updated 4/11/2007 11:31:45 AM ET 2007-04-11T15:31:45

Guests: Clarence Page, Al Sharpton, Sabiyha Prince, Deforest Soaries

DAVID GREGORY, GUEST HOST:  Tonight, the Rutgers women‘s basketball team agrees to meet with Don Imus.  Will they forgive him?  And will it be enough to save his job?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m David Gregory, in tonight again for Chris.  NBC News and CBS radio have suspended radio talk show host Don Imus for two weeks starting April 16, condemning his racist and sexist comments about the Rutgers women‘s basketball team.  This morning, Imus appeared on NBC‘s “Today” and again apologized.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DON IMUS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  I am going to apologize to them and ask them for their forgiveness.  I don‘t expect that, and I don‘t think they have any obligation to either forgive me or to accept my apology.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  As we mentioned, today the young women at the center of the controversy, the Scarlet Knights, told reporters they will, indeed, meet with Don Imus.  Later, we are going to talk with the Reverend Al Sharpton about the controversy and also take a larger look at this incident and what it says about race relations and decency in our country.

But first the background and HARDBALL‘s David Shuster with this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  It was the announcement from the Rutgers women‘s basketball team that Don Imus had been hoping for.

ESSENCE CARSON, RUTGERS BASKETBALL PLAYER:  We have agreed to have a meeting with Mr. Don Imus.  This meeting will be a private meeting at an undisclosed location in the near future.

SHUSTER:  That means Imus will get an opportunity to explain and apologize in person for the comments he made last week on his broadcast.

IMUS:  Oh, some rough girls from Rutgers.  Man, they got tattoos and...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Some hard-core ho‘s.

IMUS:  That‘s some nappy-headed ho‘s there, I‘m going to tell you that!

(LAUGHTER)

C. VIVIAN STRINGER, RUTGERS WOMEN‘S BASKETBALL COACH:  It‘s not about the Rutgers women‘s basketball, it‘s about women.  Are women ho‘s?  Think about that.  Would you have wanted your daughter to have been called that?

PAGE:  Yesterday, NBC News announced that the simulcast of Imus‘s radio program on MSNBC will be suspended for two weeks starting next Monday because this week, the show is conducting a charity telethon.  Imus reacted this morning on the “Today” show.

IMUS:  I think it‘s appropriate, and I an going to try to serve it with some dignity and—a lot of dignity, if I can.  I‘ve had a long relationship going back to 1971 with people at NBC and a long relationship with CBS.  And when I talked with Phil Griffin last evening and he told me that he was—they were suspending me, I expressed to him that—how I felt about that and accepted it in the spirit in which it was—in which it was rendered.

SHUSTER:  But when pressed by Matt Lauer about a pattern of racial humor on his program, Imus was defensive.

IMUS:  This is a comedy show.  I‘m not a newsman.  This is not “Meet the Press.”  We don‘t—anything we say—it‘s not an excuse, but context is important.  There‘s a difference between premeditated murder and a gun going off accidentally.  I mean, somebody still gets shot, but the charges are dramatically different.

SHUSTER:  And Imus insisted his comments about the Rutgers team were not intended to be offensive.

IMUS:  But it was comedy.  It wasn‘t a malicious rant.  I wasn‘t angry.  I wasn‘t drunk.  I wasn‘t stating some sort of philosophy.  As I said yesterday morning, I‘m not a racist, I‘m—and I‘ve demonstrated that in my deeds, in my work.  And if we can only cite three or four instances in a comedy program...

MATT LAUER, “TODAY”:  Well, wait a second, Don...

IMUS:  ... which is designed to push the envelope over 30 years—you know—what I did is made a stupid, idiotic mistake in a comedy context.

LAUER:  Well, let me...

IMUS:  I didn‘t open the microphone to say, This is what I think of these Rutgers women.

LAUER:  Let me put it this way...

IMUS:  Does it mean I should be excused for the remark?  Absolutely not.

SHUSTER:  Also on the “Today” show this morning, Reverend Al Sharpton, who has called for Imus to be fired.

REV. AL SHARPTON, NATIONAL ACTION NETWORK:  What precedent are we setting now, that you can apologize every 10 years when you go over the line and maybe you‘ll get a two-week suspension?  I think that this is something that is unhealthy for everyone in America, and he should be fired.

SHUSTER:  Despite the joint appearance on the “Today” show, Don Imus attacked Sharpton for declining an invitation to appear on Imus‘s program following an Imus appearance yesterday on Sharpton‘s broadcast.

IMUS:  I talked to Reverend Sharpton yesterday for two hours, Matt, and I told Phil Griffin and everybody else that I didn‘t intend—I invited Reverend Sharpton to appear on my program, and he didn‘t have the courage that I had.

SHARPTON:  No, I decided I would not...

IMUS:  Because I walked—I‘m talking, Reverend Sharpton!

(CROSSTALK)

IMUS:  I walked in his studio yesterday, and there were hundreds of people there.  And my hands weren‘t shaking and I don‘t get up and run out of the studio every five minutes when the mikes went off.  I sat there and I talked to Reverend Horgans (ph) like a man—Reverend Sharpton like a man, and he did not keep his word.  I asked him to appear on my program.  He said he didn‘t want to appear at the scene of the crime!

