The Passing of Two First-Rate Journalists

February 13, 2015

In the course of slightly more than 24 hours two first-rate journalists died in New York City. Bob Simon of CBS News died in a horrific car crash on the West Side of Manhattan on Wednesday, February 11. And on Thursday evening David Carr collapsed and died in the New York Times newsroom. (Obits are from the Times, by Ashley Southall and Bruce Weber and Ms. Southall, respectively.)

Mr. Simon was on 60 Minutes for almost 20 years. Earlier, he was a war correspondent in Vietnam and several other hot spots. In 1991, while he was covering the Gulf War, he was captured by the Iraqi Army and held for 40 days. He recounted his being a prisoner in 40 Days.

Mr. Carr focused on the media as a critic/commenter for the Times. He wrote for the Times for more than a dozen years, also offering movie reviews and cultural observations. He was also the “star” of Page One: Inside the New York Times, if a documentary about a newspaper can have a star. And, if you’ve seen this terrific movie, or if you’ve seen Mr. Carr on television, you know just how funny and delightful he was.

Like Mr. Simon—who many only know from 60 Minutes, and does anyone watch 60 Minutes anymore?—Mr. Carr has a back story. He was a crack addict. His story can be read in his memoir, The Night of the Gun.

Right now everyone is all wrapped up in the Brian Williams story. (In fact, Mr. Carr’s penultimate piece for his regular Times column, The Media Equation, was Brian Williams, Retreading Memories from a Perch Too Public.) It’s easy, without lots of thought, to read about Mr. Williams’ travails and think ill of journalism and journalists. In reality, however, these people keep us informed. More importantly, their presence reminds the powerful that we’re all watching.

Without doubt, power has been aggregating in a smaller and smaller number of people. And it’s easy, in those circumstances, to focus on how the watchdogs have failed. On the other hand, and for me, there’s the counterfactual: where would we be if we did not have the opportunity, through journalistic endeavors, to keep an eye on everything? (And if this abstract concept tests you, think about our world if two reporters had not happened on and followed the break-in at the Watergate complex on June 17, 1992. And if a major newspaper had not backed them up.)

Journalism aside, there’s another aspect of these two untimely deaths worth noting. Mr. Simon put himself in harm’s way, for real, for decades. (As a Jewish reporter working for CBS News, it’s hard to imagine that, if he was captured today, he would ever be released.) Mr. Carr lived a life, as a young man, that many do not survive. Yet, Mr. Simon died because of what appears to be the recklessness of a limo driver, and Mr. Carr died at work, suddenly.

Without being too maudlin, these two deaths remind me that we control not very much in our lives. The unexpected matters greatly. And, we’re not here for very long. Psalm 90 tells us “the days of our lives are three score and ten.” Mr. Simon got his and a few more, while Mr. Carr came up well short. Regardless, 70 years is not so very long, and even a few more leaves us with not much time.

Mr. Carr concluded his memoir aptly, writing:

I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.

For Mr. Carr and Mr. Simon, the lives they lived enriched us greatly. Deserved or not, their capers ended too soon.

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