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Imus Under Fire: But Does He Deserve To Burn?


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April 09, 2007

Imus Under Fire: But Does He Deserve To Burn?

David Kiley

Radio personality Don Imus has been suspended from his daily radio show for two weeks following complaints from civil rights and an anti-defamation advocates who complained to CBS Radio and MSNBC that his comments about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, calling the ladies “nappy headed hos”, were over the line.

Speaking as a regular Imus listener, and occasional guest, I have to say that Imus’s public apology and subsequent suspension are merited. He got what he deserved. Calls for Imus to be fired, though, seem like overkill.

But what I think doesn't matter much. The real judges on this will be the advertisers. Procter & Gamble, Staples, General Motors, ditech and GlaxoSmithKline Plc. have pulled ads. Long-time advertiser Bigelow Teas says it is reviewing its ad plans on Imus. In the past, the execs at the family-owned privately-held Bigelow Tea have credited its recurring ad buys on Imus for building its brand, especially in Eastern seaboard markets.

Despite occasional lapses of judgements and ventures into such sophomoric and offensive comedy, Imus has a great relationship with advertisers like NorthFork Bank, Readers Digest, General Motors, Federal Express to name a few. They often pay extra for Imus to read th ads himself and do a comedic riff on the ad copy. And they not only have been advertisers for CBS Radio and MSNBC, but contributors to his charitable causes. Readers Digest even bought the naming rights to the town in New Mexico where Imus's ranch for cancer-stricken children is located. But this may be something some of them can't or won't get over. A few of them won't want to risk a boycott. A few may justs be as offended as we all are over what he said.

If he continus to lose advertisers at this rate, CBS Radio and MSNBC may not have a choice but to hut him down. Up to now, his show brings in a combined $50 million a year in ad revenue between TV and radio. His audiences are smaller than those of Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, but he attracts a much wealthier and better educated male audience than those other jocks, and thus is able to charge much more for ad time.

Imus and his on-air team have long played with fire when it comes to racism and bigotry. His writing staff and on-air performers have long parodied Rev. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and other prominent blacks with an emphasis on using urban slang and even ebonics to make the joke. He has called me and most other people that are at least 20 pounds overweight “Fat Bastards.”

Immediately after Imus’s “ho” comment, the show's executive producer, Bernard McGuirk, called the team "hard-core hos." Later, former Imus sports announcer Sid Rosenberg, who was filling in for sportscaster Chris Carlin, said: "The more I look at Rutgers, they look exactly like the Toronto Raptors." Ironically, Rosenberg had at one time been banished from the show for making a poor, out-of-hand, completely unfunny remark about women with breast cancer.

In my opinion, Imus and his on-air cast have walked the razor’s edge for years between making fun of racism by appearing to be racist and actually being racist. As a long-time listener, I don’t believe for a second that Imus is a racist. But when you sound like a racist, you can’t expect people, especially those who don't listen all the time, to believe you when you say “That’s not what I meant. You didn’t get the joke.” Making fun of racism by appearing to be racist is a pretty complicated form of humor. A few months ago, that’s what I thought actor Michael “Kramer” Richards was trying to do in a Los Angeles comedy club when he went on a rant against some hecklers using the “N” word. In the aftermath, I still don’t know what Richards was up to, though.

Imus has said on the air that what he said was repugnant. He says he is humiliated. I believe him. He is a cult of personality to those who listen to his show. He is a serial sonovabitch when he wants to be. He’s cranky and angry, and his show is often funny. And he often has interviews with key leaders that are more revealing than 90% of the other interviews the same people do on other programs.

Frankly, I’m weary of people’s lives being completely undone by uttering a few dumb syllables.

What is unfolding now is that Rev. Al Sharpton, African-American newspaper and magazine editors and columnists and others are calling for Imus to lose his radio show. I can see their argument. They are offended and want their pound of flesh. But here is another argument.

First, Imus has used his platform to raise tens of million of dollars for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, The Hackensack Children’s Hospital, a ranch he and his wife run to give kids suffering from cancer and other diseases a tremendous experience. And more recently, he helped raised millions to build a rehab hospital for returning Iraq vets in San Antonio, and pressured Congress to raise the death benefit to KIA widows from $12,000 to $500,000. He’s also done a tremendous amount to raise awareness of autism, and driven lawmakers to stand up to pharmaceutical companies that are pressuring elected officials to dismiss theories that a mercury preservative used in vaccines affects the rate and incidence of autism.

