How We Rein In the Clown Show

Former ‘New York Times’ columnist Frank Rich wants the media to do a better job holding Trump to task during the coronavirus pandemic

Photo illustration. Image source: Alex Wong/Getty Images

FFrank Rich spent more than 30 years at the New York Times, first as chief theater critic and later as an opinion columnist. Then, as now, he had an elegant, velvety way with a sentence, a darkly fizzing sense of humor, and an abiding mistrust of power. Even today, it’s a pleasure to turn back to his columns on the Arab Spring or the 2009 bailout.

If you’re not old enough to remember Rich’s years at the Times, you might know him as the Emmy-winning executive producer of the HBO series Veep and Succession. Or as the grand seigneur of New York magazine, where his long, discursive pieces make sense of our politics and culture. At 70, he is still prolific, and his ability to hold a mirror up to our society’s ugliest blemishes — whether through journalism or satire — remains unmatched.

The bedrock of Rich’s journalistic method has been, for more than four decades, “to look for a narrative in the many competing dramas unfolding on the national stage,” as he wrote in his farewell to Times readers in 2011. But under the deepening shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, he spoke with GEN from his home in New York City about the need for a new approach to covering contemporary Washington and for the media to move past “narrative” and into a more assertive approach in defense of facts.

GEN: Theater has always been at the heart of your writing on politics. And now we’re facing this unprecedented, outrageous moment, almost like a political melodrama.

Frank Rich: For someone like myself who, going back to earliest childhood, turned to theater as a solace, the fact that the theater itself is now shut completely, it’s like a phantom limb. It’s hard to get one’s mind around, really. Because even as a child, with no access to the theater unless my parents took me, it was comforting just to know that the theater was happening somewhere, that people were on a stage, and audiences were escaping from the world. So to have that gone is itself — it’s a relatively minor complaint in terms of everything else that’s going on. But psychologically, it’s had a huge impact on me, and I suspect on many other people.

Not to mention actual practitioners of theater who have been thrown out of work. The one thing you need to have to do theater is an audience. If you can’t gather a live audience? It’s a communal activity that’s been gutted now.

But in terms of the theater of what’s going on now, publicly — the theater of the world, of America — it’s very disconcerting because we have a president who basically is spewing fiction every day and very much creating a form of theater, a reality-show television with all its fictions and manipulations. Because, you know, reality-show television has very little basis in reality — it’s all stage-managed. So you have a situation of life-and-death peril for the entire population, and you have someone putting on a clown show every day that makes people less safe.

This symbolic power is really what I’m trying to get at. Because this is not new. Winston Churchill’s radio addresses, FDR’s fireside chats, and so on: Those were also “reality television,” or reality media, rather.

We’ve had this. We’ve had it with “Mission Accomplished.” We’ve had it with Nixon lying about Watergate … with the Johnson and Nixon administrations lying about what was going on in the Vietnam War. We’ve had it, for sure. But they kind of look like pikers — with the possible exception of Johnson — in comparison with a president and an entire administration and all the top officeholders, without dissent, going on every day to spew disinformation and lies and endanger people’s lives.

I can’t remember ever feeling like that before, that literally every single person is endangered by the nonsense that is coming out of the television right now.

Yeah. That’s never been seen before. This is not to underestimate or discount in any way the thousands of Americans and Vietnamese who were slaughtered by the lies that the presidential administrations, particularly Johnson and then Nixon, but particularly Johnson, created in Vietnam. But this literally affects every single community in America and potentially the world.

Some of the motive is similar, which is to cover up errors — and in the case of Vietnam, too, was all about covering up catastrophically unsuccessful and wrongheaded policies of war; but this is just on a much, much bigger scale and in an expertise that most people don’t have.

For instance, if you’re given the empirical evidence, as reporters like David Halberstam ferreted out of Vietnam, you could tell whether a war was achieving its stated goals or was a nefarious, almost suicidal folly.

Here, we’re dealing with public health, medicine, epidemiology, and things that most Americans, including myself, have no expertise in. It’s all the more easy to manipulate that reality for an audience.

Rachel Maddow came out on Friday saying we’ve got to stop putting this on TV. Just put bits of tape of it out, but, like, you cannot let this guy out there to lie in real time.

I saw that. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. My feeling is — as a thought experiment — the one place, presumably, where she could make it happen is at NBC. She’s the most powerful person there because she has the highest ratings at MSNBC.

It would be interesting to hear that discussion, and, if that discussion is taking place, following up on her idea. The principle behind it I completely get and completely agree with, but then let’s go to the practical reality. Let’s say MSNBC decided unilaterally to do it. What does that buy us exactly?

It’s a low-rated network by national standards. My guess is that the major networks plus CNN, let alone Fox, won’t follow suit, nor will the other sources available, so I don’t know what you’re achieving, even though I completely agree with the principle that this guy should be off the air, and he’s only making things worse by lying to people and creating incredibly bogus, false hopes, implying that things are coming tomorrow, and miracle drugs are gonna happen and save everybody overnight.

