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Okay, Frank Rich, Let’s Have the Race Conversation

Here is an open letter for Frank Rich and The New York Times:

In the Sunday New York Times columnist Frank Rich, like every other cultural critic, writes about Imus’s racially degrading remarks. However, Rich’s most heartfelt disdain can be heard here:

The biggest cliche of the debate so far is the constant reiteration that this will be a moment for a national “conversation” about race and sex and culture. Do people really want to have this conversation, or just talk about having it?…if we really want to have this national “conversation” about race and culture and all the rest of it that everyone keeps telling us that this incident has prompted, let’s get it on, no holds barred.

He writes those words as if they are someone else’s responsibility and not his and certainly not The New York Times, which prevents any real conversation by locking his words behind the Times Select firewall. Look, Frank Rich, you are not some blogger in some far off post. You have the bully pulpit, use it. Go to the Times editors and online people, work out a strategy and get that national conversation started, now.

The other almost cliche, that needn’t be if it were practiced, is “news as a conversation,” a concept that has its roots in the public journalism movement. Here is Jay Rosen talking about it in 2004:

News turns from a lecture to a conversation. “Newspaper people (especially) still have the mindset of putting out the edition and then they’re done with it,” complains Glenn Reynolds. “We used to think that the news was finished when we printed it,” Jeff Jarvis. “But that’s when the news now begins.”

He is more from Rosen:

In 1991, James W. Carey of Columbia University put the goal of conversational journalism this way (the piece is not online, sorry.) The italics are mine:

Republics require conversation, often cacophonous conversation, for they should be noisy places. That conversation has to be informed, of course, and the press has a role in supplying that information. But the kind of information required can be generated only by public conversation; there is simply no substitute for it. We have virtually no idea what it is we need to know until we start talking to someone. Conversation focuses our attention, it engages us…The task of the press is to encourage the conversation of the culture, not to preempt it or substitute for it or supply it with information as a seer from afar.

Rosen and I and dozens, hundreds and maybe thousands of other bloggers can help have that conversation. The New York Times should, with Rich in the forefront, sponsor the conversation, supply the information to make the conversation robust and be the hub from which the conversation emanates. Doing so will help the nation, but also help the Times itself by forming intimate links with its audience and prospective audiences. It is, using the penultimate cliche, a win-win situation for everyone involved. So, Frank Rich, using your words, I say, “let’s get it on, no holds barred” and let’s start today.

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