SHUSTER:  As for Imus‘s request to meet with the Rutgers women...

IMUS:  And I am going to apologize to them and ask them for their forgiveness.  I don‘t expect that, and I don‘t think they any obligation to either forgive me or to accept my apology.

SHUSTER:  The Rutgers players said they would wait to hear what Imus said before making any judgments, but they added that Imus has a lot of explaining to do.

HEATHER ZURICH, RUTGERS BASKETBALL PLAYER:  And we were insulted, and yes, we were angry.  Worst of all, my team and I did nothing to deserve neither Mr. Imus nor Mr. McGuirk‘s deplorable comments.

PAGE:  A few of the players noted that the language used by Imus is used every day by some African-American hip-hop and rap artists.  But the players quickly added...

CARSON:  But that doesn‘t make it any more right for anyone to say it, not only Mr. Imus, but if I were to say it, it doesn‘t make it any more right.  It doesn‘t matter if you‘re African-American or whether you‘re Caucasian, Asian.  It really doesn‘t matter.  All that matters is that it‘s wrong.

SHUSTER:  But will they accept Imus‘s apology?

MATEE AJAVON, RUTGERS BASKETBALL PLAYER:  Right now, I cant really say if we—you know, we have come to a conclusion of, you know, whether we will accept the apology.  What I can say is that I think this meeting will be crucial.

SHUSTER (on camera):  Amidst the ongoing protests against Don Imus and the questions about whether journalists, including those at this network, will continue to appear on his program, Imus today pledged to make changes.  He said he would revamp his show, put on more African-American guests and talk more about issues of race.

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREGORY:  David, thank you very much.

We go now to “The Chicago Tribune‘s” Clarence Page and “The Congressional Quarterly‘s” Craig Crawford.  Welcome to you both.  Thanks for being here.

I want to read a couple of things, Clarence, and then have you respond.  Gwen Ifill, a colleague of ours who works for PBS, used to work for NBC News, wrote the following in a very thoughtful op-ed piece in “The New York Times.”  Quote, “The sincerity”—and she‘s talking about the sincerity from Imus—“seems forced and suspect because he‘s done some version of this”—these comments, she means—“several times before.”

Next, this is an exchange you had with the I-man on his program back in 2000, and I‘m going to read through it for our audience and for you to see.  Imus—this is—you introduced the idea of him taking a pledge here.

CLARENCE PAGE, “CHICAGO TRIBUNE”:  Want me to do my part here?

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY:  “I, Don Imus”—Clarence Page—“do solemnly swear,” “do solemnly swear,” “that I will promise to cease all simian references to black athletes,” “that I will promise to cease all simian references”—he repeats it—“a ban on all references to non-criminal blacks as thugs, pimps, muggers and Colt 45 drinkers,” “I promise to do that.”

Clarence Page, you‘re here with us now.  There was some laughter in the middle of this, but this was a serious...

PAGE:  That was Bernard.

(LAUGHTER)

PAGE:  That was Bernard in the background, yes.

GREGORY:  This was a serious point you were making.

PAGE:  Yes, it was, and I wanted to lighten it up a bit because this is a light show.  You know, part of the problem here, David, is that Don‘s successful.  He gets it both ways.  He‘s a combination shock jock and morning political discussion leader.

GREGORY:  Right.

PAGE:  You know, he says he is—you know, he is an entertainer, not a newsman, but you know, he...

GREGORY:  All right, but the point is...

PAGE:  He does both.

(CROSSTALK)

PAGE:  And so that‘s why I...

GREGORY:  ... serious in making this pledge.

PAGE:  That‘s why I wanted to get this in the right spirit of the program because at the time, this was the subject of—what, it was Tompaine.com had run a big piece about why are Washington‘s pundits supporting bigotry on Don Imus.  They ran a quarter page ad in “The New York Times” op-ed page.  And it quoted me saying, Well, I‘m concerned.  I‘d like to talk to Don about this...

(CROSSTALK)

PAGE:  So that‘s what led to all this.

GREGORY:  All right.  And now these comments, “nappy-headed ho‘s” is what he called these young women on the basketball team at Rutgers.

PAGE:  Right.

GREGORY:  Is he a racist or a serial offender, or both?  What, in your mind?

PAGE:  I like Don Imus personally.  I can‘t read his heart and say if he‘s a racist.  All I know is he says racist things from time to time.  That‘s what I told him back in 2001, as he was telling me he wasn‘t a racist, et cetera.  Gwen‘s right.  There are echoes in his current series of apologies to what he was saying in 2001, on various other occasions.

Don‘s done some great things for a lot of black folks, for people of color, including me.  When my book came out in ‘96, he gave me the kind of promo on the air there during his show that authors hunger for.  I have nothing personally against him, but I have certainly been on the air talking about his racially inflammatory humor on the show, him and Bernard.  It‘s all part of the package.  So this is not new.

Now, you know, my old daddy always said, Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.  Now that, you know, he‘s gone back on that pledge, I‘m even more troubled than I was before.

