“What did you do on your vacation, Peter?”
“I went to sunny and warm Florida and got a chance to relax. How about you?
“I got a chance to see a radio icon commit suicide.”
“That’s the last time I take a vacation during sweeps!”
Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, legendary, hall of fame radio personality Don Imus threw himself on his sword as it were, quite possibly ending an otherwise prestigious, if tumultuous, 36 year career over his remarks towards the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team. The now infamous phrase “nappy-headed hos” will join ranks with other illustrious comments, like, “I did not have sex with that woman” and “I’m not a crook.”
What strikes me most about this spectacle is not the outlandishness of the remark; anyone paying attention over the last four decades probably had the “pleasure” of hearing worse language from him. Nor is it even the clamor from outraged minority groups, lead particularly by Al Sharpton whom Newsday’s Shawn Powell correctly referred to as a racial ambulance chaser. No, the remark was repugnant and the outrage justified. One could say that Imus finally got what he deserved. In an ironic twist of fate, after years of playing Russian roulette, critics argued he finally caught the bullet.
But did he deserve the bullet, and why, after all those tumultuous years of deriding and, in many cases, defaming people, did this political and emotional tidal wave finally take him out? Race is the ultimate four-letter word in American society; after three centuries, it is still a hot button for the body politic. While it is true that African Americans are treated far better now than they were, say, forty years ago – lynchings and cross burnings are virtually a thing of the past – critics say that America still has a considerable way to go to mend the damage of that legacy. So when anyone, especially someone in the position of Imus, cracks a remark that touches a nerve among such an historically discriminated group, there are consequences that must be doled out.
But did the consequences fit the crime? Certainly no one with half a brain could argue that Imus should get off scott free for his remarks, but shouldn’t the actions that both NBC and CBS took over the last two weeks bare an equal and complicit review? As Warner Wolf would say, “Let’s go to the video tape.”
Wednesday, April 4, Imus is in the middle of a comedy bit with Bernard McGuirk when he utters his now infamous comment. Both laugh heartily, not realizing the under-water sea quake that they just started.
Thursday, April 5, Imus tells listeners to get over it; that it was just street language. The tsunami begins headed for the shore.
Friday, April 6, with protests coming into both WFAN and MSNBC officials, Imus issues an apology for the remarks. The tsunami picks up momentum and speed.
Monday, April 9, five days after the original remarks, NBC and CBS, within hours of each other, as if trying to out do each other, finally issue statements condemning the remarks as “deplorable.” A giant “duh” is heard emanating from the African American community. Both networks agree to suspend him for two weeks, the suspension to begin the following week. The wave is within striking distance of the shoreline. Later that day Imus goes on Al Sharpton’s radio show and with already one foot squarely in his mouth, he inserts the other foot by referring to both Sharpton and a black congresswoman as “you people.” Turn over steak and apply seasoning!
Wednesday, April 11, one full week after the initial insulting remarks, MSNBC decides to drop the Imus in the Morning show from its simulcast, effective immediately. Water recedes from the shoreline as on lookers see a massive wave off in the distance headed straight for them.
Thursday, April 12, late in the afternoon, CBS radio follows MSNBC’s lead and fires Don Imus. A statement issued by CBS President and Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves, said, "From the outset, I believe all of us have been deeply upset and repulsed by the statements that were made on our air about the young women who represented Rutgers University in the NCAA Women's Basketball Championship with such class, energy and talent." The tidal wave finally sweeps ashore, taking out the man most thought to be impenetrable and indestructible.
While Moonves’ statement was accurate, if superficial, in its theme, why did it take over a week to issue? Was Don Imus any less insulting or repulsive last Wednesday when he made his comments? Of course not, but last Wednesday all he was was a loud-mouth shock jock who uttered another in a series of questionable remarks. No one at either network could have anticipated the groundswell of public outrage and furor that was to come. What is the most repulsive thing about this entire episode is not the fact that an aging white man uttered a phrase more commonly heard on a hip-hop album, but rather the conduct of both NBC and CBS. By waiting as long as they did to take action – five days! - they exacerbated an already tense situation, until, finally with sponsors bailing on them left and right, they had no choice but to remove Imus, just to stop the hemorrhaging. All the high-brow, altruistic comments made by both companies were nothing more than a feeble attempt to placate an outraged community who kept insisting on blood and the corporate sponsors, who were themselves concerned about their own image. Imus became the poster boy for all that was wrong with American race relations. Somebody please pass me the barf bag.
Ironically, the TRUE victims in this messy affair, the Rutgers’ Women’s Basketball Team, have proven themselves the only decent and courageous party. If anyone had a right to get on their high horse and scream for vengeance, it was those 10 young women and their coach. But instead of calling for Imus’ head, all of them wanted to meet the man who slandered them, and get to know him and hopefully give him a chance to know them. Their class and dignity, in an otherwise vulgar scenario, should have set an example for the country and laid the foundation for a true dialogue into the problems in our country. Instead the focus has been on Imus and his storied career.
In the end what got Imus canned was not so much his mouth, though it certainly played a role, but the underlying fear within corporate America that whatever rocks the boat and threatens the bottom line must be dealt with in the harshest of terms. In deed Imus’ greatest crime might have been that he bit the hand that fed him. The very same networks that financially benefited from his off-color humor and abrasive personality, when they saw their profits threatened, turned on him like a tiger eating its young. And like the tsunami that swept onto shore to devour the invincible, when it was finally done receded back into the ocean leaving in its wake the aftermath of its destruction.
Imus will be back, perhaps sooner than most expect. The backlash against his firing is already gaining its own sort of tsunami, though not nearly as big as the one that lead to his dismissal. And the reason he will be back is very basic and simple: he makes his employers money. You may call them shallow and transparent, but company executives know a cash cow when they see one. But when, and in what manner will he return? Will it be on terrestrial radio, or on satellite? Already there are rumors that Sirius may sign him. Sirius president Scott Greenstein was Imus’ old boss when the two worked at WNBC in the 1980s. It was Greenstein who signed Howard Stern to his multi-million dollar contract two years ago. Satellite radio might well prove the perfect venue for Imus to reconstitute his damaged reputation, and given what will prove to be a very rigid and carefully-watched landscape in both radio and television, might end up being the only outlet that will have him.
It has been said that politics make strange bedfellows. They got nothing on corporate America!