The ‘Butcher’ starts
carving up the real world

By Burl Burlingame

FRANK RICH used to sit in a darkened theater, watching actors absorbed in some other reality, and then he'd try to make sense of what he'd seen and tell other people about it. He was one of the audience, a regular guy.

But he was pretty good at it, and since all the world's a stage, he set his critical sights on bigger targets. Now he's a star himself in the circles of critical commentary; the Jerry Orbach of shooting his mouth off. Rich became an Opinion and Editorial (we call it Op-Ed) columnist for The New York Times, as well as senior writer for The New York Times Magazine, and recently was appointed an associate editor for The Good Gray New York Times.

Rich will be writing a weekly essay on Popular Culture (which will appear regularly in the Star-Bulletin), he's giving a lecture tonight called "The 24/7 Media Culture, " at 7 p.m at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa's Campus Center Ballroom. The lecture is free to the public.

What are we in for? As a film and television critic at Time magazine, Rich's nickname was the "Butcher of Broadway" for his theatrical observations.

We caught Rich by phone yesterday as he made the round of celebrity-journalist appearances. Yes, he said, the whole culture of the news business has changed in the last decade.

"Aren't we sick of ourselves? We're like a drug. We wallow in ourselves, and yet we can't get enough. The news cycle is now 24 hours a day, seven days a week, thanks to the last Gulf War," he mused. "The atmosphere is permeated with it. Hundreds of TV channels. Millions of Internet sites. All telling what they know immediately, without editing or fact-checking or analysis. There's no time for reflection or absorption."

The process of editing, says Rich, the part of journalism that makes news understandable and coherent, is being shunted aside for the quick sugar fixes of entertainment values.

"Journalism and popular culture are one and the same these days, aren't they? The axis of power isn't New York, no matter what we in New York think, it's in Hollywood. There's a blurring effect between news and entertainment. They're simplifying the issues, creating drama out of pedestrian events, casting real people as heroes and villains. That's the tendency of modern times. The huge maw has to be fed."

As we head into a probable war, Rich says we need to squeeze the juice out of the back-scratching arrangement between Hollywood and the Pentagon.

"Anytime you involve the military or the government, you need to see there's an agenda involved. And Hollywood wants free help and access to hardware and personnel. It's an unholy matrimony that's led, for example, to the blurring of World War II, the apothesis of the "Greatest Generation," of propaganda as entertainment. Our frame of reference is the movie. Ronald Reagan mistook films he made during the war as real events."

Should the process of news-gathering be transparent? Should the squirrels running around in the spinning cages be visible? Should the private agendas of news-gathering organizations be made clear.

"In the case of Fox News, for example, every time they shout 'Real journalism!' or 'Fair and balanced!' it's really the reverse of what's going on" Rich sighed. "What they're really interested in is airing strong opinions for their entertainment value, and in taking digs at companies like CNN. And CNN's new motto is something like, 'See what happens next!' -- that's pure entertainment sloganeering.

"The process of news-gathering has to be somewhat opaque, if only to protect sources. But citizens have to understand journalism is a process, not an end product. People have to be educated about the news business, particularly now that there are so many choices. The counterbalancing voice used to be strong local newspaper, but those are being swept away as well. The average person can now see the BBC, go online, juggle various accounts of an event. Don't take it all from one source. You have to comparison shop!"

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