Thursday, April 12, 2007
The Ugly Truth About Imus, Power and the Press
April 11, 2007 - The fallout from Don Imus’s racist and misogynistic remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team has led to one of those periodic and quintessentially American paroxysms of disapproval, contrition and repentance. But the response of the mainstream media—and CBS radio and MSNBC, in particular—is as hypocritical as it is revealing. [Late Wednesday, MSNBC announced that it will no longer broadcast the Imus radio show].
Using stereotypes—about blacks, Jews, women, and gays and lesbians—has been a part of Imus’s act for decades. I first listened to his show when I moved to New York in 1989 as a 22-year-old writer for NEWSWEEK. His comedy skits were often the subject of water-cooler discussion, so I felt Imus was must-hear radio. But I soon discovered his blatantly racist skits made my skin crawl. His “jokes” in the 1980s and ‘90s included skits in which the radio host and his sidekicks mimicked African-American public figures with deeply offensive stereotyped voices or called them racial names—like “bugaloo” for Johnnie Cochran, or “cleaning lady” for reporter Gwen Ifill.
Former Newsday columnist and editor Les Payne began writing about Imus’s racist invective as far back as the 1970s. And the liberal Web site TomPaine.com’s archive is full of “Imus Watch” items detailing his racist, sexist and homophobic remarks over the years.
In a May 23, 1993, column, when Imus was “on the verge of national syndication,” Payne wrote: “No advice on good taste breaks through the studio din, where, like David Koresh in his tower, Imus works surrounded by a choir of white male sycophants doing backup singing….Black female celebrities, such as Oprah Winfrey and Aretha Franklin, are invariably put down as ‘black hos.’ Funny? I don’t think so. Rumors of a relationship between Whoopie Goldberg and Ted Danson struck [producer Bernard McGuirk], to the roar of the white male locker room, as ‘jungle retardation.’ Upon hearing his boss cite a black woman defending Imus against my criticism, McGuirk, in his best Amos ‘n’ Andy voice, mocked, ‘You ain’t no racist, Mister Imus, nah suh. No, thank you, I don’t want no watermelon!’"
The greatest hypocrisy of the Imus controversy is that Imus's description of the Rutgers teams was just a mistake. No. This is who Don Imus is—at least as a radio personality. For more than 30 years, he has been part of comedy skits on his radio show that are in bad taste and often racist. Imus himself said as much on the "Today" show on Monday: “This program has been, for 30 or 35 years, a program that makes fun of everybody.” The media establishment figures who appear on Imus know this.
Despite that fact, Imus has grown into a bona fide member of that establishment. As NEWSWEEK’s Evan Thomas wrote in a Jan. 18, 1999, profile, “The Ringmaster,” Imus was by then “as, if not more powerful than, a network anchor,” with “Washington groveling at his feet.” It was already clear why. “[Imus] can talk a book onto the best-seller list,” Thomas wrote. He also made journalists feel like celebrities, said Thomas, drawing them into a snug complicity in which they felt like they were dishing with the cool bad boy in junior high school.
Indeed, NEWSWEEK is among the most frequently represented publications on Imus’s show (NEWSWEEK's Web site is published as part of a technology partnership with MSNBC.com). But the list of Imus’s guests and regulars include some of the most respected names in journalism: Tom Brokaw, Tim Russert and Thomas himself. That African-African Congressman Harold Ford, former U.S. senator Bill Bradley and female journalists like The New York Times’s Maureen Dowd and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell appear on Imus shows, in part, shows that his racist behavior has been tolerable, if distasteful, to politicians and our industry.
For that reason, I am skeptical that all the current gnashing of teeth will have a lasting impact on Imus or the mainstream media. This story is about the assault on the dignity of the young women of Rutgers. But it also about the difference in perspective between white and black America, and what’s acceptable to those who run mainstream media, who, with few exceptions, are white. It is even a story about how those of us who are of color in this business react or fail to react to perceived injustices and outright bigotry.
The Imus imbroglio is also about the power of those who oppose the status quo. The role of the National Association of Black Journalists was crucial. NABJ’s quick call for Imus’s resignation this time fed the brushfire of outrage. But in these crises of contrition and expiation, the aggrieved have a rare, but fleeting, opportunity. For that reason they have rushed to extract as many concessions as they can. Jesse Jackson noted that Imus had never had Jackson on his show. “This is a political show … and we are, by and large, locked out.” In ceding some of his power and at the same time acknowledging it, Imus said that he thought he should have a black guest every day once he comes back from his two-week suspension in order to have a balanced perspective. “And me and the rest of white America ought to understand what’s going on in the black community and I’ll make an effort to do that,” said Imus on his show. “I will do that.”
It sounded like an epiphany. But why did it take more than 30 years for the radio powerhouse to have it? And why did it take a sustained public outcry? Because we in the MSM, as bloggers call the mainstream media, tolerated—indeed, encouraged—his “pushing the envelope.”
