David Carr: The People Who Doubt You
February 18, 2015
"Those are your allies. Those are your little secret friends. You keep them close."
The transcript of this speech originally appeared at The Desk: Journalism and Social Media by Matthew Keys.
My name is David Carr, and I’m an alcoholic.
I think it’s cool that you guys have all these drunks and drug addicts and pirates up here talking. It’s the wanna-be rockers that were up here. Sam and Shane, you killed it, it was like a mic drop! Unbelievable! Whoa! Who wants to come up after that? Uh – and you can build my website, by the way.
I’m already ahead of the game. I’ve done one other commencement. It was at N.Y.U., and the riser was about like this one. And in an effort to demonstrate my vitality, I thought I would leap up on the riser, and I caught my toe, and I hit my face really, really hard in front of about 400 people. Two things about that: It’s — it’s embarrassing. And it’s hard to talk when your face hurts that much.
I had already rehearsed coming up and down the steps a few times, but I’m still nervous. And then, one of your classmates — I won’t say which — said most of you guys are going commando under those gowns. And if you’re supposed to imagine your audience naked, it kind of calms me. Makes me feel safe up here.
I’m also very conscious of the fact that if you wanted shimmering pearls of wisdom, great eloquence about the broad sweep of history, you would have picked somebody else, and pointed out that my credentials include taking seven years to get through college.
When I was up for that job in Boston, you know how you always read about people who lied about their resume? I had to call back to the University of Minnesota and say, “I did graduate, didn’t I?”
Those were very complicated times back then.
So I have no Masters, no Ph.D., no nothing. I’ve been to treatment five times, I’ve been arrested for a variety of misdemeanors, one felony, and yet you guys voted me in. I wondered about the vote that put me here but I think it’s a little late for the recount, and I’m assuming that Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto, was busy.
So we’re in this together, for better or worse, because of your vote. I asked the dean for advice. And he said it’s not that big of a deal. He said, “Don’t fall down (I’ve already — unless I fall down leaving), stay away from projectile vomiting, and try not to swear too much.” To which I say, Ed, that’s a pretty high fucking bar.
I don’t — I feel like it’s just, I’m along for the ride, right? This is so much. Your day, and your day. And I’m — as a father whose 17-year-old and wife are at home doing a garage sale to raise money to go out to college. My sympathies are with you guys. They are.
It’s a tremendous sacrifice that brought us here. What a great day for your families. I couldn’t be more excited to be up here with you. But it’s really your day. Congratulations.
I reviewed some of the work of the 51 people sitting up here and it’s an honor to call them colleagues. I am stunned by their ambition, their execution, their willingness to load up a tool belt with every manner of storytelling, and go forth and bring those to the world.
I think the practice of having some old crusty guy come and give you advice is sort of silly. What do I really know of your life and your moment? I don’t even know half the software that you’re working in.
Things have changed in a fundamental way. We talked a lot about that. But just a quick note: My daughter, Erin, is a video journalist. And I spent a lot of time trying to dissuade her from getting involved in our business. She listened carefully, and went the other way. You should do the same today.
My first story that I did was about police brutality. It was a little local weekly, about 30,000 people probably saw it. Erin — same age, 24 years old — went and did a story about a guy who used 3-D printers to make guns to get around federal gun laws, and I sort of head-patted her. I said, “That’s a cute project, that’s a good idea honey.” Think it got 12 million hits on YouTube. I’d like to strangle her.
I’d like to strangle you guys too, but I’m afraid I’ll end up working for you, so I’m going to suck up to you instead.
Your entering an obviously-changed world where the business model is supposedly on the ropes. But the ability to do journalism, to reach audiences, has never been better. I like your odds. I do. I mean, I care about you, but I don’t worry about you. I think you’ll be fine.
The practice methods and varieties of journalist have metastasized. Think of this last year where a lone whistleblower contacted a lone blogger and exposed a massive government intrusion into the lives of Americans. This is an administration that came into office claiming to be the most-transparent in history. Turns out, they’re addicted to secrets, and we know that because of this work that was done.
We came to know that the spooks, the national security apparatus, got to this administration. Secret drone attacks, secret kill lists, secret prosecutions and secret trails. Edward Snowden, working with Glenn Greenwald, Barton Gellman, Laura Poitras, pulled back the blankets on all that. Many others, including my colleagues at the New York Times, advanced that story as well, advancing a new line of inquiry and brought light into secret corners.