GREGORY:  Craig Crawford, is it time for Imus to go?

CRAIG CRAWFORD, “CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY,” MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: 

Not at all.  I don‘t see how that helps anything.  I would say this man—you know, in my experience on the show—I‘ve done it nearly 70 times in the last three years—this—his heart is as big as his mouth, and the mouth gets him in trouble, as it has now.

(LAUGHTER)

CRAWFORD:  And I think there‘s an opportunity here.  I was struck by how these students, these Rutgers students—they were so reasonable and calm and willing to listen and try to understand, hard as it might be for them, what his motivations were.  And they are going to meet with him.  And tell you the truth, I think a lot of us adults who are talking about this ought to just step back and let these 20-year-olds...

GREGORY:  All right, well, so...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  ... if this is a positive meeting—I mean, Don Imus—we both know him, we all know him—Certainly sounds contrite to me, that he gets it.  This is going to be a tough meeting.  Does this gesture mean something important, Clarence?

PAGE:  Oh, it means that he has escalated things.  And so has the public, in my view.  You know, I haven‘t been invited back on the show, by the way, since the pledge, so I can‘t—I haven‘t had further discussions with him.

GREGORY:  Do you think that was the reason?

PAGE:  Maybe you got my slot, Craig.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Is that a reaction to that?  Did he feel embarrassed by that?

PAGE:  I have no idea, you know?

(CROSSTALK)

PAGE:  ... when he broke some bones on the ranch, I sent him a get well card, but I haven‘t talked to him, though, since I was on the show.  And I mean, what‘s important is not whether I‘m on the show or not.  I think what‘s important here is the show itself and how it‘s conducted.  The fact is, he‘s gotten away with more than a lot of other shock jocks have in terms of—the Greaseman, used to be here in D.C., and various others lost their jobs over just one case like this.

And now finally—you know, he thought he was going to get by with the one apology last Friday.  As of Monday, he was apologizing all day long, going to Al Sharpton‘s confessional, if you will.  And obviously, you know, for CBS and NBC to drop him for two weeks, it‘s a slap on the wrist in one sense, but the fact that it‘s kind of a slap at all is serious.  It shows that there‘s some teeth behind this, as there should be.

GREGORY:  But Craig, you feel a little bit differently here.  You think that people are overblowing this, that he‘s apologized, that we should move on.

CRAWFORD:  I think in the context of this show—I know, as you know say, that much of it is serious commentary.  And when they do the sports, as they were doing here, that‘s where you see more to the comedy elements, some of the skits they do.  It‘s not just racial.  We see jokes about Catholics, about Jewish people, gays, I mean, and my argument would be that when you stifle that kind of speech, when you stifle it, you‘re not dealing with the sentiment behind it.  And to actually say someone should be fired for making jokes about this kind of stuff doesn‘t really get us down the road toward discussing what‘s behind it and how—how...

PAGE:  I‘m not calling for his firing, but if he were fired, what would happened, Craig?

CRAWFORD:  Well, I think he‘d become a martyr and...

PAGE:  What would happen, Craig?  He‘d get a job someplace else, wouldn‘t he.

CRAWFORD:  Yes, probably.

PAGE:  Of course he would.  Of course he would.

CRAWFORD:  And—and...

PAGE:  Or he‘d go to satellite like Howard Stern.

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD:  ... is better off if Imus goes forward, if he gets to know these students, they get to know him.  When he takes up a cause, as we all know, he puts his heart into it.  I think he will here, not just to save his job, but I think he‘s—I disagree with Gwen.  I think his—his remorse is genuine, and I think he will go forward and take up this cause and do some things that will make a big difference, more of a difference than if he were fired.

PAGE:  That would be great, but let‘s not feel sorry for Don.  I mean, Don Imus is a really—if he wasn‘t as successful as he is, NBC, CBS—you know, well, how about two weeks, Don?  I mean, that‘s what it looks like to me.  I don‘t see him being severely punished.  But I think that he is contrite, and I think he does want to do good.  And he has done good with his ranch, with the kids out there who have cancer, autistic kids.  All of this...

GREGORY:  Is there room for...

PAGE:  As I told him, that doesn‘t give you a license to...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Is there room for him to refashion this program in a way that can heal this wound?

PAGE:  Well, I don‘t know if it has to be refashioned necessarily.  But I just think you can‘t have it both ways.  You know, I think it‘s—the fair thing is for—if you‘re going to try to be a shock jock, you ought to be treated like a shock jock.  That‘s what happens.  And—but he does bring on great, reputable folks like Craig and various others, you know, who help to give him some credibility, and he helps to expand our audiences and all.  You know, everybody wins in that arrangement.  But you know, a host should not embarrass people who appear on the show.  And when you go and embarrass yourself in this kind of a fashion, he‘s now put people who want to appear on the show on the spot.  I understand Cal Ripken‘s dropped out of an engagement...

CRAWFORD:  Yes, I—I think—you know, two things.  You know,

first, I think, you know, getting into the—you know, the actual words

that he used, he was wrong and he should be punished for that and is being

punished.  But I think further discussion as he goes down the road on this

you know, some of these terms, particularly the term “ho,” comes from gangsta rap.

