From 1980 to 1993, Rich was the Times' chief theater critic. He was sometimes known as "the Butcher of Broadway," not only for the perceived frequency and acerbity of his negative reviews, but also for the supposed influence that those reviews carried in determining whether or not a producer would close a show. But Rich was not always negative; he enthusiastically championed what were then new and diverse voices in American playwriting like August Wilson, David Henry Hwang, Tony Kushner and Scott McPherson. Additionally, he lobbied for much of the work done during his tenure by established dramatists like John Guare and Stephen Sondheim.
His reviews have been collected in a book, Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times, 1980-1993 (ISBN 0-679-45300-8), published in 1998. One of the running themes in the book is Rich's attempt to disprove the perceived power of his position as the Times' Chief Drama Critic. As an addendum to the anthology, Rich provides statistics demonstrating a dozen or more shows that he panned which racked up long runs (one notable example being The Phantom of the Opera), as well as many shows that got raves from him but couldn't stay open more than a few weeks. He published a memoir, Ghost Light (ISBN 0-375-75824-0), in 2000.
Rich authored the book The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina, a criticism of the post-9/11 policies of the George W. Bush administration and especially of its use of PR.
Rich makes regular references to a broad range of popular culture — including television, movies, theater, and literature — and draws connections to politics and current events. In a January 2006 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, he commented on the James Frey memoir scandal. On that show, he expanded on his usage in his column of the term "truthiness" (originally coined on The Colbert Report) to summarize a variety of parallel ills in culture and politics. In 2005, Rich received the George Polk Award given annually by Long Island University to honor contributions to journalistic integrity and investigative reporting.
In the 2008 US presidential campaign, Rich appeared to have aligned himself with Democratic candidate Barack Obama: he has written over fifteen different editorials in support of Obama or in criticism of Obama's opponents and detractors, including Hillary Clinton.
Rich graduated from Harvard in 1971, where he was editorial chairman of the Harvard Crimson, studied American History and Literature, and lived in Lowell House. Before joining the Times in 1980, he was a film critic for Time.
As a political commentator, Rich is often criticized by Bill O'Reilly, host of The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News Channel. Rich is openly critical of Fox News Channel, accusing it of having a conservative bias. O'Reilly cites Rich's 2007 award from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) as proof of his bias. On his radio broadcast of April 16, 2007, O'Reilly called Rich a hypocrite for having accused Mel Gibson of anti-semitism, referring to Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ, while maintaining a more friendly attitude toward controversial commentator Don Imus, who had called New York City based sportscaster Len Berman "Lenny the Jew" on a 60 Minutes broadcast in 1998.
The October 14, 2007 Times featured Stephen Colbert guest-writing most of Maureen Dowd's column. In that article, Colbert satirically wrote: "Bad things are happening in countries you shouldn’t have to think about. It’s all George Bush’s fault, the vice president is Satan, and God is gay. There. Now I’ve written Frank Rich’s column too.
Rich is married to Alex Witchel, who also writes for the Times, and has two sons from his previous marriage to Gail Winston. He lives in Manhattan.