They changed history. I don’t know if you guys will, but you have a shot at it.
I never did, myself. I made a few dents along the way. But you have to aim high, you have to start out — you have to articulate your own ambition. If you’re the kind of person who finds the most interesting thing in the world to you is something you don’t know, you’re probably in the right place. If you’re the kind of person who probably reads and watches amazing work, much of it by your colleagues, you’ll probably do that kind of work one day.
Think this is important: If you’re the kind of person who is scared and courageous at the same time, you might end up doing big things.
Don’t let anybody tell you that you should have been involved back in the day, the so-called “Golden Age.” Paul’s right: It wasn’t all that golden. It wasn’t. A lot of those stories sucked.
Right now, you have access to all-known thought about everything you’re going to cover the minute you step up to it. We never had that. We had some guy named Morty who worked in obits who might know a little something about a little something.
On top of that, a bunch of old, crusty white guys who looked a lot and talked a lot like me, they decided what the news was. It’s not really up to us anymore. It’s up to you. It’s up to your audience. Deciding what is important, judging by the work I’ve seen from you guys, is not going to be a problem.
I’ll just tell you a little bit about me. Commencement speakers always seem to get around to it. I was at a commencement in Boston yesterday, and the commencement speaker had a sizzle reel that went about eight minutes. Pretty impressive, really.
My story begins when I was fresh out of school, and a friend of my father’s observed an arrest in which two black suspects — I lived in Minneapolis which was sort of a lot of white people eating white food, snow on the ground so the whole place was white. Not very diverse. And the cops were all white, of course. And as Minneapolis became a more diverse — and I might add a more interesting — community, a kind of siege mentality set in amongst the police.
And a friend of my dad’s — a white guy — was watching two black suspects get arrested. They were handcuffed, they were under control, and he didn’t know what they had done. And the cops continued to thump them after they were already in handcuffs. If you’ve ever been in handcuffs — no need to mention names — you can’t do much when you have a pair of cuffs on, trust me.
So my dad’s buddy stepped up and said, “Hey” — you know, it’s Minnesota — “Gee, golly, you seem to still just be beating the shit out of this mother — in handcuffs.” So the same thing happened to him. That’s what happens to people who speak up.
And I just said to him, “That is outrageous! Somebody should write a story about that!” And my dad just looked at me and said, “I thought that’s what you went to school for? That’s why I’m telling you!”
So I obviously already knew where the police station was. I didn’t know where the records were kept. I didn’t know anything about nothing. It took months, I had no idea what I was doing, but I eventually reported out and sold the story to the local weekly. And it turned out the cops were chronic offenders, that this was a hobby of theirs, state-sponsored violence against other people. They were chronic offenders. They were eventually found out and thrown out.
I loved that. I most loved that when it came out, my name was on the front. I like, went around town to all the recs: There I am, there I am, there I am. It was all I could do to not take a pica ruler and measure. How big is my name here? It all started with that “Somebody should do a story about that.”
I woke up today and, like an open-air — what hotel am I at, Ed? We don’t know. It’s on Shattuck Road down there? Okay, so I’m out at 6:30 in the morning and I’m trying to find a bagel or something and it’s like this open-air mental health ward. And I didn’t have this suit on. I had, like, some bad gym shorts and a sweatshirt. Let me tell you, I fit right in. I’m just walking around and, I’m not kidding, I didn’t get panhandled once. Everybody said, “Hey bro! Sup?”
So those guys are down there with nothing — two sticks and a rock and a sleeping bag, the minimalist mental health services — every day trying to make their way. Somebody should do a story about that. Someone has, and someone will again. But somebody should do a story about that.
Right now, not that many miles away from us, there are a whole generation of bright, young things just like you, and they’re helping massive corporations like Google, Twitter and Facebook figure out how to take our every commercial — every private moment and turn it into a commercial opportunity. As a society, we’ve traded our privacy and independence for a bag full of apps, utilities and functionalities on the web. Most of the time, the services are free, which means, of course, we are the product, it’s been said. Americans need to understand every time they push or send an e-mail, download an app, pick up a cookie while surfing — that when everything is free, there’s a hidden cost, and as I’ve said before, someone should do a story about that.
