Posted by: David Kiley on April 16, 2007
In the end, the marketplace of ideas won out to silence Don Imus, at least for now. Though there were politicians, journalists, activists, radio industry executives and other talk-show hosts on both sides of whether the potty-mouthed shock jock should lose his megaphone, the system worked properly in the end.
It wasn’t that angry activists pressured MSNBC and CBS Radio to drop Imus after he leveled a racist remark at the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team, it was that advertisers like Staples, GM, Bigelow Tea and Procter & Gamble decided they didn’t want to be associated with a personality who would be so callous as to pick on over-achieving college girls.
No journalist I know on or off the Imus program (and I have been on about a half dozen times) thinks that Imus shouldn’t have been punished. The split comes about in whether or not it was necessary for him to lose his platform; a platform that the show-host has used to raise tens of millions of dollars and awareness for pediatric cancer, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the plight of returning Iraqi war vets and autism. Meet The Press’s Tim Russert made that point over the weekend.
Imus stirred a long overdue national conversation about racism and misogyny in the public discourse. It was all too casual that Imus used a well-worn disgusting racist pejorative to describe the college athletes. Just as it is with far too much tolerance that right-wing radio hosts use misogynistic words we all now to describe Hillary Clinton, and “Feminazis” to describe women who advocate for an Equal Rights Amendment.
Media outlets have been quick to report on rappers who are among the wealthiest and most admired business-people in the African-American community using the same awful phrases as Imus. Hillary Clinton, who condemned Imus for his comments, recently hauled in over $700,000 in campaign donations from the efforts of rapper Timbaland, who uses awful racist pejoratives in his “music.” It’s all good to point out these inconsistencies. Hopefully, it keeps the conversation going and the advertisers on board pressuring the media outlets to pick up the litter without throwing away the food that’s good for us.
What is a shame is that Imus didn’t realize long before this that the racist and offensive grenades he and his cast tossed out were not worth the occasional awkward laughs that followed. Imus was at his best interviewing The New York Times Tom Friedman and Frank Rich, Senate hopeful Harold Ford Jr., Senators Orrin Hatch and John Kerry, Mary Matalin and Bob Shieffer. They were often penetrating, revealing interviews that would last for 20 minutes-plus, and often show a side of the subject we didn’t see elsewhere. That was the Imus we bought into. And that Imus could be funny, hilarious even, making fun of politicians and journalists, in a totally non-partisan way, for talking out both sides of our mouths. The other Imus, though, invaded that wonderful media space with a toxicity that we found puzzling, uncomfortable, unnecessary, and ultimately destructive.
The show was a rich stew. But as a cook, I know that even a few dashes of the wrong spice or a spoiled moldy ingredient ruins the whole dish.
There’s enough hypocrisy to go around on this episode. And that includes me. As an occasional guest on Imus, I was well aware of his unfunny quips and sketches that were racist in their effect if not their intent. I am on a long list of journalists, politicians and book authors who enjoyed being let into Imus’s more serious salon of ideas and discourse, while we turned a deaf ear to the occasional and bafflingly unnecessary and unwelcome visiting minstrel show that would sometimes interrupt the proceedings.
My bosses at BW were as pleased as I was to be on the show, talking to an elite crowd. Some of my colleagues at BW, though, were never big fans of my appearances. And so it goes in a marketplace of ideas.
If Imus’s banishment, temporary or permanent, actually stimulates a deeper, more serious conversation about racism in the public discourse and song lyrics, then it will all be worth it. But forgive me if I am skeptical. Make no mistake, the advertisers who bailed on Imus were familiar with the show’s past of over-line racial and misogynistic banter. I specifically asked the marketing chief of Bigelow Tea about this in 2005, and he responded with how much Imus had done to build the Bigelow brand over the years—the shock jock riffing about how the company founder invented Constant Comment tea while she was in the bag one day in her kitchen; all that despite Imus not being a tea drinker.
And let’s not forget it was pretty recent that McDonald’s put the word out for rappers, gangsta-style included, to insert McDonald’s and its products into song lyrics for pay. Ford Motor Co. recently signed rap impresario and DJ Funkmaster Flex to a co-branding deal. I attended in 2005 a forum in New York City in which a major ad agency was trying to link rappers Ludacris, Big Boi, and Jermaine Dupri with marketers as mainstream and family-friendly as Verizon, Coca-Cola and Wendy’s.
As I said, there is enough hypocrisy to go around. If this really was a national moment for a new conversation, then let’s make sure we keep having it. Otherwise, all we have gained is a gotcha moment for the ages.