PAGE:  That‘s right.

CRAWFORD:  And that needs to be condemned...

(CROSSTALK)

PAGE:  And it is, too.

CRAWFORD:  ... and discussed...

PAGE:  I just did a column last Sunday I commend to your attention...

(CROSSTALK)

PAGE:  ... Sharpton has, too, Jesse Jackson...

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD:  You know, that is a discussion I think whites and blacks need to have, rather than just saying someone should be fired for having said that.  I think to be a racist, you have to hate black people, and I do not believe Don Imus hates black people.

GREGORY:  I‘m going to let that be the last word.  Thank you very much, to Clarence Page and Craig Crawford.

Coming up, the Reverend Al Sharpton.  We‘ve been talking about him. 

He is calling for Don Imus to be fired, and he‘s coming right here next.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KIA VAUGHN, RUTGERS BASKETBALL PLAYER:  I‘m not a ho.  And at that, I‘m a woman, and I‘m someone‘s child, and you know, it hurts a lot.  It does hurt.  And there‘s a lot that should be said.  There‘s a lot that I want to say, but you know, you can‘t say it.  And I would like to speak to him personally and, you know, express how I feel face to face and ask him, After you‘ve met me as a person, do you feel in this category that I‘m still a ho, as a woman and as a black African-American woman, at that?  I achieved a lot, and unless they have given this name, a ho, a new definition, then that is not what I am.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

IMUS:  I am going to apologize to them and ask them for their forgiveness.  I don‘t expect that, and I don‘t think they have any obligation to either forgive me or to accept my apology.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  That, of course, Don Imus on the “Today” program this morning, apologizing once again for his comments about the Rutgers women‘s basketball team.  On Monday, he sat down with Reverend Al Sharpton to apologize on the reverend‘s radio program.  And Reverend Al Sharpton joins us now.  Welcome.

SHARPTON:  Thank you.

GREGORY:  Imus has apologized, and now the Rutgers lady basketball team will meet with him.  What has to come out of that meeting for you to be satisfied?

SHARPTON:  It‘s not about coming out of the meeting.  I think that that‘s a private meeting is between he and those that he victimized with his statements.  Our drive, from National Action Network and other organizations, is to deal with how the airwaves and those that use them must be accountable.  That will not be impacted by a private meeting.  That will be impacted by how the stations, how advertisers and how FCC deals with the policy of the airwaves.

GREGORY:  But Reverend, you said on your program yesterday you were eager to see what the outcome of that meeting was.

SHARPTON:  No.  He said he wanted to be forgiven and he did not want to be perceived as racist.  I said, I‘ll see what happens in that meeting.  I did not say that would determine how we would deal with dealing with the airwaves and how they ought to be policed.  That‘s absurd.

GREGORY:  All right. 

Your view on the suspension by NBC News and CBS Radio is what?

SHARPTON:  I think that it is too little and I think it‘s too late.

We must remember that Mr. Imus made these statements Wednesday.  Had the groups not raised this by Friday and over the weekend, I doubt if any action would have been taken at all.  He barely apologized the day after.  Then, he got a little more specific Friday.  He really did not start apologizing until we raised public attention.  And that is the point. 

We cannot allow the airwaves to be used in a blatantly sexist and racist way, and unless somebody catches you, it‘s all right.

GREGORY:  All right.  

SHARPTON:  When you heard today those young ladies talk about how this hurt them, how this will affect them the rest of their lives, I mean, it is amazing to me how people will sit up and just objectively discuss somebody else‘s pain.

GREGORY:  Reverend, let‘s—let‘s—you have called for him to be fired—you just reiterated that now—taken off the airways. 

Listen to what Imus said this morning during your appearance, your joint appearance, on the “Today” program, about what changes he would make to his program. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TODAY SHOW”) 

DON IMUS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  I have a record of a—of a relationship with the African-American community, whether Reverend Sharpton likes it or not. 

I am a—I am a good and decent person.  And I have been conducting a comedy show for 30 years.  I can come back, and serve, hopefully—will hopefully serve this—the suspension with dignity, and come back and create a dialogue. 

One of the things that we‘re going to—that we‘re—we‘re going to do, that we have been talking about for years...

MATT LAUER, CO-HOST:  Quickly, if you can, Don.  I‘m running out of time.

IMUS:  There ought to be a black person on this show every single day to add some perspective.  And—and we ought to have more black guests.  And—and me and the rest of white America ought to understand what is going on in the black community.  And I will make an effort to do that. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Reverend, if—if Don Imus could make good on that commitment, would you support him staying on the air? 

SHARPTON:  First of all, he made the same pledge, as you just said, with Clarence Page.  I mean, why don‘t we just play his last apology and last confession, and he wouldn‘t have to get up so early in the morning and do “The Today Show”?

Second of all, am I supposed to applaud, after 30 years, he says, let‘s put a black in the studio?  I mean, what are we talking about here?

This is not about Imus.  This is about accountability on the airwaves.