Right now there are people who are spending enormous amount of times deciding what kind of car to get because they have so much money they don’t know where to put it, but because it’s San Francisco they don’t want to buy a car that’s going to make them look like they’re rich. That’s their real problem, is trying to figure out how do they manage the optics of being wealthy? Very young people, very rich people, driving through — as I pointed out — open-air mental health wards. I think somebody should do a story about that.
Right now, in Oakland, there are people who are suspected, watched and sometimes patted down for what they believe or what they look like, not what they did. That seems wrong. Stories have been done, but I still think somebody should do a story about that.
But that’s enough of me as an assignment editor. You guys have gotten plenty. All I want from you is world peace, economic fairness and I’m going to toss in racial decency. So get on that, please.
Being a journalist — I never feel bad talking to journalism students because it’s a grand, grand caper. You get to leave, go talk to strangers, ask them anything, come back and type up their stories, edit the tape. That’s not going to retire your loans as quickly as it should, and it’s not going to turn you into a person whose worried about what kind of car they should buy. But that’s kind of how it should be. I mean, it beats working. Otherwise, you’d have to get a job — a real one. Think of the people who go to work every day, sweating hatred for what they do. We skip to work. I still do. It’s aghast. So much fun.
I got to go to the Supreme Court not that long ago to hear the Aereo arguments. I was with my editor. It was all I could do not to hold my editor’s hand when we were walking in and say, “It’s so great! God!” I’m not kidding, either.
And I can tell you the thrill does not go away. What I remember is the crackpots who turned out to be right, the supposed thugs who understood justice better than the cops who were arresting them, the little-noted bureaucrat who realized their bosses were not acting in the public interest. More often than not, it’s our sources — as has been pointed out — that show the way.
When I was an editor in Washington, D.C., a woman came to me and said, “I’ve been gun-stalked by this guy for four years. He calls me, he e-mails me, he shows up at my house. I’ve called the Washington police over and over again and they won’t do anything about it.” And I said, “Well, of course, that can’t be true.” I looked at all the police reports, all her personal information, and she was telling me a true story. And of course, somebody should do a story about that, and I started thinking about it, and I thought, you know what? It’s probably this woman. She’s really articulate, really smart, really truthful. So she told an amazing, epic story.
One of the conceits of literary journalism, which is taught so well here and practiced here all over America, is that we’re immersed in certain stories which allow us to reveal greater truths. There’s nothing you can be more immersed in than your own story.
So I tried to give her the pen, and she told a story that was vivid, visceral and, most of all, true. But right before it published, I thought, well what’s this guy going to do when he reads this story about this woman ridiculing him and going after him for what he’s done to her life? Is he going to show up at her apartment and cut her throat as she walks in? Is he going to use the gun that he’s been walking around? I could see he had a handgun permit.
And I looked at her and I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, what are we doing here? Have you really thought this through?” And I made her bring in her sister — she didn’t have a ma or dad — and we went over and over the sort of risk assessment, the threat. And she said, “Look, somebody needs to tell a story about this guy, and I think it’s me.”
So, off we went. The guy got hammered and turned himself in to police. Was convicted for terrorizing this woman’s life. I didn’t know it was going to turn out that way. She didn’t know it was going to turn out that way. But if you tell the truth, generally no harm will come to you.
You can work for a website. You can cover the Oscars. I covered the Oscars for four years, and — it hurt when you said that. It wounded me. I was on that red carpet. I did a lot of video, a lot of blogging. Apparently you didn’t really check it out. Very popular, Ed. You heard what Paul said, we’re not supposed to be borers.
So you can work for a website, you can work for a newspaper, you can sell your things to Frontline, to HBO if you’re lucky. But ultimately, who we work for is the people who tell us their stories. We’re to deliver. We’re sherpas. We’re bystanders to people’s stories.
I should tell you, you know, that whole thing you had going for, Don, on your Master’s project — that fear, that insecurity, the copy won’t align, the video stutters, the audio doesn’t match, the lede sucks. All those things, that stuff never goes away. It just doesn’t. And most student speakers talk about always trying to make it a little better. That’s the whole game. That is the whole thing.
There’s always going to be someone smarter and better than you that should have this job. Like, when I got here and my luggage came down the carousel, and I see the New York Times business card on my luggage, it’s just like that seems weird. As Ed pointed out, that the likes of me would end up working there.