Beyond that, nobody did more to try and get Rep. Harold Ford Jr., an African-American, elected Senator of Tennessee last year. He had Ford on at least a dozen times in the two months before the election. It was as much a crusade of Imus's as his efforts to raise money

So, how about some balance. This business of one sentence carelessly uttered on the airwaves wiping out years of good works seems pretty unfair. I’m suddenly reminded of how John Kerry’s war record was smeared dishonestly because of a few paragraphs he spoke to Congress more than thirty years ago about alleged war atrocities committed by U.S. servicemen. And his Presidential candidacy was wiped out with one misunderstood utterance, “I voted for it before I voted against it.”

In the world of Lexis/Nexis, the Net and Youtube, somebody out there wants to hang someone with a well chosen sound-bite every day. We need balance.

But let’s look at it practically. Is Imus worth more to those offended if he has no platform in the future? Or is he worth more to them as an incredibly chastened public figure wiling to be the poster-boy for racial sensitivity. I would think he’s worth more on the air than off.

I believe CBS Radio and MSNBC reacted properly to the outcries. I do not believe that Imus is repentant because of corporate pressure on his show. I believe he knows that he and his group play fast and loose with what’s funny, and he realizes they blew it and offended a lot of people. I also believe he desperately does not want to lose the platform he has to raise money and effect change on the causes he has chosen. He has enough money for him, his wife and son to be comfortable for two lifetimes and then some. It’s not about the money in his pocket. That’s not why he is saying he is sorry. He’s saying it, I believe, because he is.

The question in the coming weeks is who will return to his show. Among his regulars are Tim Russert, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, Chris Matthews, John Kerry, former Congressman Harold Ford Jr., John McCain, Tom Friedman, Sen Chris Dodd, Governor Bill Richardson, etc.

Today, Harold Ford Jr. was scheduled to appear and didn't show up without calling the show in advance to tell them. He just didn't show. It will be interesting to see if the advertisers will feel the same way. If that's the case, there's always satellite radio.

09:29 PM

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We all make mistakes. This is getting to be the most defensive nation in the world. No one can take any kind of slight without calling the armed forces out. We need to learn to take things in stride and worry about bigger issues than the silly things we now get upset over.

Posted by: marcia at April 10, 2007 07:47 AM

There comes a time when dinosaurs become extinct. This one has outlived his time on the radio, good works or not. He can still do good without publicly humilating innocent young ladies working hard in school and sports. I guarrantee it is no joke for them to work as hard as they did to get where they did this year only to have some T-Rex of an idiot sit upon his self proclaimed untouchable throne of verbal abuse hurl garbage at them.

Posted by: Russell Minton at April 10, 2007 08:52 AM

No, Imus shouldn't burn for his comments. When did it become illegal to be an ass? Are well so politically correct to the point we can't be an ass anymore. These masks of political correctness we all wear now are a dangerous facade that we have to overcome. Not everyone is going to like each other and not everyone is going to get along. We will never have a legitimate dialogue on race in this country if we don't become honest with each other. Also, both sides have to be less of a victim and victimizers to make this work, you make the choice on which side is which.

Posted by: Rodney Russell at April 10, 2007 09:48 AM

Let's face it the comment made by Imus cannot not be misconstrued but anything but discriminating not only by race but by gender. It wasn't funny, clever or witty, just thoughtless and stupid. I am sure that in retrospect he is kicking himself and I believe he did.

Do I think an apology just about covers it, maybe not, but we do tend to go to extremes on these very sensitive subject of racial, gender and religious slurs.

There are after all plenty of comics, blacks among them that think nothing of mocking not only their own race but whites or other races in a humorous manner.

If we are going to continually chastise a few for using the public airways as a channel for inappropriate remarks that we must chastise them all news commentators, comics, movie dialogue and while we're at it why don't we just rewrite the constitution.

Posted by: maxie at April 10, 2007 12:26 PM

“Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man. . . But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.” Holy Bible, New Testatment Matthew 15:11, 18.

I agree that Mr. Imus and his buddies should be fired. If we were talking about one incident I think I'd have a different position. I listened to this portion of the show. The laughter behind the comments indicates a serious lack of knowledge that what they were doing was wrong. I don’t think Mr. Imus is “has a good heart”. A good heart would enjoy hurting others as much as they did.

Can good and evil come from the same mouth. Yes.

This guy is misguided and those who support him do so with ulterior motives. I are sleeping with the enemy. They will use him, and his venue. And sadly, some agree with him.

Looking at the big picture and the few (if any) blacks on the staff of that and many other media venues.

To those who have issues with others, Rappers, comedians, etc, you have the right to take a stand. Go for it. I agree that they are equally offensive. But this is an easy way to side-step today's issue. Let’s stick to this subject for now.