GREGORY:  No.  OK, I take that point.  But is this also not an opportunity to put the issues that you care about, confronting this kind of racist talk and sexist talk, on the public airwaves, with a huge, large platform?  Can you see him playing a positive role?  And if—if—NBC and CBS does not listen to you, and he stays on the air, would you agree to be part of his program, as a commentator? 

SHARPTON:  I think the—I think the larger—No, I would not. 

The largest—or the larger stage, the larger picture, I think, cannot include that, if someone misuses the airwaves, that all they have to do is make a tour of apologies, and then it‘s business as usual.

I—I—I see people sincerely struggling to try and come and set a bigger picture here, but they can‘t put in the picture there‘s no penalty for the racist, sexist use of the airways.  That is what everyone seems to miss.  This is not about Imus.  This is about accountability and a standard on the airwaves that protects citizens from those airways being used in a racist, biased, sexist manner. 

GREGORY:  Let me ask you a question, based on your standing in the community, as a politician, as a former candidate for the presidency.  Do you believe in redemption? 

SHARPTON:  Oh, absolutely. 

I think that there has to be redemption.  I have—as I said this morning on “The Today Show,” a man of a different race, a white man, stabbed me once for leading a nonviolent march.  I not only forgave him.  I went to jail and met with him and forgave him.  But I didn‘t say he shouldn‘t pay for the crime.

There‘s a difference between redemption and amnesty.  A lot of people are not talking about redemption.  They‘re talking about amnesty.

GREGORY:  But, in your case, as critics would point out, you didn‘t go as far as Imus in a controversy that had to do with you and the Tawana Brawley case, a woman who the court...

SHARPTON:  Nor did I castigate a whole race of people.

GREGORY:  I‘m sorry.  If I could...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Sir, can I...

SHARPTON:  Nor did I castigate a whole race of people.

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  I just want to finish the question.

You—you didn‘t go as far as apologizing to the people who you hurt through that incident.  This was, the courts have concluded, a hoax, accusations against whites by a young black woman about a race-based assault.  A court ordered you to pay restitution for a defamation suit against people‘s whose reputation you hurt.  You didn‘t apologize for that. 

SHARPTON:  And I still don‘t apologize.  This was a case, as you said, of a young lady accusing people of doing something to her. 

To compare that to a man castigating a whole race—nobody came to him, like this young lady came to me.  He was not talking about did he believe in a case.

So, the—to the extremes people will go to compare an individual case, a civil case that, when the courts ruled...

GREGORY:  Right.  I‘m not—but, Reverend, I‘m not comparing the cases.

SHARPTON:  Wait a minute.  You wanted me to let you...

GREGORY:  I just wanted to ask the question.

SHARPTON:  You wanted me to let you ask it.  Let me answer. 

GREGORY:  OK.

SHARPTON:  And to compare that shows how far people will reach.  This man was not talking about a specific case, with some information somebody gave him, whether you believe the information or not.

This man was talking about a race of people and a sex of people.  There is absolutely no comparison.  And, when the courts ruled against us, we paid that.  That case happened 20 years ago.  We‘re not talking about that.

What you are talking about is—is maligning a race, and him not having to pay for it. 

GREGORY:  Well, I‘m not—I am not talking about it.  The question has to do with...

SHARPTON:  Oh, I thought you were the one talking. 

GREGORY:  ... redemption.

SHARPTON:  Maybe somebody else...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  No, sir, I don‘t think that is not fair to talk about that I‘m talking amnesty.  I am asking a question about your belief in redemption and people whose reputations you hurt, people that you hurt...

SHARPTON:  Well, if I felt...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  ... that you haven‘t apologized for.

SHARPTON:  If I felt—if I believed...

GREGORY:  And you are a strong person in middle of this debate. 

SHARPTON:  If I believed that young lady was telling the truth, as I do, what am I apologizing for?

And how do you compare that to a man condemning a whole race?  Did I go and condemn a whole race of people?  Or did we say we believed this young lady‘s statement about an individual?  I don‘t how you even compare the two. 

GREGORY:  All right. 

We‘re going to take a break here, the Reverend Al Sharpton staying with us—when we come back, questions about the larger questions raised by this incident. 

Then, coming up later: a look at race relations in this country, how far we still have to go.

You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We are back with the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Reverend, I have got just about a minute-and-a-half here.  But I want to ask you a larger question.

If there is a national conversation that has started as a result of this incident, what is it and what should it be? 

SHARPTON:  I think the national conversation should be, how do we hold those that use the public airways accountable?

I think people have the right to free speech.  I think we have the right to free comedy.  I do not think they can use public airways recklessly.  I do not that think we can have regulators in government that call some things indecent and other things permissible. 

We need to have a conversation on what is permitted.  And I think that this Imus incident will bring us to that conversation. 

GREGORY:  Imus challenged you during the “Today” program today about taking on the black community, about where the kind of language like “ho” originates in the hip-hop culture. 

He may be an imperfect vehicle to bring that point up to you, in—in your estimation, in a lot of people‘s estimation.

Is that a fair point?  And what can you do to advance that, to challenge the black community on that—on the use of that language within the black community, within the hip-hop community?   

