Yeah, yeah, Don Imus got what he had coming for the racist, sexist remarks he made about the impressive women on the Rutgers University basketball team. Or did he?
This observer and broadcaster did not call for Imus’ firing. As one who owns and manages a radio station, I would not have hired someone with Imus’ reputation in the first place. I figured that was the responsibility and decision of those who opted to employ him. The government is not involved, so rants about freedom of speech simply don’t apply — the only issue in play was what CBS Radio and MSNBC wanted representing their corporations in their air product. As such, CBS and NBC will have to grapple with what moved them to hire the shock jock/interviewer in the first place, given that he has a long history of making racist, sexist and homophobic statements on air and later issuing boilerplate apologies and decide how they will operate in future. (That same thing should be on the minds of national pundits and pols who had no problem appearing on the oft-controversial show.)
Of course Imus is to blame for what he said and merits any fallout that occurs. But let’s be honest: Imus is one man, one broadcaster. What about the culture that made him successful and led huge corporations to hire an already polarizing figure?
Did he deserve to be axed by his bosses? Perhaps. (Though his dismissal would mean more if the marketplace — i.e. sponsors and listeners — had made the decision to reject his humor-motivated hate speech.) But it needs saying that Don Imus was a fall guy: He is but one broadcaster who embodies our media’s collective embrace of hate for profit’s sake.
Journalist Bree Walker of CBS News, a former Imus colleague, offers a worthy comment on the situation:
I know him. I worked with him. I liked him.
I don’t think he really meant it….too bad he didn’t think before he said it. But there is no question in my mind that Don Imus is the sacrificial lamb in a manic media moment of forced “clarity,” contrived collective spasm of conscience. We have every right to be horrified at his hateful spew, but we had also better be looking in the mirror when we do it. If it’s true that media reflect(s?) the culture of their moment, then we have to accept that the I-Man is a victim of our times, when big corporate media has encouraged our mad dash to the bottom of a moral escalator. And what do we find at the bottom? Basic human decency and respect is not profitable; shock and controversy are. It’s that simple. Nothing new.
I’ve been wondering why it took so long for MSNBC and CBS to assess the damage, to calculate the pros and cons of his actions before they actually did anything meaningful. The answer has shown itself by degrees; first a suspension in response to sponsors pulling out, then a final blow to the big dog when the political fallout became clear. If it was really a matter of MSNBC and CBS executives knowing immediately right from wrong, this humiliating fall of the nation’s original shock jock would not have taken over a week to complete. Imus continued to sputter and defend, obviously desperate to fix what could not be repaired. All the while his corporate bosses waited in the wings to figure out where their moral compass would point — after they give it a good spin.
This is the real tragedy, in my humble opinion.
All this hysteria over an old man’s thoughtless, stupid moment obscures the real issue: Broadcasting is a white man’s business. Almost every other big business in the United States has diversity in its chief executive offices — except for broadcasting. Check any of the media watchdog web sites or our government’s general accounting office statistics and you’ll see this truth. Minorities, especially African Americans, are practically nonexistent in big corporate media power positions.
That leaves the Jesse Jacksons, the Rev. Al Sharptons, the Snoop Doggs, to rush in and fill the vacuum, acting like broadcast entities themselves in the absence of real, everyday black men and women who might better represent true opinions of their population. The dearth of ethnic voices in big broadcasting have allowed it to become one of the most slanted and corrupt businesses in America. The lobby money thrown around by the National Assoc. of Broadcasters absolutely shapes the messages coming out of Washington DC, which are under this administration, devoid of real human values on their own.
If we allow to continue the corruption of our public airwaves by complete misrepresentation of its total complex voice, we will be cheering on from the sidelines its individual celebrities to the finish line, to join the bottom feeders at the corporate message of hate speech for profit.
There once was a fairness doctrine in broadcasting. Those who fought to repeal it claimed it hampered freedom of speech and that it did nothing to actually shape public opinion because it left only mixed messages in the memory imprint on the broadcast consumer.
Maybe we need to consider that the right to freedom of speech was conceived at a gentler, more humane time in our Western Culture? I don’t think our founding fathers would have endorsed this slippery slope to the bottom, and I know our founding mothers would have washed out all our filthy little mouths. Just like the I-Man’s mom, if she were alive, would likely be doing now, perhaps even sparing her son the worse fate of a final bow in such public humiliation.
When I worked with Don, he was a kind, decent man. Sometimes grappling with addiction, but always fighting back. Looks to me like the desperate lure of relentless ambition in the face of meaner times pushed him over the edge. There is no rehab for this. It is too big for one man. It is a cultural soul sickness that has been ignored, engendered by media for profit. And therefore encouraged by all of us who do not insist on change for the better, who do not fight for a return to the fairness doctrine, and demand diversity in media. The I-Man was our fall guy.
Listen: If Imus moves to, say, XM or Sirius, he immediately will have a huge audience of people who love him and agree with his humor — and this group will be one pissed-off mass of humanity, ready to defend their martyred fall guy (and with more than a little justification). Fans of hate humor (and that includes people who love rap music that utilizes the same nasty lexicon used by Don Imus against the Rutgers team) have the right to have their entertainment needs met too, if they exist in numbers that warrant the expense involved in mounting a local or national broadcast. Right now, they are being punished as much as Imus is.
So, where are we now? The I-Man is, for now (though likely not for long if he wants to work again), off the air. The time has come to address the bigger issues. It’s time for listeners and programmers to speak and take action against the exploitation of societal hate and stereotypes on the public airwaves — perhaps, through the marketplace of ideas, we can convince people to strive for more enlightened programming. But we must remember: If there is a market for the particular humor of types such as Imus or Howard Stern or Opie and Anthony, we have to accept that audience’s right to be entertained as they see fit. That means thickening our own sensitive skins; if a business wants to sell bigoted talk, people have the right to buy and enjoy it.
And that means examining why the media seem to consider Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson — guys who say whatever the hell they want but don’t see the hypocrisy in their calls for firing everyone but themselves — the spokespersons for anyone with more melanin than seems acceptable by the majority society. That is one problem among many existing within the larger problem of societal hate and repression of marginalized groups.
In other words, it’s time to work toward positive, progressive change for a better broadcasting experience and a better, more tolerant society. Who’s up for real debate to create real change? And who will make that change happen while ensuring that minorities — even those who like Imus/Stern/Opie & Anthony-style humor — are allowed to express themselves freely and to enjoy their preferred brand of entertainment and commentary? The answer to those questions will make a story more compelling than the Imus implosion, heartwarming as it was for many, ever could be.