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David Carr, Brian Williams and the Question of Forgiveness

Redemption often depends on whether your sins were personal or professional

Before his career at The New York Times, Carr struggled with cocaine addiction. Photo: NightOfTheGun.com

What are we willing to forgive?

In the case of David Carr, some truly horrible things. In fact, you could argue that by the time of his abrupt passing this week, the only one who hadn't forgiven Carr for the darkest hours, days, months and years of his addiction was Carr himself.

Meanwhile, the fate of Brian Williams, a man who by all accounts has lived a personal life above board, remains in question thanks to a falsehood he apparently perpetuated for more than a decade. Escalating skepticism has since left many believing that other anecdotes he's told over the years could be exaggerated or false, and Williams' critics say he may never again be worthy of his audience's trust.

How do we make sense of such a stark contrast in public perception between two journalists? It comes down to a simple question: Whose trust was betrayed? One might think that disappointing your audience would be a lesser crime than endangering the lives of those you love most, but in the world of journalistic integrity, that isn't necessarily the case.

'A Unique Human Being'

Carr lived a hard and harrowing life for many of his 58 years before collapsing Thursday in the newsroom of The New York Times, his 25-year professional home, and dying shortly after. He has since been remembered fondly and eloquently by his peers, his avid readers and his employers.

"His friends at The Times and beyond will remember him as a unique human being—full of life and energy, funny, loyal and lovable," Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. said in the newspaper's obituary. "An irreplaceable talent, he will be missed by everyone who works for The Times and everyone who reads it."

There was also, to be sure, a good deal of discussion about his struggles with cocaine and alcohol, which Carr chronicled in self-eviscerating detail in his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun.

Commendably, The Times' obituary included a section of the book I've always found most chilling—the story of how Carr once left his infant twin daughters in his car on a chilly Minneapolis night while he went into a house to buy crack and get high.

"The twins would sleep, dreaming their little baby dreams where their dad is a nice man, where the car rides end at a playground," Carr wrote in one of his book's most tragic verses.

When he emerged an unknown number of hours later and remembered he'd left his babies—who had already been lucky to survive a drug-poisoned pregnancy and premature birth—unattended in a cold car while he warmed himself with drugs, Carr had an epiphany. They were alive, but he knew he had nearly reached the point beyond which any level of regret is mere words.

"God had looked after the twins, and by proxy me, but I realized at that moment that I was in the midst of a transgression He could not easily forgive," he wrote. "I made a decision never to be that man again."

The Triumphant Myth of Going Straight

Carr's road to recovery was certainly not a straight one. There was to be more suffering and difficulty before he would be truly clean.

But his perseverance was rewarded, not just with a long and acclaimed career but with redemption in the eyes of nearly anyone who knew his name. He always seemed to sneer when summarizing his own journey to sobriety, knowing that in hindsight his story was easy to read as a "Joseph Campbell monomyth in which our hero embraces his road of trials, begins to attain a new Self and hotfoots it back to the normal world."

Since Carr's death, I've been thinking a lot about forgiveness. About whom we forgive, and for what. The depths to which we are willing to watch someone descend, so long as they emerge again, and wiser for it.

It's a question many of us, journalists and viewers alike, have wondered this week about Brian Williams. The NBC Nightly News anchor, for reasons I doubt we'll ever truly understand, claimed to have been aboard a helicopter struck by an Iraq insurgent's RPG in 2003. He wasn't. He apologized for his "mistake" on national TV earlier this month. But it appeased no one, and he has since been suspended for six months.

Williams' transgressions are of a different order than Carr's. Crucially, they are professional failings rather than personal ones. As such, Williams is being demonized by the same critics who would lionize David Carr.

I'm not defending Williams nor saying his suspension was unwarranted. I feel he's lucky to still have a job, even if just on paper. He betrayed his audience's trust and gave critics of his coverage a perfectly valid reason to question anything he has to say.

The Crappy Moments Club

We don't know the full extent of Williams' fabrications. (His embellishments could turn out to be more widespread and damning than first believed.) Still, he falls into a group I like to call the Crappy Moments Club. These aren't the infamous serial plagiarists and liars who seem to build their lives around deception. These are journalists whose fleeting, bone-headed decisions cost them their standing in the industry—and often their careers.

And they rarely get forgiven.

Many of them move on in their careers and sometimes reach impressive heights. But no one will ever see their moments of poor judgment as obstacles they overcame through tenacity and dedication.

Mike Barnicle resigned from the Boston Globe in 1998 over two questionable columns written three years apart. One seemed to lift jokes from George Carlin, while the other referenced a family's struggle with child cancer, which Barnicle couldn't satisfactorily prove had actually happened.

Today, Barnicle is a frequent face on TV news, often filling in for MSNBC hosts. He's done well for himself, but you can bet his obituary one day will make special note of his embarrassing exit from the Globe, and he will not be described as a hero for having overcome it.

Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose both tainted their reputations by lifting passages from other historians' works. Their lapses in judgment (or sloppy moments of research notation, depending on whom you ask) will likewise be permanent scars.

Is There Virtue in Escaping Vice?

Carr took a far different approach than most, ensuring his legacy through brutal, public self-flagellation. He treated his memoir as a relentless investigation, with himself as the subject. He pulled no punches, calling his younger self a "fat thug" who "sold drugs, beat up women and terrified children."

He took ownership of his personal failures and the dangers they created for those around him. His mistakes, however severe, were behind him, he said, and he had emerged a better man (and likely a better journalist) for it.

But should we be so quick to see virtue in the escape from vice?

Many of us—hopefully most of us—make it through our lives without succumbing to addiction or long-running self-destructive behavior. We show restraint and moderation. We behave, mostly, like responsible adults. We aren't praised for it, and we shouldn't be.

To me, if you dig yourself and your loved ones into a hole, then manage to climb out, you're simply back at zero—not stained for life perhaps, but not elevated to piety either. I suppose that's the very definition of forgiveness: allowing someone to balance the ledger of their life choices.

Those who achieve even a fraction of Carr's self-awareness and reflection deserve forgiveness from those who can afford to give it. (For the families of those who become collateral damage in such lives, forgiveness can be a step impossibly far, as addicts know well.)

In the end, David Carr was admired for his work. His failings were well known only because he dragged them into the light himself. And his transparency in dealing with them made it nearly impossible to hold his indiscretions against him.

But what about journalists who violate our trust professionally? What about politicians? Or corporate leaders or celebrities?

What are we willing to forgive? How do we decide which kinds of failures can be bravely overcome and which will cast shadows that linger, even after death?

David Griner is digital managing editor of Adweek. You can follow him on Twitter at @Griner.

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