I know I complain about this once a week, but once a week it drives me crazy. Frank Rich was once a theater critic. Good for him. I'm sure that's an important job, and apparently he was pretty good at it. For some reason the fact that he was good at reviewing plays led someone to conclude that he should be given space on the oped page, where he wrote about politics, and national security, and other grown up topics, about which he actually knew jack squat, but, boy, could he ever turn a phrase. After some time doing this it was decided to move him to Arts and Leisure, which you'd think he might actually know something about.
Except that isn't what he writes about.
Under the guise of throwing in some kind of cultural reference into every column -- usually a movie reference -- he's continued to write political pieces, usually anti-war, anti-Bush pieces, every Sunday, only since they're in the Arts and Leisure section, they're roughly twice as long.
Take a look at today's piece, lining up Iraq and Vietnam, asking yourself as we go through it, this is Arts and Leisure?
It was in November 1969 that a little-known reporter, Seymour Hersh, broke the story of the 1968 massacre at My Lai, the horrific scoop that has now found its match 35 years later in Mr. Hersh's New Yorker revelation of a 53-page Army report detailing "numerous instances of `sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses' at Abu Ghraib."
This is outrageous, beyond belief. My Lai was one of the most egregious war crimes imaginable. Women, children, old people -- all clearly non-combatants -- taken out and massacred in cold blood. Has it been so long that we've forgotten, forgotten the images, forgotten what it meant, what it looked like? Is "My Lai" just words now? Because if those words have any meaning whatsoever then I just don't understand how these two situations can be held up as the same, I'm sorry. To say that something is a war crime, beneath the dignity of American troops, is not to say that all war crimes that are beneath the dignity of American troops are by definition of equal magnitude. Part of being a grown up is having the capacity ot make distinctions and judgements. Get a grip.
Then comes an example of logic stunning in its circularity.
The first sign was the uproar over "Nightline" from the war's cheerleaders. You have to wonder: if this country is so firm in its support of this war, by what logic would photographs of its selfless soldiers, either their faces or their flag-draped coffins, undermine public opinion?
Nice. Except that the war's "cheerleaders" (like that little effort at dismissal and diminution?) are arguing that the very reason that the country's support is soft is because of a barrage of media efforts to soften it, not because support would be soft on the merits.
And what does Mr. Rich have to say of media coverage of the war?
The general blamed the public's grim interpretation of the news from Iraq on "inaccurate reporting" that he found nearly everywhere, from CNN to "the morning papers." He and the administration no doubt prefer the hard-hitting journalism over at Fox. "I end up spending a lot of time watching Fox News," Dick Cheney explained last month, "because they're more accurate in my experience, in those events that I'm personally involved in, than many of the other outlets."
It was instructive, then, to see how Fox covered the images of last weekend — in part by disparaging the idea of showing them at all. Fox's (if not America's) most self-infatuated newsman, the host of "The O'Reilly Factor," worried on air that "Nightline" might undermine morale if it tried to "exploit casualties in a time of war." He somehow forgot that just five nights earlier he had used his own show to exploit a casualty, the N.F.L. player Pat Tillman — a segment, Mr. O'Reilly confided with delight, "very highly rated by billoreilly.com premium members." (Lesson to families who lose sons and daughters in Iraq: if you want them to be exploited on "The Factor," let alone applauded by Web site "premium members" who pay its host $49.95 a year, be sure they become celebrities before they enlist.)
Underneath the snark, and the usual sniping at Fox -- you see an argument in there somewhere?
His conclusion is equally incoherent.
As we know from "Mission Accomplished" and Colin Powell's aerial reconnaissance shots displayed as evidence to the United Nations, pictures can be made to lie — easily. But over time credible pictures, because they have a true story to tell, can trump the phonies. Try as politicians might to alter their meaning with spin, eventually there comes a point when the old Marx Brothers gag comes into play: "Who are you going to believe — me or your own eyes?" Last weekend was a time when many, if not most, of us had little choice but to believe our own eyes.
Oh. Great. Thanks. Any criteria you got for us to use to tell the good pictures from the bad? Or are the good pictures just the ones that support the positions that you already believed? Because the Abu Ghraib pic weren't credible "over time" but instantly. Of course the pics showing British troops abusing Iraqis turned out not to be credible pretty quickly. Hmm.
Now, look, there are plenty of arguments made in Rich's piece that hit home (even if they're made in the most snide way possible.) And I would, because of that, say that supporters of the war should read the whole thing entire. But they ain't Arts and Leisure. And they are mixed up with these arguments I've pulled out here, which do tend to discredit the arguments that war supporters have to listen to and take into account.
So what's the moral of this story?
First, this material has no business being on in this section of the paper.
Second, don't send a theater critic to do a political or national security analyst's job.