I’m a little reluctant to take a stab at this, but it’s a topic that’s important to me and the timing feels as appropriate as it’s ever going to be.
As has been well documented, the death of David Carr last week was a blow for journalism in general and media criticism in particular. But the greater loss to those of us who live and breathe this work, I believe, is that journalism is without one of its great mentors.
To be clear, I’m not among those so fortunate to have called him a mentor. But many wildly talented people — folks he found, nurtured or both — are. And in reading their many tributes this week, one especially stands out: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “King David” in The Atlantic.
Two passages in particular stuck with me:
Carr was a master at activating the journalistic imagination. He was constantly imploring his writers—many of us under 25—to do something different, to tell stories differently, to break the form. He would have stories from Esquire or The New Yorker photocopied. He would distribute these photocopies to his writers, like the blueprints of imperial-army weaponry, and charge us, his rag-tag militia, with the task of reverse engineering. Then he would assemble us around a long table in the conference room, and quiz us on what, precisely, we’d gleaned from the future-tech of our enemies, and what of it we might use to turn the tide in the great war.
It has been said, repeatedly, that David was a tireless advocate of writers of color, of writers who were women, and of young writers of all tribes. This is highly unusual. Journalism eats its young. (Emphasis mine.) Editors tell young writers that they aren’t good enough to cover their declared interest. Editors introduce errors into the copy of young writers and force them to take the fall. Editors pin young writers under other editors whom they know to be bad at their job. Editors order young writers to cover beats and then shop their jobs behind their backs. Editors decide to fire young writers, and lacking the moral courage to do the deed themselves, send in their underlings. Editors reject pitches from young writers by telling them that they like the idea, but don’t think their byline is famous enough. Editors allow older black editors to tell young black writers that they are not writing black enough. Some of these editors end up working in public relations. Some of them become voting-rights activists. Some of them are hired by universities to have their tenured years subsidized by aspiring young writers.
All of that happened to me. And I know that I am not alone, that I am just the tip of what happens to young writers out there. And I know that even I, who am no longer a young writer, do not always wear my best face for young writers. And among the many things I am taking from David’s death is to be better with young writers, and young people in general. Because every single time some editor shoved me down, David picked me back up. …
I am not — nor ever will be — in the same journalistic orbit with the likes of Carr or Coates. I am, however, the grateful beneficiary of the basic gift Coates’ piece explores: The amazing power of mentoring and the difference it can make in people’s lives.
I was the beneficiary of that here at OU from my original mentor in this business, Jack Willis.
Which led me to the Wichita Eagle, where I got it from the likes of Jann Nyffeler and Michael Roehrman and Mark Barnett.
Which led me to Crazy Horse, where I got it from Jack Marsh. And to Poynter, where I got it from Rob King. And to Maynard, where I got it from Evelyn Hsu. And to to NAA, where I got it from the late Ken Bunting. And where I still get it from Chris Hendricks.
In each instance, these talented folks who have accomplished so much in their individual careers took a moment — or take ongoing moments — to give back in some setting, in some way, to the next generation. And so many of us in the next generation are better for it.
That’s what Carr so clearly did so effectively for so many.
And — again, while I’m not in his galaxy — that’s the beauty of my job now in each and every day.
I get to attempt to repay this life-altering generosity.
I had a few folks in my old job at The Oregonian with whom I had such a relationship, and I’m ever grateful for those ties. But the majority of my job at OU now is to find and cultivate that talent, to have their backs through all endeavors and to do what we can to “turn the tide in the great war.” To protect, encourage and uplift the young. To help them begin to fulfill to their potential, through the inevitable disappointments as well as the exhilaration of our shared work.
And what a privilege it is.