Bullish on Print

Frank Rich
Stieren Arts
Enrichment Series: Frank Rich
7:30pm Mon, Feb 5
Trinity University
Laurie Auditorium
715 Stadium Dr.
If, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich believes, the Old (formerly) Gray Lady has recovered her pre-Jayson Blair, pre-Judy Miller stature, much of the credit must go to Rich, whose recent book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina, not only tapped into and justified Americans’ mushrooming distrust of the Bush Administration, but functioned as an unofficial mea culpa for the entire paper. Rich, who speaks at Trinity University this week, served as the Times chief drama critic for 13 years before becoming an Op-Ed columnist in 1994. He spoke with the Current by phone.

When I was looking at your bio, I noticed that you started your career in journalism as a co-founder of The Richmond Mercury, a weekly paper.

You want to hear about that?

I do.

It was the place in time, in terms of the history of what I guess you’d call alternative media; it was at the time that the Boston Phoenix and The Real Paper — I went to Harvard — were sort of coming into their own as the kind of paper that would be closer, I suspect, to your paper, a sort of political, cultural, reported city weekly — not the Berkeley Barb or an underground paper on one hand, but really stuff that followed from the tradition of the original Village Voice.

We were determined to do it in Richmond not only because we had ties there, `but` also because it notoriously had two incredibly far-right, essentially racist newspapers in a city that was not the capital of the Confederacy for nothing. So we started this paper that was a mixture of investigative reporting, a certain amount of editorializing, a lot of cultural coverage, but also listings, restaurant coverage, the full gamut of what a lot of weekly newspapers are today. We gave it a shot. I stayed about a year until I got a job that brought me to New York. The paper lasted closer I think to three years and spawned a lot of people that went on in the world, including in journalism, even though it ultimately failed.

If it’s not too much to generalize, do you think the ills that you all founded the paper to address still exist in the mainstream media in a lot of towns?

You know, I think it is a little bit apples and oranges, and I’ll tell you why: I think whatever you wanted to say about the Richmond papers at that time, they were locally owned, locally run, reflected local attitudes, and had their own crew of writers and reporters and so on, and now, of course, the tragedy of many local newspapers in cities of that size, and even bigger cities, is they’ve been hollowed. They’re often sort of bland chain newspapers that don’t have any kind of flavor. So while the flavor of those Richmond papers was what I strongly disagreed with at the time, it’s hard to imagine now a paper in many cities taking strong stands on much if it might hurt their bottom line.

Let’s talk about that specifically in the context of arts criticism. You wre famous for your kind and gentle words and encouragement in the New York theater community; one of the complaints that I hear about our daily, and even about some of the altweeklies, is that they don’t do arts criticism anymore; they just do arts description.

Well, I think that’s a tragic loss because, first of all, what’s exciting about arts criticism for me, whether it’s theater at the Times or writing about movie and television, which I did earlier in my career at various places, is to champion new voices, work that goes against the mainstream and the norm and that is exciting. Essentially, if arts criticism just becomes sort of bland description, it’s pointless except as a form of listings and telling people what hours the museum is open or the performance is at. But to me, some of the high ponts of my career as drama critic were vociferosuly championing works that might be ignored, `or` were often reviled by other critics, whether it be Stephen Sondheim’s Suddenly in the Park with George or `Tony Kushner’s` Angels in America — that was the whole point: To be an advocate. And yes, of course, part of the job, too, is panning stuff that’s egregious, but the excitement of arts criticism is to have strong opinions, and move things forward, and be to an extent a go-between between innovations in art and the audience.

Let’s talk a little bit about the Times reputation. It’s taken a bit of a beating over the past few years, and then of course in the blogosphere that gets amplified. What do you think about where the Times is right now?

I feel that the Times has really bounced back fairly considerably from some really low periods. The Jayson Blair incident is in a weird way not one of the more important ones. The Jayson Blair incident was one junior reporter fabricating stories that for the most part were not major stories. What was interesting about it was that it triggered a revolt in the newsroom having to do with issues of management, and really having nothing to do with Jayson Blair — who, in fact, I never even met.

Much more serious was the Times and other major news organizations not properly questioning the Bush case for going into Iraq. A lot of major news insititutions, including I would say all the major television news organizations, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and other mainstream establishment news outlets, not only did not challenge the Bush argument for war — particulary issues like Weapons of Mass Destruction — but in some cases, including the Times, ran credulous stories that supported the administration’s case that would later turn out to based on completely false and misleading evidence.

Between that failure, and the other things the Jayson Blair case sort of illuminated in the Times newsroom, an enormous reform effort was begun at the Times about everything from sourcing, the use of anonymous sources, how people are hired, how stories are vetted and edited, to having a public ear, an ombudsman, to deal with issues from the public — and I think it’s made a difference. I feel we’ve become a much more aggressive paper without being reckless. For instance, among the stories we broke since coming out of that trough was the NSA wiretapping story, which is a story that besides being an important scoop for our readership and the country at large, has led to a series of actions in Washington, culminating with the administration abandoning, or at least saying they’re abandoning, that system of non-court-approved wiretapping just last week.

What will poor AT&T do?

I don’t know. They’re going to have to start providing good service!

Left out in the cold with their ACLU lawsuit.

I know. So, I really feel it was a very tough time for the paper and I would be the last one to deny it, and I was sufficiently upset about it myself that I wrote about it. But I do feel much, much better about the paper. I have to say I feel it’s really come through that editorial trough to — now it just has to deal with the problems that everyone in print is dealing with about the economic model of running a newspaper in the world of the internet, which is an economic issue rather than an editorial issue. A serious one.

Do you have any thoughts on that?

You know, no one knows the answer. I liken this to when sound came into the movies. There’s a lot of people running around like chickens with their heads cut off in panic — I’m not referring to the Times specifically, but the entire industry. And look, there’s some really grave cutbacks going on, including TIME magazine, which last week — for heaven’s sake, I’m an alumnus of TIME, I worked there in the late 1970s — it closed its Los Angeles bureau, among others.

I just got an email from a woman from the now-former Austin bureau of People.

Right. Both People and TIME closed several bureaus. The Boston Globe announced today that it’s closing foreign bureaus. You see a lot of panic and concern, and understandably so. But no one has the magic bullet for the business model that will work. What I do feel is this: I do think in the end there has to be a market for news that you can rely on, i.e. that’s accurate and well-reported and well-edited, and analysis that’s researched and useful. And sure bloggers can supply some of this, but the truth is, it takes a major news organization, and a very well-financed one, to run a bureau in Baghdad or to do the kind of massive reporting that’s required to expose an Enron scandal or to expose a scandal that’s in the bowels of the government in Washington, and if there’s a market for it there has to a way to support it. I feel the Times is in a very strong position to benefit from that market because evenutally it’s gonna have to be a system where the paper’s not given away for free and the audience pays for it, whether it comes in the form of advertising or whatever. So the Iraq bureau can be paid for, whether it’s by advertising on the website if the whole thing is gravitating toward the web eventually — who knows — or some combination of web and print. It’s an enormous transition and it’s not my problem, I’m not on the business side of the Times, but it’s obviously anxiety-producing for anyone who works in print.

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