SHARPTON:  The only reason it is not fair is because we have been dealing with that for some time. 

I have been one that has been very vocal, as I think was stated in the segment earlier by Clarence Page and them, about the use of the N-word, the use of ho by people of my own community.  I—I was one that was very upset with the movie “Barbershop” that denigrated black icons like Rosa Parks.

I only think him challenging me showed that he has not been in touch with what is going on.  I think that there is a place that we need to have that discussion.  It is wrong for anybody to call anyone a ho.  It is wrong for anybody to use the N-word.  I think that should not be used as an excuse to cover Imus, because I think, if you don‘t deal with Imus, then you lose the moral authority to join people like me in dealing with some of those bad elements of gangster rap—not all rap, but gangster rap.

You can‘t have it both ways.  If you‘re going to join us in saying that these young artists ought to stop it, then you have got join us in stopping Imus. 

GREGORY:  The Reverend Al Sharpton—Reverend, thank you very much for coming on tonight.

SHARPTON:  Thank you. 

GREGORY:  Up next: the big picture that we have been talking about. 

We will talk right here about where we are with race and gender in our current politics and in this country, what role all of this plays in the 2008 election, and more about this conversation that Reverend Sharpton talked about Americans having as a result of this incident—when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DARBY DUNN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I am Darby Dunn with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

The Dow Jones industrial average ended higher for an eighth straight session, its longest winning streak in four years.  The Dow gained more than four-and-a-half points, the S&P 500 up almost four, and the Nasdaq almost eight-and-a-half.

Dow component Alcoa kicking off earning season after the closing bell, reporting first-quarter profit jumping nearly 9 percent—however, earnings fell short of analyst estimates.  In after-hours trading, Alcoa shares are up fractionally. 

Oil prices rising slightly today, climbing 38 cents in New York, closing at $61.89 a barrel. 

And another sign of woe in the housing market—D.R. Horton, the nation‘s biggest homebuilder, says second-quarter orders are down 37 percent.  That is due in part to steep declines in California and the Southwest. 

That‘s it from CNBC, first in business worldwide—now back to

HARDBALL. 

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  I‘m David Gregory, in for Chris tonight. 

There are larger questions coming about of the reaction to Don Imus‘ words.  What does it tell us about race and decency in our country right now? 

In a moment, we‘re going to talk with Reverend DeForest Soaries, who is going to moderate this meeting we have been telling you about between the Rutgers players and Don Imus.

But, first, let‘s bring in “Newsweek”‘s Jonathan Alter, who is an NBC News contributing correspondent.  And we are also joined here in the studio by Sabiyha Prince, an anthropology professor at American University. 

Welcome to you both, professor Prince and Jonathan Alter.

(CROSSTALK)

SABIYHA PRINCE, ANTHROPOLOGY PROFESSOR, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY:  Hi.

GREGORY:  Jonathan, let me start with you.

We talked a little bit earlier on the phone about whether this incident has created a race moment for America.  Do you think that is the case?  And how would you define that?

JONATHAN ALTER, NBC NEWS CONTRIBUTING CORRESPONDENT:  I think it has created what you could call a teachable moment, the same way that, a couple of weeks ago, when Elizabeth Edwards‘ cancer recurred and Tony Snow‘s did, you know, we had a kind of a national conversation about surviving cancer.

And I this does give us a chance to talk about the coarsening of discourse in America, about accountability.  As—as Reverend Sharpton said, what does accountability mean?  Does it necessarily mean firing the person?  Or is sometimes changed behavior enough form of—of accountability? 

You know, David, in the YouTube culture that we have now, everything that somebody says is going to get replayed, and replayed again.  And the question becomes, what is the response? 

And I think something that has happened in the—just in the last couple of years, there has been such a negative reaction against President Bush‘s failure to apologize, failure to seem like he is being accountable to where the people are, that we have got more of a thirst for people apologizing when they screw up, and then changing their behavior as a result of having been called to account. 

GREGORY:  Professor Prince, let me pose that same question to you.

Is this a moment here, a teachable moment, a race moment, call it what you will?

PRINCE:  Well, I think, David, that the history of the United States has been punctuated by a number of race moments. 

So, the question becomes, what are we going to do with this, and where do we go from here?  I would agree that, if we use this as a chance to perhaps educate America about the history of diverse peoples—for example, taking this Imus case, there‘s a historical context of African-American women being animalized, of African-American men being likened to animals, a dehumanization, if you will. 

There is a precedent for that.  It has happened on numerous occasions.  And, perhaps, if—we can use this opportunity to share with America some of the literature about this context, a broader context, and about the experience of women, and the works of black feminists and other scholars, who have a lot to say on these topics. 

GREGORY:  It was also something about this incident. 

It was not—as—as condemned as it is in—in hip-hop songs and rap music, where these artists talk about hos in a general sense, which has been condemned, this was, unfortunately, the specific application of that term to a group of young women who are exceptional young women, good students, and terrific athletes.  And it really sort of woke people up and said, hey, wait a minute.  This is really out of bounds.

