Friday, April 13, 2007

Imus in the mourning

Rage is a strange and powerful thing. It leads men to temptation, it makes allowances for trespass and brooks no forgiveness for those who trespass against us. It leads us to turbulent waters, clouds the judgment and the heart, and makes people see things that aren't really there. Rage reveals both folly and tragedy in pretty much equal measure; it's fundamental to the national conversation, and if you choose to ignore it, you do so at your own peril.

In the stark Fitzgerald's 3 a.m. of his soul, if he were honest about it, George Bush would tell you this.

So would John Donald Imus.

Imus, the 67-year-old legendary radio personality, noisy scold, tireless social commentator and iconoclastic firebrand, has made a career of outrage and impatience and a certain willingness to take shots at people whether they deserve it or not.

It's all made for a rabidly loyal following of fans -- listeners to his radio shows on WNYC and, more recently, WFAN Radio; public figures at every level, including politicians, authors and musicians; and most recently viewers of "Imus in the Morning," a cable TV-simulcast version of his WFAN radio show broadcast by MSNBC from their studios in Secaucus, N.J.

In a sports segment on April 4, at 6:14 a.m. local time, talk between Imus and his broadcast partners turned to the NCAA women's basketball game between Rutgers University and Tennessee.

"That's some rough girls from Rutgers," Imus cracked. "Man, they've got tattoos and ... " At that point Bernie McGuirk, Imus's longtime friend and producer, jumped in. "Some hard-core hos," he said. Imus, laughing, pressed further. "That's some nappy-headed hos there, I'm going to tell you that now," he said. Belly laughs all around. After a few more ugly jibes, they were on to the next thing.

Unspoken, for the most part, was the fact that April 4 was the 39th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.

The shitstorm of protest started early and seriously. The Imus exchange was noted by a sharp researcher at Media Matters for America, the Washington-based media watchdog group. Then the head of the National Association of Black Journalists called for his ouster. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton weighed in (a little automatically but necessarily, too).

And just that fast, the bigger shoes dropped. By April 6, the advertisers began to bail from both CBS Radio and MSNBC. Sprint Nextel, Staples, Ditech, GlaxoSmithKline, General Motors, Procter & Gamble and other deep-pocketed heavy hitters threatened to jump ship; in the minds of many, that prospective desertion by advertisers sounded the death knell for the Imus program as much as any lapse of ethics or social judgment.

In an attempt at damage control, on April 9: Imus said "Want to take a moment to apologize for an insensitive and ill-conceived remark we made the other morning regarding the Rutgers women's basketball team.

It was completely inappropriate, and we can understand why people were offended. Our characterization was thoughtless and stupid, and we are sorry."

Note the liberal exercise of the Royal 'We," a transparent attempt, some said, at deflecting the criticism beyond the person responsible: Imus himself.

Then came other damage control: MSNBC released a statement the same day: "While simulcast by MSNBC, 'Imus in the Morning' is not a production of the cable network and is produced by WFAN Radio. As Imus makes clear every day, his views are not those of MSNBC. We regret that his remarks were aired on MSNBC and apologize for these offensive comments."

But it was so much weak tea, preceded as it was by previous promises by Imus not to resort to such broad and ruthless castigations. David Carr, the media columnist for The New York Times, wrote that Imus' remark was "the kind of unalloyed racial insult that might not have passed muster on a low-watt AM station in the Jim Crow South."

Imus was put on a two-week suspension by both WFAN/CBS and MSNBC. That might have been enough if not for something unexpected of Imus' usual targets. The Rutgers team decided to fight back.

The team's coach, Vivian Stringer, spoke eloquently about the impact of Imus' words on the team, and the wider signal it sent about America. Her comments -- long-winded but surely heartfelt -- had the devastating impact of a watershed event. In their own way, Stringer's respone and that of the black members of the team were the same kind of cri du coeur as those made by Joseph Welch to Sen. Joseph McCarthy at the House Un-American Activities committee hearings in 1953. "At long last, Mr. Imus," Stringer seemed to say, "have you no sense of decency?"

Imus was fired by MSNBC on April 11. CBS Radio cashiered him yesterday.

Popular culture, being the debris-strewn superhighway that it sometimes is, will grow around this little episode. Imus will no doubt turn up somewhere else in the information ether, hopefully a little wiser and circumspect about what he says, more learned in doing one of pop-culture's more enduring dance steps: the Mea Culpa Mea Culpa Kum Ba Yah.

But his comments had an impact beyond the words containing the comments, and an object lesson for anyone who works with words for a living.

For many people, maybe the most galling thing about the Imus comments weren't specific to the comments themselves. Imus’ commentary proved, absolutely and undeniably, just how low the behavioral baseline for public discourse has fallen in recent years. With his acutely ridiculous statement, it was no longer enough to be a card-carrying rap artist with gold chains, gold teeth, a gold Glock, ready cash and an appetite for the trademark excesses of the thug life (all of that mental construction as much a fabrication, an imitation of life, as anything remotely resembling reality).

Don Imus reset the mark: Now, and especially if you were African American and young, you were a target if you were ordinary people, hard-working, hard-studying exemplars of middle-class values, people putting one foot in front of the other, trying to survive. Imus’ remarks wounded precisely because of the pointless randomness of their intended targets. Everyone, no matter who you are, how undeserving of ridicule, everyone can be a target of the angry cosmology of John Donald Imus.

Words can hurt, words can damage. Anyone who truly respects the power of words understands that. Ten or twenty years later than he should have, Don Imus is learning that now.
Image credit: Time magazine

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