And she's having to work herself up in a vacuum. This she does magnificently. She's the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson and has the gift of emotional transparency. You see the cost to her, even in a dumb scene like the one where she wakes up in Christian's hotel bed. She'd gotten drunk at a nightclub and he'd rescued her. And now she asks the shirtless billionaire about, among other things, the first editions he'd sent her of some Thomas Hardy novels.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "50 SHADES OF GREY")
DAKOTA JOHNSON: (As Anastasia Steele) Why am I here, Christian?
JAMIE DORNAN: (As Christian Grey) You're here because I'm incapable of leaving you alone.
JOHNSON: (As Anastasia Steele) Then don't. Why'd you send me those books?
DORNAN: (As Christian Grey) I thought I owed you an apology.
JOHNSON: (As Anastasia Steele) For what?
DORNAN: (As Christian Grey) For letting believe that I - listen to me, I don't do romance. My tastes are very singular. You wouldn't understand.
JOHNSON: (As Anastasia Steele) Enlighten me then.
EDELSTEIN: Before I get to those singular tastes, the most entertaining parts of "50 Shades Of Grey" are the negotiations that proceed their coupling. Christian hands Anastasia a long contract spelling out what can happen in that playroom. And Anastasia strikes out clauses and then announces, after all the back and forth, that she needs to go home and think some more. It's she who has the reins, and her refusal to sign the contract is the key to the film's dramatic and comic power. It's also, alas, the key to its libido-killing running time - my God, it goes on. Nothing about those eventual playroom scenes struck me as particularly shocking, except maybe the preponderance of female frontal nudity and the complete absence of male. More to the point, those who fear "50 Shades Of Grey" will be a commercial for S&M, or the newer, more inclusive acronym BDSM, will find something rather moralistic. Here, even Christian's mindful, spelled-out sex play isn't portrayed as healthy. It's a sign that he's angry, tormented, sick. I doubt the film's actual content will stop talk show hosts from leading squirmy discussions about the social perils of what turns out to be a conventional love story. Here's a better topic for discussion - in a culture where every other movie features a hero racking up a serial killer-worthy body count, it's a film with consensual rough play and a lot of earnest talk that draws the most blood.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On the next FRESH AIR, for President's Day, we revisit the story of two presidents, two political parties and the battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We talk with Todd Purdum, author of the new book "An Idea Whose Time Has Come."
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