And last week — you know, the New York Times is a very nice place to work most times. But last Wednesday, my boss — who I admire and respect a great deal, Jill Abramson — she got fired, in plain sight. Just fired. She got replaced by Dean Baquet, who’s another journalist that I admire and respect and is great. And we all just stood there and was, like, wow, how did our workplace just turn into an episode of Game of Thrones? There’s like blood everywhere!
And as soon as it started, I got out the notebook, started writing down, took out the iPhone, started recording. And I’m thinking, well somebody’s going to end up having to do a story about it. And so we all meet and gather afterwards — I thought it was important that we tell this story as best we could from within the New York Times. I was pretty sad that that person turned out to be me. I’m serious. It’s like, let me see, I want to do my job but keep my job. Do my job. Keep my job.
This morning — but I realized someone should write a story about that, right? Yeah? And that someone turned out to be me. And this morning at 6:30 I write a Monday media column. My media column is always about the foibles of institutions, how they fail to live up to their goals, how the fall in plain sight. And guess who’s turn it is Monday?
I’m like, again, back in that spot this morning. I type for a living. Let’s see, do my job, keep my job. Do my job, keep my job. Going back and forth. It’s not like somebody’s going to step up to me with a gun and blow my brains out, but there could be some hurt feelings if I tell the truth.
The thing about doing the story in the first place, my sort of explanation, it was a page one story. I’m good at a couple of things, as has been pointed out. I’m not what you’d call a “page one writer.” I don’t have that great authoritative voice. I’m not a super-organized guy. You wouldn’t want to see my raw copy. And, yet, it turned out to be me.
I think it’s important that, in the end, that you rely on — if you think about these projects and your families went and looked at them, it’s like, “How did you do that? How did you do that?” And the big lie is, you didn’t really do it. You had a lot of help. Right? You had collaborators. That everybody who touched it made it a little bit better.
And that’ll never change. The great work is going to emerge from the spaces in-between people.
I don’t want to take an opportunity commencing at such an august institution in not throwing down just some short bits of advice. I mean, you’d do it if you were up here, wouldn’t you? Just a little bit. These are ten bits of graduation advice you won’t see on any BuzzFeed listicle.
Remember my credentials, though. I was on welfare. I became dependent on the state for both food and medical treatments. I became a single parent at a time when nobody would trust me with a ficus plant. Other than that, I’ve been sort of a model citizen. So take what applies, and leave the rest, that’s what I’m saying.
Right now, in your class, I know you guys are all having your kumbaya moment and you’re hugging each other and saying how great you all are. But there are gunners, who are really just heads and shoulders above everybody, and they’re bound for glory. You know what? They’re not the ones that are going to change the world. It’s somebody that was underestimated. It’s somebody that you do not know that’s really going to kill it. I guarantee it. I guarantee it as somebody who has worked with young people. And you know what? Maybe you’re that person. I just want to say.
This has been a theme, and I just want to echo, do what’s in front of you. When you leave school, you’ve got your loans weighing down on you, you’ve got parents saying “What the hell are you going to do with all this?” Just do what is in front of you. Don’t worry about the plot to take over the world. Just do what is in front of you, and do it well. I think that if you concentrate on your plot to take over the world you’re going to miss things.
Journalism is like housekeeping. It’s a series of small, discrete acts performed over and over. It’s really the little things that make it better. So don’t think about the broad sweep of your journalism. Just do a good job on what’s in front of you. Working on your grand plan is like shoveling snow that hasn’t fallen yet. Just do the next right thing.
I think you should be a worker among workers. I say that because we’re in a brand of narcissism and personal brand. Don’t worry about branding yourself, other than not being naked on your social feeds. I don’t think it’s really important to work a lot on brand development. I believe in social media engagement, and I’ve got a little problem with Twitter as Ed points out. It’s more important that you fit in before you stick out, that’s what I’m saying.
Number five is the mom rule. Don’t do anything you couldn’t explain to your ma. All these big, ethical conundrums where — Ed and me will run a three-day symposium on ethics, when in fact, if you can’t explain what you’re up to with your mother without her saying, “Honey that seems a little naughty to me, what you’re doing. It seems a little bad, that isn’t nice.” Don’t do it. Don’t go near it. Use the mom rule. Call her up. She’s a great resource.
Don’t just do what you’re good at — that’s number six. If you stay in your comfort zone, you’ll never know what you’re capable of. As has been pointed out, you need to learn to experience frustration, and you need to experience that frustration as a teachable moment, and you need to humble yourself and ask for help. Can you help me build your website? Yes, you can.
