Thursday, April 12, 2007
Don Imus sticks foot (and leg and torso) in big mouth
I do not listen to Don Imus' radio show, other than catching a few minutes of the televised version here and there. So I found it interesting, though certainly not surprising in lieu of recent events, to learn upon doing a google search that over the years Imus and characters on his radio show have:
* compared the appearance of black NBA players to apes
* called award-winning black New York Times journalist Gwen Ifill "the cleaning lady"
* referred to award-winning black New York Times journalist Bob Herbert as a "quota hire"
* referred to residents of Harlem as "molignans" (the Italian equivalent of "coons")
* referred to the black wife of former Secretary of Defense William Cohen as a "big-haired ho"
* called tennis players Venus and Serena Williams "animals"
And in a July 19, 1998 interview on "60 Minutes," Imus admitted to hiring a producer specifically "to do nigger jokes" for the show.
Somehow he managed to get away with all of this relatively unscathed. He may be the only "shock jock" with name recognition reasonably equivalent to Howard Stern, who is no friend or fan of Imus, but also no stranger to censorship. As a writer, I'm not a big fan of censorship myself. As a human being, I'm not a big fan of racist, anti-woman rhetoric. As a guy who appreciates a wide range of humor, I understand that insensitivity may not be politically correct, but it can often be damn funny and not especially mean spirited. I'm not a big fan of women's college basketball (I don't even watch the men. When it comes to sports, I typically stick to watching professionals), so perhaps I cannot speak intelligently about the Rutgers team. But if I was to make a blind guess, I'd say that probably not every one of their nappy headed players is a ho, that not every ho on the team is nappy headed, and that a pretty high percentage of them are probably neither nappy headed nor ho'ish. In fact, my research shows that the team includes includes a class valedictorian, a future lawyer and a musical prodigy.
Repercussions are coming fast and furious. Sponsors such as American Express Co., Sprint Nextel Corp., Staples Inc., Procter & Gamble Co. and General Motors Corp. have pulled ads, the televised simulcast was dropped, Imus has been suspended without pay for two weeks, he has suffered the indignity of issuing a multitude of insincere public apologies, and he has become precisely what he likes to deliver - a punch line. Yet this is not considered by some to be ample punishment. They want Don Imus to be fired. His apologies ring false to them, and the assertion that his cruelty was unintentional holds little credibility. Perhaps Mr. Imus has a point. We all know how easy it is to accidentally refer to someone as a nappy headed ho. I'm sure I've done it at least three times today. And someone who merely gets paid an enormous amount of money to speak on public airwaves can't possibly be expected to pay attention and be held accountable for every little thing he says, right?
Don Imus may be too much of a money maker to be fired by CBS for a faux pas they're surely praying will quickly go away once something even more ridiculous takes place, like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton becoming a televangelist duo. Or the resurrection of Anna Nicole Smith to proclaim that her daughter has no biological father, but was the result of an immaculate conception. And if enough outside pressure is mounted to force the network's hand, Imus will no doubt land on his feet with someone else in no time flat. He has already stated that he's sick and tired of apologizing, the one piece of honesty that I'll give him credit for. But if he expects me to believe he isn't a bigot, he may as well try to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge while he's at it. And if he expects anyone to side with his decision to make derogatory comments about a group of college girls who were fresh off the sting of defeat in the NCAA championship game, he may need to search long and hard among his most ardent supporters.
I bet he thinks that if a black comedian said something equally offensive about white people, not merely as much grief would result. And you know what? He'd be right. Is this fair? Maybe not, but plenty in life is unevenly distributed. Call it reparations or affirmative action or whatever you wish, but after being dragged from Africa, enslaved for generations, followed up by decades of separate and unequal treatment that has black people perpetually scrambling to reach equal footing in this country (great strides have surely been taken to date, but have we arrived in the Promised Land that Martin Luther King Jr. saw in his fantastical dream? Not quite), the right to tell a few jokes at the expense of the oppressor has certainly been earned. Just try not to overly paint with too broad a stroke.
Don Imus does not have any problems catching a cab or being offered a job after acing an interview, and he probably does not make little old white ladies in the elevator extremely uncomfortable simply by his proximity. He is not considered to be less intelligent or articulate or even an inferior swimmer simply based on his melanin count. So no, he has not earned the right to call someone he has never even met and whom he knows next to nothing about, someone who could be my mother, or sister, or daughter a nappy headed ho and expect to get a laugh from me.
The line between playful tease with comedic intent and a personal hang up about members of a different sex and race is not all that fine. My advice to Don Imus is this. If you're too blind to see the line and distinguish which side you're on, don't go anywhere near it.