Imus Under Fire: But Does He Deserve To Burn?

David Kiley

Radio personality Don Imus has been suspended from his daily radio show for two weeks following complaints from civil rights and an anti-defamation advocates who complained to CBS Radio and MSNBC that his comments about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, calling the ladies “nappy headed hos”, were over the line.

Speaking as a regular Imus listener, and occasional guest, I have to say that Imus’s public apology and subsequent suspension are merited. He got what he deserved. Calls for Imus to be fired, though, seem like overkill.

But what I think doesn't matter much. The real judges on this will be the advertisers. Procter & Gamble, Staples, General Motors, ditech and GlaxoSmithKline Plc. have pulled ads. Long-time advertiser Bigelow Teas says it is reviewing its ad plans on Imus. In the past, the execs at the family-owned privately-held Bigelow Tea have credited its recurring ad buys on Imus for building its brand, especially in Eastern seaboard markets.

Despite occasional lapses of judgements and ventures into such sophomoric and offensive comedy, Imus has a great relationship with advertisers like NorthFork Bank, Readers Digest, General Motors, Federal Express to name a few. They often pay extra for Imus to read th ads himself and do a comedic riff on the ad copy. And they not only have been advertisers for CBS Radio and MSNBC, but contributors to his charitable causes. Readers Digest even bought the naming rights to the town in New Mexico where Imus's ranch for cancer-stricken children is located. But this may be something some of them can't or won't get over. A few of them won't want to risk a boycott. A few may justs be as offended as we all are over what he said.

If he continus to lose advertisers at this rate, CBS Radio and MSNBC may not have a choice but to hut him down. Up to now, his show brings in a combined $50 million a year in ad revenue between TV and radio. His audiences are smaller than those of Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, but he attracts a much wealthier and better educated male audience than those other jocks, and thus is able to charge much more for ad time.

Imus and his on-air team have long played with fire when it comes to racism and bigotry. His writing staff and on-air performers have long parodied Rev. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and other prominent blacks with an emphasis on using urban slang and even ebonics to make the joke. He has called me and most other people that are at least 20 pounds overweight “Fat Bastards.”

Immediately after Imus’s “ho” comment, the show's executive producer, Bernard McGuirk, called the team "hard-core hos." Later, former Imus sports announcer Sid Rosenberg, who was filling in for sportscaster Chris Carlin, said: "The more I look at Rutgers, they look exactly like the Toronto Raptors." Ironically, Rosenberg had at one time been banished from the show for making a poor, out-of-hand, completely unfunny remark about women with breast cancer.

In my opinion, Imus and his on-air cast have walked the razor’s edge for years between making fun of racism by appearing to be racist and actually being racist. As a long-time listener, I don’t believe for a second that Imus is a racist. But when you sound like a racist, you can’t expect people, especially those who don't listen all the time, to believe you when you say “That’s not what I meant. You didn’t get the joke.” Making fun of racism by appearing to be racist is a pretty complicated form of humor. A few months ago, that’s what I thought actor Michael “Kramer” Richards was trying to do in a Los Angeles comedy club when he went on a rant against some hecklers using the “N” word. In the aftermath, I still don’t know what Richards was up to, though.

Imus has said on the air that what he said was repugnant. He says he is humiliated. I believe him. He is a cult of personality to those who listen to his show. He is a serial sonovabitch when he wants to be. He’s cranky and angry, and his show is often funny. And he often has interviews with key leaders that are more revealing than 90% of the other interviews the same people do on other programs.

Frankly, I’m weary of people’s lives being completely undone by uttering a few dumb syllables.

What is unfolding now is that Rev. Al Sharpton, African-American newspaper and magazine editors and columnists and others are calling for Imus to lose his radio show. I can see their argument. They are offended and want their pound of flesh. But here is another argument.

First, Imus has used his platform to raise tens of million of dollars for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, The Hackensack Children’s Hospital, a ranch he and his wife run to give kids suffering from cancer and other diseases a tremendous experience. And more recently, he helped raised millions to build a rehab hospital for returning Iraq vets in San Antonio, and pressured Congress to raise the death benefit to KIA widows from $12,000 to $500,000. He’s also done a tremendous amount to raise awareness of autism, and driven lawmakers to stand up to pharmaceutical companies that are pressuring elected officials to dismiss theories that a mercury preservative used in vaccines affects the rate and incidence of autism.

Beyond that, nobody did more to try and get Rep. Harold Ford Jr., an African-American, elected Senator of Tennessee last year. He had Ford on at least a dozen times in the two months before the election. It was as much a crusade of Imus's as his efforts to raise money

So, how about some balance. This business of one sentence carelessly uttered on the airwaves wiping out years of good works seems pretty unfair. I’m suddenly reminded of how John Kerry’s war record was smeared dishonestly because of a few paragraphs he spoke to Congress more than thirty years ago about alleged war atrocities committed by U.S. servicemen. And his Presidential candidacy was wiped out with one misunderstood utterance, “I voted for it before I voted against it.”

In the world of Lexis/Nexis, the Net and Youtube, somebody out there wants to hang someone with a well chosen sound-bite every day. We need balance.

But let’s look at it practically. Is Imus worth more to those offended if he has no platform in the future? Or is he worth more to them as an incredibly chastened public figure wiling to be the poster-boy for racial sensitivity. I would think he’s worth more on the air than off.

I believe CBS Radio and MSNBC reacted properly to the outcries. I do not believe that Imus is repentant because of corporate pressure on his show. I believe he knows that he and his group play fast and loose with what’s funny, and he realizes they blew it and offended a lot of people. I also believe he desperately does not want to lose the platform he has to raise money and effect change on the causes he has chosen. He has enough money for him, his wife and son to be comfortable for two lifetimes and then some. It’s not about the money in his pocket. That’s not why he is saying he is sorry. He’s saying it, I believe, because he is.

The question in the coming weeks is who will return to his show. Among his regulars are Tim Russert, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, Chris Matthews, John Kerry, former Congressman Harold Ford Jr., John McCain, Tom Friedman, Sen Chris Dodd, Governor Bill Richardson, etc.

Today, Harold Ford Jr. was scheduled to appear and didn't show up without calling the show in advance to tell them. He just didn't show. It will be interesting to see if the advertisers will feel the same way. If that's the case, there's always satellite radio.

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