The State of Opinion Writing: An Interview with Frank Rich

Frank Rich is Writer-at-Large for New York Magazine, a position he started in 2011 after a 17-year tenure as an opinion columnist at the New York Times. He is also the executive producer of two projects on HBO: the comedy series Veep, and a documentary on Stephen Sondheim. From 1980 to 1993 he was the Times’ chief drama critic, a job he was revered and feared for, often determining the success of a Broadway debut. He was also the first writer to hold the dual title of op-ed columnist for the Times and senior writer for the New York Times Magazine. He recently sat down with the Gate to discuss Nate Silver, the state of opinion writing, and the misuse of the word “narrative.”

The Gate: You studied literature in college and were the theater critic for the New York Times for many years. Did those experiences give you a vocabulary that avoids the platitudes of political discourse?

Frank Rich: I really think so. Obviously that’s my inclination and my background, but I’ve often felt that the fact that I understand how the make-believe of theater works allows me to see through it better when it’s being practiced by people in power. If you know what a play looks like, you may recognize it in the [George W. Bush] Mission Accomplished [banner]. You recognize those things if you have a trained eye. In the case of the Bush administration there was so much subterfuge and artifice…I often think of Paul Krugman, who was my colleague at the Times: he discovered it was fake by looking at the numbers, because that’s his training as an economist. I found it was fake from my training in theater and narrative and fiction.

Gate: You’ve encountered actual “narratives” and “stories” for many years. Are you alarmed by the way journalists today have turned these terms into buzzwords?

Rich: [Laughs] You’re going to hear Monica Lewinsky saying, “I want to take control of my narrative.” As always when words like this come into common use, they’re sort of stripped of all meaning, and many people who use the word “narrative” don’t really know what a narrative is. It’s not a narrative in the sense of Dickens.

Gate: Another buzzword in journalism is “explaining.” Is there an important difference people miss between explaining something and arguing something?

Rich: In the old Times rubric, a column would be an “opinion,” and news analysis would be an “explainer.” They used to call it an “explainer” before it became a vogue term…Take the Times as a perfect example: this “Upshot,” the data-driven thing they’ve created, which looks very promising. It’s what used to be called an “explainer” 30 years ago at the Times when I started there…They’re just two different things, and they complement each other, and I think they’re both valuable if they’re done well. One doesn’t drive out the other. People who care about the news and care about information often want both.

Gate: What influence did studying literature have on your transition to writing about politics?

Rich: I would say the major I did at Harvard was perfectly suited to me and my interests—it was history and literature. In history and literature at Harvard, at least at that time, you could pick an area. I picked America. I was always interested in culture, and I was always interested in news and history, so for the kind of work I do it was a great major and great study program, because it was about looking at what’s happening in World War I and what Forster was writing and Orwell was writing…So that was really, really valuable in a way that perhaps a straight English major would not have been. It was very useful training for me, but it was more in a way of thinking than actual specific information. And if you read literature, chances are you’ve read it from childhood and you love it, and you would love it even if you majored in pre-med.

Gate: Did it refine your ability to make judgments about politicians?

Rich: Maybe. I wouldn’t want to overstate it. Before you can make judgments about people, you’ve got to find out who the people are, and if they’re in a costume and playing a role and giving a performance, you’ve got to penetrate that. Where my theater background has been useful is to know when to have a shit detector for when people are doing an act, but then the next step is determining who the person is under that act and what he or she is up to, and that’s a more conventional kind of journalistic analysis.

Gate: What are your thoughts on all the attention to data and “information” in journalism right now?