There’s also something weird about the idea of television deciding what people can see or hear from the White House. Maybe rational people who have to live in this country need to know what this clown is saying. It should be a 25-alarm fire that this dude is the president, and here are the false things that this crazy-ass man is saying right now. It’s important to know and understand the sort of level of that disaster.

Yeah, I don’t disagree, and again, I think it’s a moot point anyway because we would know. Let’s see if MSNBC stops airing him and then see if it makes any difference.

I sort of tried to raise this in a sort of encoded way in the little thing I wrote for New York magazine. We need to look at the procedures by which this stuff is broadcast. We have to find out a better way to have real-time, factual corrections or as close to it as possible when he’s speaking. What disturbs me — this is not true in every case, but it’s too much for my taste — people don’t ask follow-up questions to the preceding reporter.

So, if reporter A gets a complete bullshit or a deflected answer to an important question, reporter B should ask the follow-up question and say, “But you were asked, when are we gonna have enough masks” — or whatever it is — “and you didn’t answer. What is the answer?”

“You said we’re getting a lot of masks or a lot of ventilators. A lot is how many, sir?”

There are very good examples of people who do step up and do this in the press briefings, but there are clearly instances where someone has saved up his or her pet question, and [for the sake of] ego, not ideology, can’t let go of it — does that make sense?

I couldn’t believe what President Donald Trump said on Friday: “This is a nasty question, and you’re a bad reporter.”

As the reporter in question, Peter Alexander, said afterwards, “It was a softball question” — a chance for him to show empathy or humanity.

Just say any old leadership thing, it didn’t even need to mean anything. “Be brave,” whatever.

It was probably the most revealing thing the entire session. Though that’s different from the issue of when Trump gives vague answers or ducks a question that involves empirical evidence.

People being tested. Hospitals getting supplies. Why are celebrities getting to the front of the line of testing? You can bet your ass that some of that is the result of favors being pulled in his administration.

Some of it may be local favors. But for him to say, “Well, that’s the way of life,” or whatever the hell he said. The next person should be asking, “Well, wait a minute. Sir, you don’t know how this is happening? How did this team get it? How did this famous person get it?” He may still lie or claim ignorance, but you just gotta keep at him on factual stuff.

There’s an opportunity for him to demonstrate concern or face consequences; he just fails every single test, always. I had this fantasy that Peter Alexander would respond to that remark with a Joe Welch moment: “Really? Well, we’re even because I think you’re a terrible president.”

I agree, you know, a Welch moment is needed, but I also feel it’s equally valuable to just keep hitting them on the facts. If I were in that room, I would have asked, “What happened with that Google website that didn’t exist? How did you get it? Who made it up for you? Why were you giving us the false hope of a very easy to use, almost immediately available website about how to get tested when the website didn’t exist any more than the test did? How did that happen?”

These people should be held accountable too.

Yeah. You’re looking back and trying to get receipts. We write down all this stuff, we go and check, and a lot of it turns out not to be true. But the next day brings with it such an avalanche of new emergencies that you don’t even get a chance to catch your breath and go back and demand accountability.

The second part of that question is, “So why should we believe you now when you say X and Y and Z, just at this moment? And by the way, why — if you’re preaching social distancing — are you all standing next to each other?”

Oh my god! Thank you.

Why doesn’t anyone ask that question? The fact is, there’s a part of this country that accepts his alternative reality. There’s nothing that can be done about that, clearly. Unless enough people presumably die or lose their entire net worth that they maybe think, “Oh, maybe I’ve been had.”

But he can be confronted in a relentless way about the facts and ditto the people around him.

This is the crazy thing, the Republicans are the only ones who could’ve gotten rid of him. And they had a chance to get rid of him. And they did not do it.

No, it’s a cult. It’s a cult, and they’re frightened, and that’s a whole other question. But going back to the theater of these press briefings — it has to be relentless. I know what you’re saying about the avalanche of falsehoods every day. It’s almost impossible to re-litigate all of them because we roll into a new set of lies and new stunts each day. Still, I think there’s an opportunity in these press briefings to call them to task. They said Walmart is testing in parking lots. Which Walmarts have those sites up and running now?

There should be much more specificity to try to penetrate the false theater of these dog and pony shows, these propaganda displays.

This emergency almost has to break the power of the cult, right? I saw a video of this huge nightclub in Nashville on Twitter — very crowded, people just right on top of each other dancing in a club. And this woman had tweeted, “Nashville is undefeated.”

I saw that same thing.

A bunch of those people are maybe going to die.

I know.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

is a journalist and editor of Popula.com, an alt-global news and culture publication experimenting with blockchain-based publishing innovations.

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