The Don Imus “nappy-headed hos” controversy raises many fascinating issues involving how far a broadcaster should or could go in trying to be “funny” on the air. It also calls into question how a “shock jock” like Imus moves between being outrageous and provocative into engaging in a serious conversation with national leaders and top journalists about the issues of the day, including Iraq. The issue of race is again front and center on the national media stage and finally, the question of how major media organizations like CBS and MSNBC (who rightly called Imus’ comments “racist and abhorrent”) handle such a high-profile controversy.
Clearly, what Imus said about the classy and dignified Rutgers University women’s basketball team (five of whom were only seniors in high school last year) was despicable and disgraceful. The “nappy-headed hos” comments were part of a larger Imus riff making some sort of convoluted point about darker-skinned black women from Rutgers who he (and his producers) saw as tougher, less attractive and thug-like playing against lighter-skinned, more attractive and, apparently Imus believed, more “likeable” Tennessee team. The terms “jiggaboos” and “wannabes” were used. That is insane.
What took him so long?
Imus has apologized many times, but one wonders what took him so long in the first place. The incident occurred on April 4th and he didn’t apologize on the air until April 6th. What was going on in those 48 hours in Imus’ head? Did he really think it was okay? Did he think it would blow over? Did he expect that people would demand an apology or his resignation? What did he think Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson would do—two of the country’s most opportunistic racial provocateurs who themselves have long histories of engaging in racial divisiveness and rhetoric? (Let’s note that few media organizations when reporting Jesse Jackson’s Imus involvement brought up his “Hymietown” reference in the 1984 presidential campaign or Al Sharpton’s despicable performance in the Tawana Brawley fiasco.)
Imus miscalculated on several levels. Maybe it was because he is so powerful and successful a media figure that has been getting away with his brand of “humor” for so long that he thought this was no big deal. When he called Gwen Ifill (a first-rate journalist who happens to be a black woman) a “cleaning lady,” nothing terrible happened to Imus. At the time he promised to never again engage in racial comedy. So much for promises.
History of similar comments
Or what about when he referred to WNBC Channel 4 in New York sports anchor Len Berman, who was moonlighting with Imus at WFAN, “Len the Jew?” Berman quit the Imus show, but again, no real fallout for the “I-Man.” In the midst of often smart, engaging interviews with political figures and top journalists, Imus has many times degraded women based on their physical appearance on the air— including Hillary Clinton and some high profile female journalists. He knows it and they felt it, but again, Imus got away with it.
So now, when CBS suspends Imus for two weeks and MSNBC drops his simulcast for those same two weeks, Imus finally takes a hit. But is it enough? Will it satisfy not just the women on the Rutgers University basketball team, but others who aren’t black or female, but who were disgusted by Imus’ comments?
Yes, he has apologized many times and for that he gets credit. He seems sincere. But even his apologies often miss the mark. His original apology included lots of talk about his charitable work and his ranch that takes care of kids living with cancer. Imus boasted that a significant percentage of the children are either African American or minority. He talked about having black friends over for dinner and at his house and kept saying he was a “good man.” On the April 10th Al Sharpton radio program he said to an irate black caller, “I bet you I’ve slept in a house with more black children who were not related to me than you have.” And even though his intent wasn’t malicious when he got a call on the Sharpton show from black Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick saying that she was appalled at his remarks, Imus responded, “It's like the old country song, 'God may forgive you, but I won't. Jesus loves you but I don't.' So I can't get any place with you people, but I can get some place with Jesus.”
To that Sharpton asked, “Who is ‘you people,’ Mr. Imus?” Imus responded, “You and this woman I'm talking to. Don't try to hang that on me. That's jive.”
Who talks this way? On one level Don Imus is smart and articulate, but also seems so racially dense. Predictably, the “you people” comment was a headline all across the country regardless of Don Imus’ intent or its context. This isn’t about being politically correct; it is about having some degree of sophistication about what you say and how it is likely to be perceived.
Imus dishes it out
Imus also seemed frustrated with the treatment he got on Sharpton’s radio show as well as the peppering he got from “Today” show’s Matt Lauer. Imus said he was not willing to be “slapped around.”
With all due respect Imus, it is no time to set parameters or boundaries as to what you will and won’t take right now. With all of your talent, you still dished out your odd brand of “humor” for 35 years—calling people names, cutting off their microphones, making derogatory references to people’s race, gender, size and sexual orientation—all in the name of “humor.” Now is the time to take your medicine.
Don Imus has done some good and charitable things and he is a unique broadcaster who has brought in big ratings and a lot of money to himself and those who carry him. I’m not calling for Imus to be fired, in spite of how egregious his actions were. That’s not my place. But all concerned broadcasters have a responsibility to criticize and yes, condemn him, for his actions. And not just for this one Rutgers incident, but for the long pattern before it. Too many of us, myself included, have been silent for too long and I fear we have sent Imus the wrong message.
Hopefully Imus finally gets it loud and clear that the vast majority of American’s, regardless of color and gender, are disgusted by his often-degrading brand of “humor.” Now the ball is in your court, Imus. Good luck with that all-important meeting with the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Hopefully… something good can come from this mess.
Write to Steve Adubato at firstname.lastname@example.org.