Rich: I think it’s really interesting. I think that, like anything, it can be misused, but I’m hardly against it. I was fascinated during the 2012 campaign—this incredible effort led by people like Joe Scarborough to discredit Nate Silver, because they didn’t want to believe in the reality of his statistical analysis of legitimate polls. And so I feel it’s a very useful tool, and it may be much more useful than a lot of things that are done in political journalism. Can it be applied to everything? No. For instance: when Nate Silver would deal with the Oscars…it didn’t work. It’s like anything else: when it’s used well, it can be a very powerful tool. The debate about Ezra Klein and Nate Silver is sort of a fake debate. You don’t have to have an extreme opinion about it; let’s let these sites prove themselves.

Gate: What effect does the interest in data journalism have on opinion journalism?

Rich: I think opinion writing in general is in decline, not just because of this, but because of digitalization. The truth is: the days when a New York Times drama critic would decide the success or failure of a play; the days when James Reston or Walter Lippmann could decide the fate of a war—that is gone. It is completely gone, because everybody is a critic; everyone has an opinion, and there’s a very robust marketplace of ideas with a very low price of entry. So I think it’s good that gatekeepers don’t control who’s in the arena, and I think that the reader, or the consumer, should decide for himself or herself what makes sense, what holds up over time, what is a reality check or not.

Gate: What’s at stake in defending opinion journalism against data journalism?

Rich: I don’t feel that the heathens are at the gate at all. I feel there’s room for everything. There’s a very large playing field now. There are so many outlets for opinion journalism, data journalism, straight reporting, whatever. I say let a thousand voices bloom. I read anything good in any of these areas. Writers who are threatened by new kinds of voices or new kinds of tools are fuddy duds, basically.

Gate: You don’t believe a proliferation of voices devalues the better writing?

Rich: No, because I believe in the end there’s always been a public for the high end and for crap. In the golden age of newspapers in the 1950s…for every Walter Lippmann you had a Walter Winchell, who was a Red-baiting gossipmonger but wrote political columns. Today, there can be a high end…but there can be Breitbart or someone who’s doing screeds. But I think you have to trust the marketplace of ideas. I don’t think it’s a zero sum game.

Gate: Did you find the “manifesto” Nate Silver wrote introducing his new site to be self-aggrandizing?

Rich: Probably writing manifestos about what you’re doing is a bad idea. But that’s a public relations issue; that’s not an issue about the actual content.

Gate: But he’s speaking for data journalism as a transcendent medium. You don’t feel as a longtime practitioner of opinion writing that this is any kind of threat to your work?

Rich: It’s not an either/or proposition. There’s room for the Paris Review and there’s room for People Magazine. There’s room for Nate Silver. There’s room for the New York Times, the New Republic, the New Yorker, New York Magazine, New York Review of Books. There’s room for Andrew Breitbart’s site; there’s room for Buzzfeed and Politico. I think we should be grateful that there are all these choices.

What threatens the survival of anything is the economic model; it has to do with the fact that you can’t sell advertising. So for high end enterprises of any kind, including something like the Ezra Klein site, there has to be someone with deep pockets. That’s the real problem, the real threat to journalism. Even so, there are a lot of good, thriving magazines. I just don’t think it’s a zero sum game where you get one or the other. I don’t think Nate Silver threatens quality opinion writing, and I don’t think quality opinion writing threatens Nate Silver, even if some quality opinion writers attack Nate Silver.

Gate: If you think so many publications and websites have reached equal footing, doesn’t that still cheapen the older, more traditional establishments like the Times?

Rich: Of course. Most newspapers have sunk. Look at the Chicago Tribune; look at the San Francisco Chronicle; look at the Washington Post; look at all the ones that have folded. We’re really talking about the survival of two national newspapers—the Times and the Journal. That’s it. We hope that Jeff Bezos will reinvigorate the Post and give the money to add things rather than cut back. It’s the business model that’s undermining it, and the switch from print to digitalization. It’s pretty simple: as print advertising dries up, it’s not replaced by digital advertising, because so far no one has proven that digital advertising is effective, and you can’t charge enough for it. Just today, Ebony Magazine announced that they’re going all digital. We’re in this incredible state of transformation, but it doesn’t have anything to do with content.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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