Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Don Imus' 14-month 'lifetime' warranty

Just when you thought it was safe to turn on the radio again — he’s baaaack. Don Imus, celebrated and reviled radio talk-show host, returned Monday to his old form, invoking the racist inferences and innuendo that got him fired from his previous radio job — and appearing, at least, to go back on the lofty promise he made to some of his targets of opportunity last year.

On Monday, Imus made comments about suspended Dallas Cowboys cornerback Adam Jones in a segment with his sports announcer, Warner Wolf:

Wolf: Here’s a guy suspended all of 2007 following a shooting in a Vegas nightclub —

Imus: Well, stuff happens. You’re in a nightclub, for God’s sake. What do you think’s gonna happen in a nightclub? People are drinking and doing drugs … There are women there and people have guns …

Wolf: He’s been arrested six times since being drafted by Tennessee in 2005 —

Imus: What color is he?

Wolf: He’s African American.

Imus: Well, there you go. Now we know.

At first blush, it looked like the same kind of blithe but malicious racial character assassination that Imus engaged in in April 2007, when Imus, then working for WFAN radio and simulcasting his radio show on MSNBC cable, called the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed ho’s” on the air. Imus, whose previous exploits in a 40+ year radio career have reportedly been fueled as much by vodka and cocaine as by vitriol and populist outrage, was fired by both his employers within a week.

Since then, Imus has rebounded, returning to radio on the ABC Radio Networks and to cable television on Rural Media Networks' RFD satellite network, in December 2007. In full contrition mode, Imus hired two black comedians, Karith Foster and Tony Powell, to act as foils and counters to some of his expected racialist barbs. And in his first program post-Rutgers, Imus seemed to fully recognize the gravity of events around him. Imus pledged to “never say anything in my lifetime that will make any of these young women at Rutgers regret or feel foolish that they accepted my apology and forgave me."

◊ ◊ ◊

Imus sent an e-mail to The New York Times on Monday, and today went on his ABC Radio program to embellish on his earlier explanations, saying he was trying to “make a sarcastic point” about the presence of black people in the U.S. criminal justice system.

“What people should be outraged about is that they arrest blacks for no reason,” he said today. “I mean, there's no reason to arrest this kid six times. Maybe he did something once, but everyone does something once.”

He dismissed the criticism. “How insane would I have to be? What would I be thinking?” Imus said.

Foster, one of three black staffers on the Imus program, came to his defense. "People who interpret what you said as racist clearly didn't hear the whole thing, and they don't know who you are and what the program is about — and they obviously haven't been listening.'' Foster said, calling for context.

Jones himself, reacting today on the Web site of the Dallas Morning News, said “Obviously Mr. Imus has problems with African-Americans. I'm upset, and I hope the station he works for handles it accordingly. I will pray for him.''

“What would I be thinking?” Imus said today, asking the question asked by black Americans and just about anyone else. The Monday episode, of course, wouldn’t be the first time Imus’ subconscious mind decided to go for one of the little walks it takes from time to time, leaving reason and argument, and strolling over to the bigotry side of the street. He’s been there before.

In 1998, when he told CBS’ "60 Minutes" that he hired an African-American producer to "tell nigger jokes."

In 2000, when he described the New York Knicks as “chest-thumping pimps.”

In 2007, when he described Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz as “a boner-nosed... beanie-wearing Jewboy."

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s sad, more than anything else, that a man whose medium is in the center of everything can himself seem to be so out of touch with everything. After last year, and with all that happened since, Imus’ flashes of madcap fire really just don’t matter that much anymore. The viewers he gets on RFD-TV nowadays are one-third of those who watched him on MSNBC. Statements like those he made Monday are a scream for attention, a willful act of malicious rebellion — a bit like a child who pulls the wings off of a fly just to see what happens.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network, said he and his organization are still deciding on a course of action. “[I]t plays into stereotypes,” Sharpton said Tuesday of Imus’ comments, on his National Action Network Web site. “Any use of stereotypes is always counterproductive. We will determine in the next day or so whether or not his remark warrants direct action on our part …”

But frankly, no matter what Sharpton decides … we’ve moved on. There’s nothing to see here now, and wasn’t that much to see before. The stakes are higher today. We’re electing a president this year, and we’ve caught Imus’s act before, when he had a way higher profile.

The 2008 Don Imus model may not work any better than the previous models did. There’s supposed to be a Kum Ba Yah upgrade in place, with contrition and apology in the new hard drive. Apparently, though, the old repeat-offender chip still controls the operating system.

Just drag that “lifetime” warranty into the Trash.
Image credit: Imus magazine cover: ©2007, 2008 Time Inc.

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