Video: Imus: The inside story at NBC

NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Dennis Murphy Correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/15/2007 8:20:53 PM ET 2007-04-16T00:20:53

This report airs Dateline Sunday, April 15, 7 p.m.

From his earliest days as a radio shock-jock flamethrower, his audience knew what it was in for. Imus was Imus: naughty, petty, the “you-kids-get-off-of-my-lawn” guy, impaling victims of his outrage with verbal rim shots.

Over 2 million listeners a day tuned in to “Imus in the Morning” on radio and TV, not just for the media bigwig guests and authors—the highbrow talk—but for his equal opportunity slurs for gays, women, Jews, among others, as well.

Imus was a $30-plus million dollar a year brand for his employers: CBS and NBC.

But on April 4th just after six in the morning, he said three words too many—by now you know what they were—and the walls came tumbling down on Imus and his studio  sidekicks.

Probably, it was who he picked on that made this time different—and ugly.  The Rutgers women, a Cinderella team, counts a valedictorian, a future lawyer and a musical prodigy among its members. They were admirable young people slapped down in a double slur, both racist and sexist, the morning after losing their collegiate championship game on national television.

Imus’ remark might have gurgled unnoticed to the bottom of the pop culture swamp but for one thing: the Internet.

A liberal watchdog group picked up on it and soon it was posted on You Tube where millions clicked and heard Imus say those words over and over. It took on a life of its own.

It wasn’t until the day after Imus’ slur  that NBC News, 30 Rock, Manhattan, went into crisis mode.

The You Tube clip had hit. MSNBC, the news division’s cable operation that aired Imus’s radio show as a simulcast, was getting swamped with outraged viewer complaints.

NBC News President Steve Capus got an urgent intercom buzz from MSNBC’s top exec.

Steve Capus, NBC News President: He told me what it was and I went through the roof. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: This was not just another eye-rolling, “What did he say?” You knew that it was big and had consequences?

Capus: This jumped out unlike anything else he had ever said. And it became very clear that this was incredibly serious.

Phil Griffin, a senior vice-president of NBC News was made point man on the growing Imus crisis.

Phil Griffin, senior vice-president, NBC News: I got a hold of Imus and I brought it to his attention that this is big and that the Times wanted an interview. He was a little surprised and said that he would deal with it in the morning in a serious statement.

Murphy: You had a different sense of the crisis, it sounds as though, than he did. That this was a deal?

Griffin: I’m in the news business. I’ve seen things like this come along they had a potential to explode and i knew we had to act fast.

NBC News issued an apology and Imus did the same on the air Friday morning.

Imus: It was completely inappropriate, we can understand why people were offended. Our characterization was thoughtless and stupid and we’re sorry.

Capus: I heard him give the apology the next morning. I thought it was inadequate.

The dam was breaking. Civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton demanded that CBS, Imus’s primary boss fire him.

While Imus still had some supporters for sure. The You Tube clip had picked-up steam and so did the pace of viewer complaints.

Griffin: It wasn’t holding. It was clear.

On Monday morning, Imus apologized on air again.

Imus: I’m sorry I did that. I’m embarassed I did that. I did a bad thing, but I’m a good person and that will change.

Capus: Something sunk in over the weekend that this was more than a two-line written apology on Friday.

Meanwhile, quietly, key corporations—notably Proctor & Gamble—had pulled their advertising from Imus’ show and from MSNBC daytime. “Imus in the Morning” generated about $8-million dollars a year for NBC.

Later that Monday Imus agreed to appear on Rev. Sharpton’s radio show for what he knew would be a flogging. Imus’ defense that his remarks came in the context of comic banter wasn’t cutting it.

Griffin: As I look back on it, he made three mistakes. Sharpton kept on saying “What are the consequences?” What are you going to do now, and Don said, “I don’t know.” Another time he used the unfortunate phrase of, “you people.”

