Columnist Frank Rich has assumed his latest assignment at the New York Times with characteristic verve and conviction.
Beginning in 1980, Rich ferociously argued for excellence in the theatre with reviews that earned him the moniker “Butcher of Broadway.” He then pioneered a lengthy editorial-essay form to examine the intersection of popular culture, politics, and the media. In 2005, readers followed Rich from the “Arts and Leisure” pages to an expanded op-ed section, where he pulls no punches on the controversies surrounding the war in Iraq. Outside of political debates, Rich has established a legacy of impassioned advocacy for the arts and their power to transcend politics. In an eloquent call for arts education, Rich declares: “We’ve become a nation of niche markets…sharing a political system and two political parties that increasingly resemble each other, and little else. But at the national level, the arts can bind us together in a way that perhaps no other glue can. They speak in a language that, once understood, is never forgotten.”
Rich is the former film and television critic at Time magazine. His memoir is Ghost Light (2000); selected drama reviews are collected in Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for the New York Times (1998); and his latest book is The Greatest Story Ever Sold (2006). Rich lives in Manhattan.
Excerpt from “Truthiness 101: From Frey to Alito,” New York Times op-ed, January 2006
If James Frey hadn’t made up his own life, Tom Wolfe would have had to invent it for him. The fraudulent memoirist is to the early 21st century what Mr. Wolfe’s radical-chic revelers were to the late 1960s and his Wall Street “masters of the universe” were to the go-go 1980s: a perfect embodiment of the most fashionable American excess of an era.
Oprah Winfrey, the ultimate arbiter of our culture, has made clear, no one except pesky nitpickers much cares whether Mr. Frey’s autobiography is true or not, or whether it sits on a fiction or nonfiction shelf at Barnes & Noble. Such distinctions have long since washed away in much of our public life. What matters most now is whether a story can be sold as truth, preferably on television. The mock Comedy Central pundit Stephen Colbert’s slinging of the word “truthiness” caught on instantaneously last year precisely because we live in the age of truthiness.
At its silliest level, this is manifest in show-biz phenomena like Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, juvenile pop stars who merchandised the joy of their new marriage as a lucrative MTV reality series before heading to divorce court to divvy up the booty. But if suckers want to buy fictional nonfiction like “Newlyweds” or “A Million Little Pieces” as if they were real, that’s just harmless diversion.
It’s when truthiness moves beyond the realm of entertainment that it’s a potential peril. As Seth Mnookin, a rehab alumnus, has written in Slate, the macho portrayal of drug abuse in “Pieces” could deter readers battling actual addictions from seeking help. Ms. Winfrey’s blithe re-endorsement of the book is less laughable once you start to imagine some Holocaust denier using her imprimatur to discount Elie Wiesel’s incarceration at Auschwitz in her next book club selection, “Night.”
This isn’t just a slippery slope. It’s a toboggan into chaos, or at least war. As everyone knows now—except for the 22 percent, according to a recent Harris poll, who still believe that Saddam helped plan 9/11—it’s the truthiness of all those imminent mushroom clouds that sold the invasion of Iraq. What’s remarkable is how much fictionalization plays a role in almost every national debate. Even after a big humbug is exposed as blatantly as Professor Marvel in “The Wizard of Oz”—FEMA’s heck of a job in New Orleans, for instance—we remain ready and eager to be duped by the next tall tale. It’s as if the country is living in a permanent state of suspension of disbelief.
The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina (2006)
Ghost Light: A Memoir (2000)
Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for the New York Times, 1980-1993 (1998)