Sherry E., Seattle, WA

Posted by: Sherry E at April 10, 2007 01:25 PM

I agree. Mr. Imus made a mistake. It happens. Who are we to make judgment? I am fairly certain Mr. Imus has not been the only person to lay a sordid title upon the Rutgers women’s basketball team, just ask any of the opposing teams and you might be more surprised. He is getting what he deserves and having he removed from the air would do far more damage than good.

I find it odd that a man whom we consider honest now has to placate to a man whose very fame was born from a lie. Now THAT is something I find to be more than troubling.

JS

Posted by: J Sanchez at April 10, 2007 01:30 PM

David:

Don't think we agree on this one. (In fact, I know we don't.) Was going to post a comment here but will just take the lazy way out and offer up a link:

http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia/archives/2007/04/don_imus_still.html

Jon

Posted by: Jon Fine at April 10, 2007 03:03 PM

Hate to pile on David, but I agree with Jon. Here's my view, over on Working Parents blog:

http://prod-blogs.businessweek.com/careers/workingparents/blog/

Posted by: Cathy Arnst at April 11, 2007 02:52 PM

Hate to pile on David, but I agree with Jon. Here's my view, over on Working Parents blog:

http://prod-blogs.businessweek.com/careers/workingparents/blog/

Posted by: Cathy Arnst at April 11, 2007 03:17 PM

Thank you for posting a well balanced article, there are not many of them out there. It is sad to see the media only portray the negative, and not all our Imus' work.

Posted by: Robin at April 13, 2007 01:31 PM

Stop giving this has been more attention than he deserves. Imus was a dinosaur moving toward extinction in ever market except Washington D.C. But, why would he die out there. It's a bigger fantasy land than any Disney properties. Why would you continue to give this man a forum when he hasn't had anything relevant to say since he was a drug addict!?!? Enough.

Posted by: The Realist at April 16, 2007 01:35 PM

I must respond to the Imus stories on the net posted from the start of this case up to today. I want give this real thought and reason, both of which no one used when this story broke and the days after. This is not about hip-hop music. Don Imus listened to and had as guests on his show everything but hip hop. I recall many black and white performers-- some country, some rock, some old, some young. We all never would have listened to the show if he played and talked like those black and white trash mouthed people he is being compared to. No, it's not the music--just a slip of the tongue. We have all done it. What happened next is the story. One person involved with MSNBC conspired with TWO other black political activists/preachers and decided this was a race issue. From there my guess is GM and the other advertisers were pressured to pull adds from the show. This brought others into the mix to further the race based agenda. The reason for all of this was to use 3 words that should not have been said; but they were. Don Imus took the high road and met with the team and said he was sorry. But for the 3 men intent on bringing a powerful white man down, this would have all been over. The racist are the black men that pushed this to a level of almost blackmail. MSNBC was forced to make a decision that they were apparently not predisposed to make. Of course NBC has a duty to its shareholders to protect the interest of the company and not to advance a board member and a few employees personal political/raciest cause to the detrement of the company. We have missed the real story here. Don Imus was paid to shock and to say and do outlandish things. MSNBC knew what was on the show every day. Why did MSNBC not intervene on day 1 if they thought this was such a critical matter? The management of MSNBC could have issued a formal statement and had Don Imus make a formal apology. Another agenda was in play by this time. Sharpton, Jackson and the board member were making the plan to use force, blackmail, extortion or what ever you want to call it to make Don Imus an example of what can happen to you if you say anything that even has the slightest bit of racial overtone. Well, I think this has backfired just as it did to the DA in the Duke rape. Well, I guess we need to call it the Duke slander/defamation case because there was no rape. Dear Mr. DA, Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Sharpton helped you on that case. How's that working out for you? That's another situation where good people have been hurt because the media follows these two, and from there all hell breaks loose! If either of the cases were mine I WOULD SUE THEM ALL. I also would try for a personal judgment because in the Imus case it sounds like MSNBC AND IT'S BOARD MEMBER were acting on their personal political/racial interest and not acting within the scope of their employment. Their duty to was to protect shareholder value. Don Imus is a good person and deserves much more than this. If he wants to go back on the air I am sure he could get a group of fans to finance it. Thank you. Glenn Brandon

Posted by: glenn brandon at April 29, 2007 08:47 PM

Do the fans of don imus have a cause of action?can they sue?They are damaged more than that Washington Judge claiming $55million for a pair of pants.Can the imus fans sue for their damages?GLENN E BRANDON

Posted by: glenn e brandon jr at May 8, 2007 11:19 AM


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