Back when I was an aspiring lyricist and playwright in New York, I feared and hated New York Times senior theater critic Frank Rich, for his power to instantly kill a new production with a review so brilliantly vicious, it was often more entertaining than the show it critiqued.
(How’s that for a biographical tidbit? As it it turns out, my musical, “The Don Juan and the Non-Don Juan” drew the equally savage NY Times critic Mel Gussow, who occasionally prefaced his reviews of musicals with the caveat that he doesn’t like musicals. Needless to say, we closed after three weeks.)
Since then, we’ve both moved on… me, to I-don’t-know-what, and Rich to well-deserved prominence as a NY Times columnist. Rich is possibly the best writer at what is probably the nation’s best written newspaper (whatever your take on its editorial bias.) While you are more likely to find his columns in the Arts section than in Op/Ed, Rich has an uncanny knack for weaving together politics and culture into thoughtful, informative essays that often surprise the reader with the amount of social relevance drawn from deceptively simple subjects.
Take for example Sunday’s column about the bizarre right-wing campaign against Clint Eastwood’s new film, “Million Dollar Baby.” (“How Dirty Harry Turned Commie“) Rush Limbaugh rails against its “liberal propaganda” and Michael Medved says that “hate is not too strong a word” to describe his review of the movie. (He was always a pretty crappy movie reviewer.) Why all the fuss? Because the film doesn’t explicitly take a position against euthanasia, and in this you’re-with-us-or-against-us world, that apparently is enough to spark moral outrage from the right.
“I never thought about the political side of this when making the film,” Mr. Eastwood says. He is both bemused and concerned that a movie with no political agenda should be construed by some as a polemic and arouse such partisan rage. “Maybe I’m getting to the age when I’m starting to be senile or nostalgic or both, but people are so angry now,” he adds. “You used to be able to disagree with people and still be friends. Now you hear these talk shows, and everyone who believes differently from you is a moron and an idiot – both on the right and the left.”
Hmmm… sounds like much of the blogosphere, huh?
In today’s column (“The White House Stages Its ‘Daily Show’“), Rich deftly digs into the controversy surrounding the outing of
Jeff Gannon Jim Guckert, the fake White House correspondent (for the equally fake Talon News Service) who was known for lobbing leading, softball questions to the President and his press secretary. For nearly two years the White House press office credentialed Guckert, under an assumed name.
How this happened is a mystery that has yet to be solved. “Jeff” has now quit Talon News not because he and it have been exposed as fakes but because of other embarrassing blogosphere revelations linking him to sites like hotmilitarystud.com and to an apparently promising career as an X-rated $200-per-hour “escort.” If Mr. Guckert, the author of Talon News exclusives like “Kerry Could Become First Gay President,” is yet another link in the boundless network of homophobic Republican closet cases, that’s not without interest. But it shouldn’t distract from the real question – that is, the real news – of how this fake newsman might be connected to a White House propaganda machine that grows curiouser by the day. Though Mr. McClellan told Editor & Publisher magazine that he didn’t know until recently that Mr. Guckert was using an alias, Bruce Bartlett, a White House veteran of the Reagan-Bush I era, wrote on the nonpartisan journalism Web site Romenesko, that “if Gannon was using an alias, the White House staff had to be involved in maintaining his cover.” (Otherwise, it would be a rather amazing post-9/11 security breach.)
By Rich’s count, “Gannon” is now the sixth “journalist” to have been unmasked as “a propagandist on the payroll of either the Bush administration or an arms-length ally.” And the fake news generated by these fake journalists represents only the tip of the iceberg of this administration’s unprecedented domestic propaganda machine.
When the Bush administration isn’t using taxpayers’ money to buy its own fake news, it does everything it can to shut out and pillory real reporters who might tell Americans what is happening in what is, at least in theory, their own government. Paul Farhi of The Washington Post discovered that even at an inaugural ball he was assigned “minders” – attractive women who wouldn’t give him their full names – to let the revelers know that Big Brother was watching should they be tempted to say anything remotely off message.
That’s more than just aggressive PR… that’s fascism.
Rich suggests that the only solution might be to “fight fake with fake,” and half-jokingly proposes naming Jon Stewart to succeed Dan Rather at CBS News. That’s exactly the type of subtle insight I’ve come to expect from the “arts and culture” columnist who provides some of the best political commentary in the mainstream media.