PRINCE:  I agree with you.  So this is pointing to issues sexism, as well as racism, and how those things intersect.  These are athletes.  Haven‘t we not seen in the past women athletes being characterized as not being feminine, as somehow not being women.  That is not at all appropriate and we need to get at the root of some of these things. 

GREGORY:  We have been looking at these pictures of the players and the coach.  I want to listen to the Rutgers coach, Vivian Stringer, and what she had to say.  Listen to this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VIVIAN STRINGER, RUTGERS WOMEN‘S BASKETBALL COACH:  The truth of the matter is that it is not even black and white.  The color is green.  The color is green.  You see, because if we can tolerate as a society what has just taken place, the remarks that have been directed toward young women, I do not know how anyone could have heard this and not been personally hurt and offended. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  I also want to bring in the Reverend Deforest Soaries, who will moderate the meeting between Don Imus and the players from Rutgers.  Reverend, welcome.

REV. DEFOREST SOARIES, WILL MODERATE IMUS/RUTGERS MEETING:  Thank you very much for having me. 

GREGORY:  Talk about this meeting that is going to occur.  You‘ve been talking to Imus.  You‘ve been talking to the players and the coach, and the folks at Rutgers.  What is going to happen at this meeting? 

SOARIES:  Well Mr. Imus has confessed, as it were, of his sin or his crime.  What seems to be in disagreement is whether or not there should be any sentence.  The remarkable outcome of this, from the Rutgers women‘s perspective, is that these young women, 17, 18, 19 years old, see the need to have a dialogue with Mr. Imus. 

They could be so bitter or so hurt that they would simply dismiss him or they could be so angry that they would want to retaliate.  But they‘ve decided—

GREGORY:  To say nothing of their parents, by the way.

SOARIES:  I mean, this is a level of maturity that I have not seen in recent years, particularly around  very volatile race and gender issues.  And so in this meeting Mr. Imus will have a chance to say directly to them what he has said to the public, and that is “I‘m sorry.”  He will also have a chance to answer questions that they would like to probe, in terms of who he really is. 

He has said it is important for America to know who he is, but it should start with the persons that were victims of his ugly conversation.  They then will have an opportunity to share with him exactly how they feel.  I have said to Mr. Imus, I am not sure he understands the depth of complexity that he has caused in these ladies‘ lives.  This is more than a passing insult.  This is a deep stain, which one player said would be a scar for the rest of her life. 

We will have a dialogue.  He will have an opportunity to express his views; they theirs.  And then we will see what the next step should be.

GREGORY:  Reverend, we are talking here about whether there is a larger important conversation to have as a country, about the power of words, about decency and about racism.  And I think you said on Reverend Sharpton‘s program yesterday that for a lot of black people in this country, this may have been a confirmation to them to their sort of deep cynical belief that white people do not like them.  It may have been a kind of ugly confirmation of that. 

SOARIES:  What‘s interesting is that pundits and leaders have a tendency to think in terms of left and right.  And left would be more progressive and liberal.  Right would be more conservative.  And, in that sense, this becomes an enigma, because Mr. Imus is traditionally identified with the left.  And one would have to imagine, how could somebody who supports black children, who supports black causes, who has been a philanthropist, really say those kinds of words and then admit he has no idea from whence they came. 

This speaks to a deeper problem that we explore in black America, quite often, and that is that there is a deep fault of racism that exists, and it is like Anthrax.  It will kill you, but you can‘t be seen.  Every now and then it emerges, and we act surprised, but I think until we have a genuine conversation about gender and race and about green—that‘s what Coach Stringer was trying to get at.

The fact is, in this country, the problem is not race or gender.  The problem is that we will do anything to earn a dollar.  And if it exploits people or hurts young people, it does not seem to matter as much. 

GREGORY:  Reverend Soaries, Jonathan Alter, and Dr. Sabiyha Prince all staying with us.  We‘re going to take a short break and come back and continue this conversation.  You are watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR:  I am the father of a daughter who is in college.  I can guess at some of your rage and anger, but I can‘t know all of it.  Can you really turn this into a positive and redemption?  Can this be the lesson from this, some day? 

STRINGER:  I hope so.  And I think that with all things that are bad, I do not think bad can overcome—I don‘t think that evil can overcome good.  These young people are good.  What he did was evil.  But I need everybody‘s help.  We need everybody‘s help. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  That was C. Vivian Stringer, the coach of Rutgers, speaking to Brian Williams, who interviewed the players as well as Coach Stringer.  You can see more of Brian‘s interview on NBC Nightly News on your NBC station later today. 

We are back with “Newsweek‘s” Jonathan Alter, and Professor Sabiyha Prince, and the Reverend Soaries, who will moderate the meeting between Don Imus and the players from Rutgers.  Jonathan Alter, you wanted to make a point.  Go ahead.

ALTER:  Well, I was just going to say that I think there is a kind of an interesting power relationship here that is also come into view.  You know, Don Imus is a powerful broadcaster, at least he has been.  And he will now be judged and his fate will determined by how these young politically powerless, until now, women react to him.  And I think there‘s something that is exquisitely American about that.  It is almost like a form of our jury system, where his fate will depend on how these young women react, what their view is toward redemption, towards punishment, towards some of these very complex and deep issues about how we deal with bad behavior and racist words in our society. 