Being a journalist is permission for life time learning. Don’t be a know-it-all. Ask the people around you.
Number seven is, be present. I don’t want to go all Oprah on you. So many people spend time like their phone right now is burning a hole in their pocket. Like, who’s on there? What are they talking about? And you know what’s going on when you’re thinking about that? Your whole life. Your whole life is going on.
I can’t tell you the times I’ve gone to some extraordinary event where some big throbbing brain is talking. Everybody’s walking around like this. They never look up. And it’s like, if your head is in your phone, the scenery never changes. So don’t worry about documenting the moment. Experience the moment.
I have close to half a million followers on Twitter, but the person who needs to know what I’m doing is me. Here I stand. This is what I’m doing. I got some pictures earlier, and I might tweet them out later, but Twitter isn’t waiting to see what I think. I need to experience this extraordinary moment as it unfolds, and maybe later on I’ll put a photo on Facebook or tweet something out.
Look who you’re speaking to. Get your face out of your phone. Do not be a bystander in your own life. You’ll miss everything.
You should take responsibility for, not just the good stuff, but the bad stuff. I have noticed in leadership, in covering people over and over, it’s the people who are capable of taking ownership over failure and apologizing very directly for their shortcomings that succeed.
We’re all broken, in one way or another. To pretend or expect otherwise is stupid. And when you come up short, just say so, don’t make excuses. Excuses — they explain everything and they excuse nothing. Just be honest about what you did wrong, take ownership, and resolve to do better.
I think this is very important, number nine, is to be honest. This is a tactical approach these days. People always say, “I love that thing you’ve got where you just say whatever’s on your mind. You just come right out with it. It’s like, you know, the truth.” It’s like, well, that’s not really a tactic. That’s a way of living. That’s a way of being.
When you’re honest with someone, when the door opens and you have to have a difficult conversation, just walk through it and have the difficult conversation. Show the people in front of you the respect to be honest with them.
One of the things I hate about being in California is you guys always — when you talk, you sound like you’re agreeing with each other. You’re not! You’re having — oh I totally hear what you’re saying and I’m sure we can work with that. We obviously gotta loop in some other — and it’s like, no, you’re wrong, I’m right, here’s why.
When you develop this gimmick, this reputation for telling the truth, people tend to listen to what you have to say.
And last thing is, don’t be afraid to be ambitious. I’m living a pipe dream, and I’m living it because I wanted it. I wanted it really badly. I was 34 years old, washed out of my profession, on welfare, terrible reputation, single parent, and I just met the woman who would be my wife. And she said, “Where do you see yourself five years from now?” I said, “Well, I want to be figure on the national media scene.” And she said, “Well honey, you’re unemployed and you’re on welfare now.” I know! I’m just trying to articulate a goal.
The other thing I see is the people who doubt you, like you’re gonna get out of here and you’re gonna have friends who work for Morgan Stanley or whoever they working for, they’re working for a hot dot-com. And they say, well, good luck with that, you’re going to sink below your waist. Those are your friends, the people who doubt you. Because you’re going to make fools out of them.
I often think of the people who never thought I would do anything. Those are your allies. Those are your little secret friends. You keep them close.
I think that what’s important — I was on a panel with Gay Talese, the great New York Times journalist, great narrative journalist. And he was, people were asking him about the great age of journalism. We’re Boswells. We sit in a cubicle and we write about people who write. That we end up in this meta, crazy place where we don’t have anything original, we’re just putting a little topspin on everything that’s going by.
And the great Gay Talese said, we are outside people. We leave, we find people more interesting than us, and we come back and we tell their stories.
Right now, everything looks impossible. Think back when you applied to be here. How many bodies did you crawl over to get here, for one thing? You’re extraordinary just by getting in here. And now you made it to the end — improbably, not everyone probably did, but you’re here. You’re standing here. So when you see the big incline ahead of us, just keep in mind these last two years. You totally beat the odds, and you fucking landed it. You’re here.
Odds against you, here you stand. Grads of the Berkeley School of Journalism. Resolve to be worthy of that. Resolve to do important things with that. Be grateful for the good things that have come your way.
This small group before you, ladies and gentlemen, I’m sure will make a big dent in this world. Maybe somebody should write a story about that.
My deepest congratulations to you, the family; you, the faculty; but most of all, you guys. I’m proud of you and I don’t even know you.