Citizen Imus Under Fire. But It's the Critics Who Will Get Burned.

David Kiley

Don Imus, as obnoxious as he can be some mornings on his syndicated radio show, does a lot of good work. And if he's guilty of anything reported in today's Wall Street Journal, it's probably indulging his own sense of how he and his wife, Diedre, want to do good works rather than listen to other people tell him what he ought to do and how he should do it.

A month or so ago, Imus mentioned that he spends $1.8 million a year to host 100 sick kids a year at the Imus Ranch in New Mexico. "Wow," I thought. That's $18,000 a kid so they can ride some horses and pet some chickens. Surely, there must be more kids that could be helped with all that money? I thought about doing a story on it. What I mostly found, though, was that as indulgent as spending that much money per sick kid may be, Imus was doing exactly what he said he wanted to do in 1999 when he began raising millions of dollars. He wanted a real, working cattle ranch where kids would learn responsibility and a sense of purpose as he did when he was a kid. Imus admitted to me Thursday that he can see how people would view it as indulgent. But he doesn't care. That's honest. One of the reasons they only handle 100 kids--ten kids per week for ten weeks, from May to September--he and Diedre told me, is that summer break is the only time the kids can come. Seems logical.

The Imuses are adamant in pursuing the anti-McDonald's strategy of ministering to sick kids. It's Diedre who invokes the McDonald's analogy of emphasizing quantity over quality. The Imus ranch, she says, is about giving kids in-depth constructive experiences, organic food, and a comfortable place to sleep and eat. Charity professionals say a lot more kids could be helped with the $20 million start-up costs for the ranch and the nearly $2 million a year operating costs if it was spent another way. "I reject that," says Imus. The Imuses say their ranch is a different proposition than a summer camp where kids "eat junk food and sleep on army cots."

Besides the kids, advertisers who have ponied up millions, including Readers Digest, The New York Stock Exchange, American Express and others have gotten much mileage out of their donations. One sponsorsing executive who said he didn't want to be named because of the current dust-up told me: "It's marketing for us. We've gotten much more in positive chatter about our brand than if we had bought the air time on his show."

The DJ says some have suggested to him that attention to the Ranch's tax filings from New York Attorney General Elliott Spitzer and now the WSJ story may have been provoked by angry pharmaceutical companies who want him to give up the mercury cause. That seems dodgy. I was first attracted to the story by Imus himself. And I doubt Spitzer, who is running for Governor of New York, would be swayed by Big Pharma. He knows that to win, he won't want Imus running against him on his show every morning. A supportive Imus will be worth far more to Spitzer than a million or two dollars from Big Pharma. He who takes on Imus pretty much always comes out on the worse end of the stick.

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