And the third part is he, I’m not sure he was prepared to say what he was going o do on the radio show from here forward.

NBC News correspondent Ron Allen posted a personal blog that afternoon asking his bosses to take a stand.

Ron Allen, NBC News Correspondent: I feel that many of us have a responsibility to the next generation to speak out about these things because if someone had not done that previously I know I wouldn’t be sitting here, doing what I do.

Monday night, the news president announced that MSNBC would pull the plug on Imus for two-weeks because of his “deplorable...hateful” words. CBS, followed suit: a two-week suspension. 

Capus: There’s no question that if this was where the line was, he was over here.  This wasn’t straddling the line.  He was over here. 

By then it wasn’t only viewers and advertisers who were up in arms. Inside NBC, some employees were joining Ron Allen in demanding sterner sanctions.

Capus, the news president, convened a meeting Tuesday with a dozen African-American staffers that turned into a two-hour, passionate session.

Paula Madison, general manager, NBC station in Los Angeles: For the most part  their sentiments were expressed as angry, disappointed, hurt.

Paula Madison is the general manager of the NBC station in Los Angeles and executive vice-president of diversity for NBC Universal.  She thought it was important for the company to send a message.

Madison: Do we really want to have that kind of mean spiritedness being directed towards anyone?

Capus: It was a powerful meeting. A lot of emotion and hurt and pain and people needed to express that.

The Today Show’s Al Roker posted three blogs about Imus on the allDay blog, advising Imus to do the right thing and resign.

Roker: Don Imus and his cohorts have played around that fire for a long time and if you play around fire, eventually you’re gonna get burned.

Earlier Tuesday, the Rutgers women and their coach met with reporters and showed an elegant classiness.

From that moment on, the fates were closing in on Don Imus.

Capus: Watching the team captain, Essence Carson get up and speak and with such grace and dignity and passion. I think you know they were incredibly forgiving… and I also tried to think, what if I had to sit across from a parent of a member of that basketball team. How am I gonna defend these remarks. Or that our airwaves are handed over for something like that?

Wednesday, other key advertisers announced they would no longer buy spots in the show: Staples, General Motors, American Express, Sprint, GlaxoSmithKline.

Imus was still on the air—his suspension not due to begin till the following Monday, but come Wednesday night he was history at NBC, almost a full week since the controversy started.

Capus: I made the call and I took no delight in it. No joy in it. But it was the right thing to do.

MSNBC executive Griffin gave Imus the news.

Griffin: I told him that we were gonna pull the plug and although Don laughed and he said, “you know this is hard to take.” He said “I understand. I said the words. We wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t said those words.”

Murphy: Why did it percolate for so many days?

Griffin: ‘Cause we had to give it a fair hearing. I mean it was difficult. We had to listen to people and we did.

The following day CBS, weathering its own corporate firestorm, made the announcement that it was firing Imus.

Capus: As much as you might respect him and respect his body of work, there’s also a part of that body of work that you can’t defend. It was defending the indefensible.

Thursday night Imus met privately with the Rutgers women and their coach at the governor’s mansion in New Jersey. He apologized, and the apology was accepted.

After almost 40 continuous years on the air, Don Imus, the onetime shock jock king, faced a morning without a microphone.

Capus: It’s positive for the country, frankly, to have these kind of dialogues and stories. I hope it continues.

Though some people, like civil rights activist Michael Myers see the fall of Imus as a blow to freedom of speech.

Meyers: This is a mistake of the executives of MSNBC. This is a mistake of executives at CBS radio. They have empowered the demagogues. They have empowered the censors.

Murphy: Some people have spun this as NBC caving to pressure groups?

Capus: Rather than portraying it as caving to pressure groups, I would say that we listened to America. An advertiser represents Americans. Reverand Sharpton represents certain viewpoints.  The people who work within NBC had very strong opinions about this. So, it wasn’t that we caved to groups or this or that. We listened to the people who worked for us and we listened to the country.

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