The Collegian
Tuesday, August 09, 2022

NYTimes Op-Ed columnist to discuss media and politics

There are those on the political left who daily spew out partisan rhetoric in the national media during endless cycles of cable news programs, in newspapers, on radio and online. And there are those on the ideological right who do the same.

But then there is Frank Rich, Sunday Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times. By week's end Rich manages to offer a breath of fresh air and a cogent perspective on the cross between politics and culture.

Rich was once infamously known as "The Butcher of Broadway" for his critical reviews of Broadway shows while he was the theater critic for The Times. He continues to offer much of the same blistering commentary for millions of readers each Sunday, opining on such subjects as Bush administration and the state of the national news media -- insights he will share with the University of Richmond community Nov. 9 and 10, just days after the election.

In an e-mail interview Oct. 11, Rich said he would focus much of his discussion on the media, news and politics, including the history of media culture and where it's moving. But undoubtedly, the theme of his talk will be shaped by the election's outcome.

"The American political system is in terrible shape, poisoned by big money and driven by the partisan anger stoked by eight years of hard-line (and unsuccessful) Bush-Cheney-Rove ideological rule," he wrote in the e-mail. "We need a vibrant two-party system with fresh ideas and leaders."

While Democrats may well be treading down that path, he said the Republican Party was imploding, lacking leadership and ideas, and had a recent history of "astonishing corruption."

"It is up to post-boomer generations to help dig us out of this ditch," he wrote, "and I strongly believe that many younger Americans, liberal and conservative alike, are motivated to do so by an idealistic belief that our biggest challenges, starting with economic and environmental renewal, must be met urgently, for the good of all."

Below are responses to other questions The Collegian reporter asked him:

The Collegian: How do you feel about the youth vote during this election?

Rich: We won't know until Election Day what the youth turnout will be. Many old Washington hands -- Cokie Roberts of ABC News, for instance -- are on the record saying that young people won't turn out in great numbers, as in other recent elections. But the primaries and caucus states told us otherwise. My own hunch -- based on anecdotal evidence -- is that young people are highly engaged in this campaign and will make a significant difference on Nov. 4.

I think McCain has held on as long as he has because of his image (once accurate) as an independent, iconoclastic, "non-Republican" Republican. This appealed to independents, as it always has. But once voters got to know Palin, many of them they did find the choice impetuous and reckless. McCain's manifestly inadequate and stunt-driven response to the economic crisis confirmed the impression of unsteadiness. Most recently, his campaign's over-the-top smears of Obama drove away more independents and, I suspect, some Republicans.

C: Is this presidential race Barack Obama's to lose? And if so, how can the Democrats lose it?

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R: Anything can happen in politics. At this moment in early October -- after a stock market crash, just as Palin's ethical transgressions in Alaska have been made official -- it is certainly Obama's to lose. But my guess is that many are betting now not on who will win but on the size of the margin. That said, there are still unpredictable events that could change the game with almost four weeks out - perhaps not actions by the Democrats so much at this point (though there's still one debate to go) as events in the world.

C: You're a frequent critic of the media. How would you grade the media's performance this election season compared to election years past? Is it even fair to compare given the rapid transformation of the news media over the past four years?

R: Yes, the media have changed a great deal in four years. In 2004, there was no YouTube. That said, the mainstream media, TV and print, which still do dominate (whether their content is consumed on paper, on TV or online), have often done an inadequate job this year, but not universally. Many bloviators, especially but not exclusively on cable, have gotten almost everything wrong: They told us that no white voters would vote for Obama; that Hillary Clinton was inevitable; that black voters would remain loyal to the Clintons through the primary process; that Sarah Palin was a brilliant move ... and I could go on. Is this a worse or better performance than past elections? I'm not sure. But I fear too often that the press that fell for the White House propaganda that took us into Iraq five years ago is still easily taken in by politicians' spin and the Beltway's conventional wisdom.

C: Do you think our democracy will survive, given the widespread corruption in Washington, viral cynicism and the lack of government trust among people? Is the country in a state of crisis that it can dig itself out of?

R: I'm congenitally against predicting the future. That said, America has a long history of resilience, and as bad as things are now, I remain hopeful based on our history. We've gotten through the Civil War, the Great Depression and the racial and Vietnam cataclysms of the 1960s, and I want to believe we'll get through this. How? Leadership, leadership, leadership -- both in the public and private sectors -- to generate the ideas and inspire the national mobilization that are essential if our country is to restore itself both at home and abroad.

C: Whom do you admire and why?

R: I admire those who selflessly take on the big battles -- generally speaking, not those in power, but leaders and advocates of all kinds (including some politicians, lawyers and even journalists!) who fight for those who don't have power. I admire scientists, doctors, philanthropists and thinkers who devote their lives to the public good, and I am in awe of the bravery of many artists of all varieties.

C: Who or what has had the strongest influence on you?

R: My mother, who pushed me toward reading and writing and instilled in me a gut-level American belief in justice for all. Writers of all types, and too many to mention, from great American novelists like Twain, Melville, James, Fitzgerald, Baldwin and Roth to playwrights like Williams, O'Neill, Miller, Tony Kushner and August Wilson to songwriters like Bob Dylan and Stephen Sondheim to journalists and critics like Dwight Macdonald, Norman Mailer, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Robert Caro, Hunter Thompson, I.F. Stone and many others too countless to mention.

C: As a journalist for The New York Times, what would you consider the most important trait for a great writer to have? Furthermore, why be a writer?

R: There is no real answer to the first question. It depends on the genre of writing. But being truthful -- which means never distorting reality and never diluting your own views -- comes first no matter what you are doing. That alone can't make a writer "great," but great writing begins with uncompromising honesty.

The only reason to be a writer is because you are driven to be one. You have something to say and you are compelled to express it in the most articulate language you can muster. It is a hard profession, highly competitive and with rare financial rewards, so there's no reason to do it unless you are compelled to do so by your own creative passions.

C: What can The New York Times and other national newspapers do to survive a rapid media transition?

R: You tell me! No, seriously, we know the future is the Web in all its manifestations and points of delivery, and we know from our wild growth of readership there, and the growing depth of our site, that however rocky the economic road in the time of transition, the Times' long-term prospects are good. I can't speak for the other national newspapers, however.

C: What are the best and worst things about being a columnist for The New York Times?

R: One and the same: You are read by a huge and highly informed readership, a wonderful boon to any writer. That huge and highly informed readership is highly discriminating, and it demands the very best you can do, every time out. The satisfactions of the job are many; the work is rigorous and never-ending.

Contact staff reporter dan.petty@richmond.edu

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