For most African-Americans, Don Imus’s racial stereotyping has never been funny. Now race has become yet again one of those predictors of how people respond to Imus, like the O.J. verdict, often trumping politics. On CNN’s "Situation Room," for example, the liberal pundit Paul Begala argued Imus should keep his job, while “conservative commentator” Amy Holmes, Sen. Bill Frist’s former speechwriter and an African-American Republican, insisted that a two-week suspension was not punishment enough.
Many of Imus’s supporters point out that Jews, Catholics and other minorities come in for insensitive ribbing too. Others say it was just Imus being Imus. But as Jeff Greenfield of CBS (and until recently CNN) said on Imus’s show this week, there’s a notable one-note “nineteenth- century mushmouth minstrel thing” about Imus’s mocking of African Americans. Greenfield admitted on the CBS “Early Show” on Wednesday that the white journalists who regularly appear on Imus have been insensitive to the racist nature of his humor.
Nonetheless, the inevitable backlash against the backlash has begun. (Take a look at the responses on MSNBC.com to Al Roker’s calling for Imus’s removal or resignation.) Imus’s supporters and those who merely believe this controversy—and whining, they say—has gone on for too long have started to argue that Imus is being crucified. They say too much is being made of this by blacks who exploit victimization. They charge Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for hypocrisy over their own insensitive remarks in the past. Indeed, Imus himself said on his radio show on Tuesday that he would stop apologizing at some point and start attacking those who attack him. Clearly, contrition has its limits.
The mainstream media is making much of the fact that hip-hop and rap also use demeaning terms to describe women. (“That phrase didn’t originate in the white community, it originated in the black community,” said Imus lamely of his most recent slur.) But most of the press had no idea that Essence magazine, the leading magazine among black women readers, as well as all-female Spelman College, a historically black school, have led a campaign directed at empowering women and listeners of rap music to address offensive images of women in music for years. Most journalists don’t know about the campaign because, typically, the mainstream media hasn’t covered it.
I do not mean to say there is no genuine defense of Imus. Republican Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor now running for president, and Democratic strategist James Carville have both said that they will not abandon a friend merely because he “said something stupid.” And even the Rutgers team captain, Essence Carson, an impressively mature college junior, was pragmatic enough to say that politicians have to get their message out and Imus has millions of listeners the pols want to reach. “You cannot blame them for that,” said Carson.
But it was revealing on "Today" on Tuesday when Imus told Matt Lauer that he “never said anything about Gwen Ifill.” Calling her a “cleaning lady” was part of “a comedy routine, where we make up the news, which we’ve been doing since 1968 on the radio….It was comedy,” said Imus.
Lauer had the good sense to ask Imus whether, in spite of his apology, he could be trusted to “clean up his act” since he initially didn’t think there was anything wrong with his racist insult and failed to apologize for two days. “Perhaps I can’t [be trusted], then,” said Imus before claiming he had a 35-year history of “keeping his word.” But Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page had extracted a promise from Imus that he would desist from making racist remarks seven years ago and Imus broke it.
Frankly, I don’t care if Imus is a racist. Racists and racism are a part of life. What is significant is that Imus’s brand of offensive racist, sexist and homophobic humor has been accepted by the mainstream for years. Imus did not trot out his harshest caricatures when establishment journalists were on, engaging them instead in playful—sometimes playfully abusive—banter and substantive discussion about foreign policy, politics or social issues. What the denouement of the Imus controversy will show is whether the standard of acceptable speech has changed.
The Imus controversy—like the O.J. verdict—shows that we are still different today, blacks and whites in America. We often have opposite perspectives and we have different levels of tolerance for racist “humor.” That is true here at NEWSWEEK like everywhere else. I have, to my recollection, never spoken to any of my many NEWSWEEK colleagues who appear regularly on Imus’s show, about how repugnant I find his “comical” act, though, as Gwen Ifill noted in an op-ed in The New York Times on Monday, I do feel a particular responsibility as the only black editor at NEWSWEEK.
But like African-Americans and other members of minority groups, and women, I pick my battles. When the nation’s standards or the media’s had changed, Imus would be reigned in, I believed. Until then there was no point in my complaining about it. For the same reason, I never voiced opposition to any of my NEWSWEEK colleagues’ appearing on Imus. That was their decision to make and it still is.
Similarly, most African-American journalists, with the notable exception of Les Payne, have long ignored Imus or seethed in quiet anger. Like me, most of them didn’t see the point of doing otherwise. The Rutgers incident has changed that for many black journalists—like Roker, who said on his "Today" blog on Tuesday that “enough is enough.”
Imus has a right to make offensive speech. What the limits of speech are, when those remarks are made on the federally regulated airwaves, is a continually evolving debate, however. There are commentators on talk radio more offensive than Imus, who offend more often. The difference is that he has power that few of them do and his humor is more baldly derogatory and has been for more than 30 years.
Already some advertisers, including Procter & Gamble and Staples, have pulled their ads from Imus’s simulcast on MSNBC. But Imus’s ultimate fate will tell us whether such racial “humor” is no longer acceptable in American mainstream media. Or if the old bargains of power and prejudice still hold.