May 18, 2020

Flashback: Rich Media

When I first arrived in New York City 15 years ago I didn't land a full-time job right away—it took me more than a year before I landed one writing web features for TDF—but among my freelance gigs was writing previews for a program company called Encore Magazine, which had accounts with both BAM in Brooklyn and UCLA Live (and still owes me money for some of my work, if memory serves). For that outlet I got to talk to Kronos Quartet's David Harrington, Sydney Theatre Company director Robyn Nevin, Marianne Weems of the Builders Association, playwright Rinne Groff.

I also found myself interviewing then-NY Times critic Frank Rich, who had hung up the theater beat a dozen years before to become a popular op-ed writer, and was doing a public appearances tour that included UCLA. Minus the contemporary references to Bush and Jayson Blair, it feels like much of his critique—of the dumbing down of media, alternative facts, etc.—could have been printed yesterday. As I republish that interview here, I've bolded one paragraph that jumped out at me now, about the response of artists in hard times. I think you'll see why.

(I will only add that though this interview was conducted quickly over the phone, Rich graciously wrote me a thank you note, and years later when I was flailing a bit, agreed to meet with me and give me some career advice. He told me I should try to diversify my coverage—write about anything other than theater, if I could, just to expand my options. Oops!)

Without further ado...

Encore Magazine, November 2005
by Rob Kendt

A critic is not always critical. Even though his 13-year reign as The New York Times' chief drama critic earned him the unaffectionate appellation "The Butcher of Broadway," Frank Rich was as fervent a champion—of Tony Kushner, Stephen Sondheim, Michael Bennett, John Guare, Richard Greenberg, among many others—as he was a scourge.

These days, however, Rich is very much a critic, in that word's other, more polemical connotation: As an op-ed columnist for the Times, he has used his bully pulpit to excoriate the country's cultural and political right wing, whether it was ganging up on President Clinton, politicizing arts funding, getting behind a Biblical movie with ostensibly anti-Semitic sympathies (The Passion of the Christ), or, most recently, taking a nation to war on faulty intelligence. As such Rich has joined an anti-Bush Administration chorus at the Times that includes Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, and Maureen Dowd.

At his upcoming talk at UCLA Live, Rich is likely to touch on these issues, not to mention on the topic of the theater in America, on which he still keeps an eye. But his central theme, he said recently, will be on the radically evolving media landscape and what it means for American democracy.

"I'm going to talk a lot about the way the media culture has changed, to create an alternative vision of reality that doesn't correspond to reality as we know it," Rich said, previewing his talk. From cable news to the Internet, a plethora of outlets now delivers news and entertainment in such a feverish cycle that the well-established journalistic practices of thorough and sustained reporting, Rich feels, are being ignored or compromised.

Of course, the response of many conservative bloggers, not to mention a network like Fox News, is that they are simply countering the disguised "liberal" bias of the mainstream media with their own undisguised perspective.

"I don’t buy the premise," Rich replied. "Obviously The New York Times and LA Times have left-of-center editorial boards; the Wall Street Journal has a conservative editorial page; Washington Post has a centrist editorial page. But reporting is really separate in those organizations. It's crucial to me that news organizations try to stick to reporting—always fallible, but still objective reporting. I'm less concerned about the seeming and somewhat fake conflict between liberal and conservative media than between news media that try to give you objective reporting, and another kind of media, which overheats the atmosphere, turning news into entertainment."

He admits, of course, that "there's always been an entertainment aspect to news. As George Clooney's film Good Night, and Good Luck shows, when Edward R. Murrow wasn't going after McCarthy, he was interviewing Liberace. But that kind of dumbing down has been ratcheted up in the past decade by the explosion of all kinds of electronic media."

"Weapons of mass distraction," Rich called the products of this new media marketplace, giving credit for the pun to "one of my favorite writers from L.A., Larry Gelbart." That phrase implies a level of intention. Does he think there's a conscious attempt by media companies to keep audiences and readers so distracted by tabloid news, celebrity titillation, and political shouting matches that they never ask more serious questions of their elected leaders? Or is this just a case of untrammeled media supply meeting insatiable lowest-common-denominator demand, which happens to converge with the wishes of the powerful to remain unaccountable?

"The jury is out," Rich said. "I would argue it's probably a bit of both. But convergence is the more likely scenario. The consolidation of the media plays a role, and we're still learning to what extent the interest of media companies determines this."

Rich works for a media company that has sustained some blows to its integrity, from the Jayson Blair scandal to the Judith Miller saga. More recently, the Times' introduction of TimeSelect, a paid subscription service that charges $7.95 a month or $49.95 a year for op-eds that were formerly available for free, including Rich's, has generated its share of controversy.

"TimeSelect was a business decision—no writer was consulted on that," Rich said. "It's way too early to tell whether it's successful or not. I approve of the principle. Organizations like The New York Times, which spend an extraordinary amount of money on news reporting, have to figure out a way to pay for that. If the Times can't have any income, then we'll just have bloggers. There's nothing wrong with blogs, but on the other hand if we don't have extensive reporting, we're not doing our job."

One medium that consistently rises to the occasion despite long financial odds is the theater. Even on the heavily commercialized and corporatized Broadway circuit, losing money is the norm, not the exception. It's no surprise, then, that the stage is still one place that alternative voices emerge.

"If you look at history of American theater, it has always—more perhaps than any other form in America—been activist at times of national trauma," Rich said. "In the 1930s, during the Depression, the Group Theatre and Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre did very political theatre, not only about the economic situation but about race and the rise and fascism. And way before Hollywood started doing it, issues like Vietnam were raised on Broadway. It happened again with the AIDS epidemic, which was particularly traumatic for the theatre. That was one of the things I noticed when I started reviewing theater: The people I covered were literally dying, and the theater responded."

Now, with another unpopular war in the headlines, theater is responding with everything from the Off-Broadway revue Bush Is Bad to David Hare's Iraq-themed Stuff Happens. One reason for the proliferation of topical theater is practical: "The theater has less of a development process. You can pull the trigger faster with a play than you can by making a movie or writing a novel."

The other reason is one this professional opinion shaper can admire unreservedly.

"In none of these periods has the theater changed the world," Rich said. "What's moving about it is that theater people tried to use it to change the world. That impulse seems not to die."

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