He yelled more than any other boss I’ve ever had. I was not exactly unfamiliar with his tactics. David once told a story about yelling at me over some error in my copy and noticing my face glaze over with a look of recognition. And he said he thought at that moment, “This is not the first time this kid has been in for the treatment.” It was not. My own parents ruled by fear, shame, and expectation. Even his rationales were familiar to me. He would say he was so hard on us because people already have low expectations for the alternative press. “They already think we make shit up,” he’d say, and that meant that we had a higher bar, which is to say, it meant that we had to be twice as good.
That went for reporting and for writing. A friend and fellow writer recalled David editing his copy and finding some clichéd phrase and writing in the margins, “I’m shocked to discover you think this is acceptable language to use at Washington City Paper.” I once got a tip that the people who did evictions were hiring homeless people to do the lifting and carrying. The homeless making people homeless was a perfect Washington City Paper story. “Find them,” David told me. I did not even know where to begin. Do you simply go find some homeless people and say, “Do you do evictions?” Evidently, yes, because that’s what I did, and this is the story I brought back.
What I remember about chasing that story is the fear—the fear of offending, of asking impolite questions, of intruding. But you could not work for City Paper without learning how to walk the streets of D.C., approach people you did not previously know and barrage them with intimate questions. This is an essential skill for any journalist—but it also one of the hardest things to do. But David had no tolerance of our fears, save fear of him. And if we could learn to be as deeply intolerant of our fears as he was, then a thousand glories lay on the other side.
This was represented in David himself, a man who was as effusive in praise as he was damning in condemnation. I still remember stumbling upon him in another editor’s office having just turned in a draft of that eviction story, and David looking up and saying, “We were just here talking about your incredible fucking story.” No one had ever said anything like that to me. I remember my mother calling the office one day to talk to me. And David, in his brusque, brutal way, grabbed the phone from me and said, "I just want you to know that your son is here working his ass off." No one had ever said anything like that to my parents about me. I was a fuck-up. I was a knucklehead. I was going to end up on the corner. I was going to end up in jail. I was going to end up dead.
And then I wasn’t.
David Carr convinced me that, through the constant and forceful application of principle, a young hopper, a fuck-up, a knucklehead, could bring the heavens, the vast heavens, to their knees. The principle was violent and incessant curiosity represented in the craft of narrative argument. That was the principle and craft I employed in writing "The Case for Reparations." That is part of the reason why the George Polk Award, the one with my name on it, belongs to David. But that is not the most significant reason.