GREGORY:  Professor Prince, do you think that there is a racial divide, in terms of how people evaluate this? 

PRINCE:  Undoubtedly, and that is something that I think probably disturbed me perhaps even more than the comments themselves.  And what I‘m referring to would be the responses to people, in particular I have to say powerful white people in the media, and in politics, and particularly males.  There has been this excuse, this discussion about, well, he is a friend of mine, and I don‘t think he a bad person.  And I have to wonder if the ethnic group that was slurred in such a way was not African American, perhaps another group, perhaps another group that has a history of -- 

GREGORY:  Jews, for instance?

PRINCE:  That would be a good analogy I think.  What would be the response from individuals like John McCain, individuals like Ed Schultz.  Barbara Walters, I think, has weighed in.  James Carville.

(CROSS TALK)

ALTER:  He has done this kind of thing to Jews.  I am Jewish.  I have heard him call people, you know, in very unflattering terms—refer to our Jewish background.  He hasn‘t done it to me, but I have heard him do to other people.  It is in the nature of the show, so it is simply not accurate to say that if the show were on the other foot, and he were attacking other ethnic and religious groups, people would react differently. 

What is different about this, just so we are really clear, and, I think, why this is really a problem, and why it was such a deplorable thing for him to say, is that on his show, when he goes after people, almost all of the time, it is powerful people in the media, in politics.  They can take it.  They are public figures.  We want that robust debate, even when it does go a little bit over the line. 

What is not acceptable is to do it to people who are powerless, who have done nothing wrong and are not public figures. 

GREGORY:  Reverend Soaries, let me ask you, you have talked to Imus.  Do you think he gets it?  Do you think he is surprised by some of the reaction or do you think he understands this? 

SOARIES:  I think he gets it now.  The problem is he did not get it then, and when you get it retroactively, you can‘t withdraw the pain.  In order to have a civil society, we must have moral consensus.  And moral consensus then compels us to call a spade a spade, whether the spade is from our tribe or not. 

I think our divide today is not between so much black and white, but between just a generic consensus over what is acceptable and unacceptable in civil society.  When African-Americans become as angry about anti-Semitism as we are racism, then I think we are growing up.  In America, we have not grown up, and we have allowed profit driven media to drive wedges between us.  So we are living below our Homo Sapiens status. 

GREGORY:  And, Professor Prince, quick reaction to this: Imus‘s claim that has to be seen in the context of comedy. 

PRINCE:  It think that‘s completely absurd.  First of all, he was not funny.  So let‘s just start there.  Comedy is no excuse to disparage people and to dehumanize people.  And so I agree with the reverend that we need to arrive at some sort of standards.  And let me just cut off at the knees folks who may want to make comparisons with perhaps the Chris Rocks and the Dave Chappelles.  I think we‘re talking a little bit about apples and oranges, because these people are making political commentary and they are speaking historically from a place where people have not had the power to critique white people and to critique white privilege. 

GREGORY:  I just have to take a quick break here.  We will come right back. 

(CROSS TALK)

GREGORY:  Reverend, I‘m sorry.  I‘ve got to take a break here.  We have a satellite issue, which is cutting us off a little bit.  We‘re going to come back with our guests.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  My reaction is it was wrong.  It was very wrong.  He has acknowledged that.  I have to say that I generally feel about things like that, when people make big mistakes like that, what I look to is do they understand it, do they acknowledge it, do they seem to be really sorry for it, and are they going to make a pledge not to do it again.  He seems to have done those things. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Rudy Giuliani today on the campaign trail, talking about Don Imus.  I want to thank the Reverend Deforest Soaries, who we‘re going to lose.  He‘s got another interview to do.  He will moderate a meeting between Don Imus and the Rutgers women‘s basketball team.  “Newsweek‘s” Jonathan Alter and American University Professor Sibiyha Prince are still with us.

Jonathan, let me start with you.  As a kind of concluding point in this conversation, about what this incident tells us about the kind of conversation we need to have as Americans, about race and decency in our politics and in our public discourse.  And by that I mean has there been a kind of defining down of decency, that has gone on to the point where it took something like this to be a tipping point to really wake people up and say, this is way out of bounds? 

ALTER:  Absolutely.  You know, what happened is that we had the rise of what was called political correctness in the 1980s, and then there was a backlash against PC behavior.  And everybody kind of said --  or lots of people said, hey, lighten up.  You know, don‘t go to the ramparts every time somebody said something a little bit offensive or objectionable. 

And so that mentality existed in this country for a long time, that

sort of lighten up, anti-PC mentality.  Then something like this comes

along, where somebody says something that is not politically incorrect, but

actually much, much, much worst, and it reminds us that that backlash

against PC may have gone too far, and that the people who talk about

sensitivities to language within bounds have a real point.  The question is

GREGORY:  You know what, I am simply out of time.  Jonathan Alter and Sibiyha Prince, thank you very much.  Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now it‘s time for “TUCKER.”

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

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