Sunday, August 12, 2007

Imus, arise!?!

“You can’t keep a good man down,” goes the saying, a testament to the irrepressible human spirit. Implicit in that phrase is our tendency to make comebacks against all odds, to triumph in the face of adversity, to improbably rise when the smart money said we were finished.

Don Imus, the radio personality fired April 12 from his morning program on WFAN Radio (owned by CBS) for needlessly incendiary racial comments about the Rutgers University women's basketball team, may be the latest example of our inclination to rise from the ashes. Cashiered for his comments by CBS and MSNBC, both of which broadcast his program as a radio show and a cable-TV simulcast [see “Imus in the mourning”], Imus has quietly been taking steps to regain his place on the air, by some estimates as soon as January.

Imus had signed a five-year, $40 million deal with CBS shortly before the Rutgers incident, in which he inexplicably referred to the Scarlet Knights basketball team, which lost the NCAA women's title, as "some nappy-headed hos." With lightning speed, advertisers from Staples, General Motors and GlaxoSmithKline to American Express, Bigelow Tea and Procter & Gamble pulled their ads from his lucrative program, or announced plans to do so.

Protests followed. "As an African-American, I believe that Imus has crossed the line, a very bright line that divides our country," said Bruce Gordon, a CBS director and former president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "His remarks are so significant that I believe that the right outcome is for him to be terminated." Gordon said.

Imus was dismissed within days.

Since then he's been laying low on his ranch near Ribera, N.M., weighing his options. One of those options was to retain First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus, who filed a $120 million wrongful-termination lawsuit against CBS, mounting a defense largely based on free speech issues. Garbus is no stranger to such issues; it was he who defended Lenny Bruce, the legendary comedian whose controversial incendiary delivery in the 1950’s and 1960’s made the shock jocks of today possible.

"According to Garbus, when Imus said 'nappy-headed hos,' he was being ironic—goofing on the pleasure white society gets from co-opting the lexicon of the black world," reported Robert Kolker in the Aug. 10 issue of New York Magazine.

Whatever the justification, it's thought that the prospect of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit has concentrated the minds of CBS suits -- particularly CBS president Les Moonves -- wonderfully, perhaps even to the point of pursuing an unthinkable course of action.

"Perhaps more than anything, it was the lawsuit that changed things," Kolker reported. "No one at CBS will confirm it had an effect, but after it was filed, network executives began considering the unthinkable: bringing Imus back.

"Giving Imus his old job wouldn’t just help restore WFAN’s morning ratings—it would quite possibly cost less than having to go to court with Imus," Kolker reported. "What if, instead of fighting, CBS renegotiated to take Imus back at, say, half the $40 million? Or even a third?"

“The demand was he be fired from a job he routinely abused,” Sharpton told New York Magazine. “There was never a sense that he be removed from making a living.”

But Sharpton's position amounts to a distinction without a difference. If Imus goes back on the air, what's to stop him from making a living doing exactly what got him fired in April?

More problematic for CBS is a foundational fact that its executives have yet to fully address: If the company is serious about turning a blind eye to those comments, it has to contend with what will be seen as blatant hypocrisy on its part. CBS fired Imus, justifying the dismissal with an array of reasons based on moral principle – the idea of “doing the right thing.” (Left unsaid was the big financial hit CBS would have taken if they’d let Imus stay on the air.)

How, then, can CBS possibly do an about-face, letting him back on the air, without undercutting the very moral arguments they had for firing him in the first place? Count on it: The same firestorm of protests, the same wholesale defection of deep-pocketed advertisers will surface all over again -- and for exactly the same reasons.

"Don Imus has a cockroach’s knack for survival," Kolker wrote in New York Magazine. And it's true: He was dismissed in 1977 after misisng 100 days of work in a year, and for reportedly going on the air mumbling incoherently while ripped to the tits on vodka and cocaine. After drying out at Hazelden, Imus returned to the airwaves within two years.

On Feb. 6, Imus opined that as a way to prevent Islamic terrorists in the future, "it might be good to start with somebody who is willing to take three [nuclear weapons] and drop one on Mecca, one on Jeddah, and ... one on Riyadh," all cities in Saudi Arabia. Imus was never taken to task for the comment.

Imus made a reference to the "Jewish management" of CBS Radio as "money-grubbing bastards" on the Nov. 30 broadcast of MSNBC's "Imus in the Morning" program. Imus was never taken to task for that comment.

Don Imus' apparently bulletproof instinct for surviving controversy is well-documented. What's less clear right now is how well his once-and-possibly-future employer might be able to do the same thing.

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