Media/Entertainment

Enabling Don Imus

I had no intention of writing about Don Imus – after all, Doc Sammy has been his usual provocative self on this topic at his LiveJournal blog lullabypit — and some of my comments echo his.

But when I saw what CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves said last week after Imus’s firing, I felt compelled to respond to Moonves’s pious, hypocritical bleating. In a memo to CBS employees announcing Imus’s dismissal, Moonves said:

“This is about a lot more than Imus. As has been widely pointed out, Imus has been visited by presidents, senators, important authors and journalists from across the political spectrum.” Now, consider the sentence that immediately follows: “He has flourished in a culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people. In taking him off the air, I believe we take an important and necessary step not just in solving a unique problem, but in changing that culture, which extends far beyond the walls of our company.”

Yougottabefogginkiddinme.

CBS, after all, recently signed Imus to a five-year extension. Where was Moonves’ concern then for “changing the culture”? In comments about the slur that brought Imus down, Mooves said: “[T]here has been much discussion of the effect language like this has on our young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this society.”

That “discussion” was prompted only after Imus picked the wrong group to belittle: a college athletic team with women of color on its roster. Nothing against the Rutgers women’s basketball team, but this shows – again – that athletics is a golden calf in America. After all, this backlash didn’t occur after Imus belittled Gwen Ifill.

Moonves is right, however, when he says, “This is about a lot more than Imus.” It’s also about the people who have enabled Imus, including the “presidents, senators, [and] important authors” who have appeared on his show.

As someone who spent nearly 25 years as a journalist before becoming a journalism teacher, though, the first enablers I think of are Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, David Gregory, Andrea Mitchell, Tim Russert and Chris Matthews, all of whom work for NBC News. Did they not realize racism, sexism and other “isms” bookended their appearances with Imus on his MSNBC radio-television simulcasts? Were they unaware that their appearances were a tacit endorsement of a guy whose cowboy hat was on too tight, curtailing the blood flow to his brain and heart? Imus tossed out the word “hos” in his moment of infamy; the word “whores” suffices as comment on Brokaw et al for selling out their journalistic integrity for the additional exposure they received on Imus.

But they were not the only ones degrading themselves for profit. Viacom, which owns CBS (CBS Radio produced the Imus show), and General Electric, which owns NBC, clearly were only in it for the money, and there must have been a lot of money to be made, considering Imus earned an estimated $10 million a year. Advertising revenue clearly drove the initial decision by CBS and NBC to try to douse the Imus fire by putting him on probation for two weeks. After all, CBS Radio and its affiliates earned more than four times Imus’s salary from Imus syndication and advertising, and NBC earned millions too.

Speaking of advertisers, add them to the list of enablers. Withdrawing their Imus sponsorship pressured CBS and NBC where it mattered most: the ledger. But where was the prior outrage from Staples Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp., General Motors, GlaxoSmithKline, American Express and the tall dog on the Imus advertising block, Procter & Gamble? And was their action truly prompted by a sense of what is right? Consider this opinion from Jon Verret, who teaches advertising at Boston University:

“A company like Procter & Gamble, they certainly stand for motherhood, apple pie, and everything good about the United States. I don’t think they wanted to flirt for one second with a boycott of any of their products or be seen in any way as backing what Imus said.” In the interests of reaching nearly 4 million listeners a week, though, the sponsors didn’t have any doubts about Imus before his Rutgers miscue.

In addition to the NBC syncophants mentioned earlier, many other media personalities are enablers, too, because they’ve contributed to the toxic degradation of social and political commentary. As Harvey Fierstein wrote in an op-ed piece in The New York Times:

“During the last few months alone we’ve had a few comedians spout racism, a basketball coach put forth anti-Semitism and several high-profile spoutings of anti-gay epithets. […] Sure, there were voices of protest when the TV actor Isaiah Washington called a gay colleague a ‘faggot.’ But corporate America didn’t pull its advertising from ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ as it did with Mr. Imus, did it? And when Ann Coulter likewise tagged a presidential candidate last month, she paid no real price.

“In fact, when Bill Maher discussed Ms. Coulter’s remarks on his HBO show, he repeated the slur no fewer than four times himself; each mention, I must note, solicited a laugh from his audience. No one called for any sort of apology from him. (Well, actually, I did, so the following week he only used it once.)”

And has the constant repetition of the Imus slur really been necessary, or is this an example of Maher’s tactics? After all, what Imus said was widespead knowledge a day or so of his uttering it on April 4 (the same date of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination).

I hope I’m wrong, but this momentary heightened awareness about intolerance will vanish quickly. As Fierstein said:

“Our nation, historically bursting with generosity toward strangers, remains remarkably unkind toward its own. Just under our gleaming patina of inclusiveness, we harbor corroding guts. America, I tell you that it doesn’t matter how many times you brush your teeth. If your insides are rotting your breath will stink. So, how do you people choose which hate to embrace, which to forgive with a wink and a week in rehab, and which to protest? Where’s my copy of that rule book?”

As long as those questions remain open, another Imus will emerge to replace the ones we banish to the sidelines – or to satellite radio.

In the interests of making this post easier to read, I did not attribute facts and statistics. That material (or material that helped me understand context) came from the Washington Post, The New York Times, the Boston Globe, Forbes.com, BBC News, the Guardian (U.K.), The International Herald Tribune, The Associated Press and Eurweb.com. It is my fault if errors resulted from my analysis or paraphrasing of this information.

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