Monday, April 9, 2007

Counterpoint: Defending My Boy

So Imus-gate continues, with nationally-recognized figures such as Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Chuck calling on him to resign or be fired.

I have always been a fan of Imus, and have always based that preference on the contrast between the Imus program's more political, intellectual bent on the one hand, with the more low brow humor of Stern or Opie and Anthony on the other.

I assume everyone is familiar with what was said (if not, just scroll down to Jerry's previous post), so I won't repeat it here. Jerry has suggested that I defend "my boy," but I am not sure that I either (a) can, or (b) want to. I am still up in the air (side note: get it?) on this, so what follows is really just a collection of thoughts and observations. I'll figure out what my conclusion is by the end (or not).

First, two points of clarification from Jerry's post:

1. In the context of questioning why mad politicians go on the show, Jerry asserts that "It's not as if [Imus] has any listeners." I think that's wrong. In fact, the New York Times reports that Imus has millions of listeners on 70 stations around on the country. I am not sure which way that cuts, as you could easily argue that the fact that so many people listen to him is one more reason why he needs to be mindful of what he says, but it is worth noting.

2. Jerry pokes fun at the written apology Imus issued last week (or read on his show aloud, I'm not sure which) for the use of the pronoun "we." In fact, I think this was right, because the offensive colloquy was actually between Sid Rosenberg, Bernard McGuirk, and Imus. As I read the apology, it was a mea culpa on behalf of the show (side note: if you were to collect the racist offerings over the past 20 years from the show, I think Bernard would be way out in front of everyone else, and query whether he should be the one getting more heat on a day to day basis).

While it's easy to find two little things from Jerry's post to pick on, it's harder to decide whether Imus should be fired/forced to resign for what he said. On the one hand, there is the argument (likely to be advanced most vociferously by Goldie) that if you don't like what he said, don't listen. If enough people find what he says offensive, and they decline to listen to or watch his program, then market forces will take over and he'll be gone. In other words, each member of society can police the airwaves by simply tuning out (literally) that which they find offensive (or boring, or stupid, or whatever).

On the other hand, MSNBC is not a government agency (side note: and even the FCC, which is a government agency, can regulate scarce airwave space and decline to permit obscene material on the air), and they have every right to decide that, freedom of speech notwithstanding, they don't want to be associated with someone who makes mad bigoted remarks. (In reality, that's really just another angle on the market forces argument, as it is more likely that MSNBC would get rid of him to retain viewers, i.e. for business reasons, as opposed to some genuinely held moral outrage at what he said).

I think both of those positions are valid, but I think you can't end the inquiry there; I think you have to look specifically at this program, and refrain from making snap judgments based on one incident. Unfortunately for Imus, that more restrained, level-headed review actually does him no good. Over the 30-year history of the show, the host and other participants have made dozens of racially insensitive (and downright racist) comments. As noted above, I often think Bernard is the biggest culprit, but either way, Imus doesn't catch a break from the "this was an isolated incident" defense. It is decidedly not an isolated incident (side note: that same New York Times article posted above notes that in 2001 Imus took a pledge to refrain from making racist comments after referring to PBS anchorwoman Gwen Ifil as a "cleaning lady.").

Still on the other hand, though, this is hardly a show that singles out black people for ridicule. Gay people, Jewish people, Irish people, Catholics, Hispanics and a whole host of other groups are often lampooned on the show. I am not suggesting that being a bigot across the board excuses individual incidents of racism, but I do think it is noteworthy that this particular comment set off a firestorm where others have not.

An additional consideration that informs my opinion on the proper result is that Imus is hardly the only radio, talk show or TV show host who makes insensitive comments. Rush Limbaugh has said dozens of things about gay people, Jewish people and democrats that I find reprehensible. That lunatic who runs the 700 Club - Pat Robertson - has said more dangerous things on the air than perhaps every one else combined (most recently suggesting that the United States should assassinate a foreign head of state). Lou Dobbs says offensive things about people who immigrate to this country every single night. Etc. The intolerant speech of other people hardly justifies the intolerant speech of one particular guy, but it does run counter to basic ideas of fairness and consistency for Imus to get canned over this while those guys get to keep spewing their garbage (side note: query whether the fact that Imus is at the center of the political spectrum actually hurts him here; were he way to the right or way to the left then any assault on him could be dismissed as "the other side" trying to get him by "playing politics.").

Lastly, I think it is worth noting (and this goes back to the market forces argument) that this is a comedy show. It's not like someone thought they were getting teletubbies and accidentally heard this remark. The show is known for being irreverent, and not altogether "cleaned up." It's hardly as sexually explicit as Stern, but none of the participants have ever shied away from making fun of anyone, and it is not uncommon for it to be in a harsh and biting fashion. These guys typically make comments that are on the edges of what is generally considered "offensive" and it is inevitable that they will occasionally cross the line. If that inevitability is troubling to a listener or viewer, then they should not listen or view. I think, though, that I am not ready to conclude that he should be fired or forced to resign for saying or doing things that some people find offensive.


One more thing, I just watched that clip again. I think it is worth noting that he also comments that the Tennessee players are "lovely" when the majority of players on both squads are black. Was it a racist comment or was it a sexist comment? I think certainly the latter, since he was making disparaging comments to Rutgers based on their appearance. But was it also the former? "Nappy headed hos" is hardly a term that he would have used to describe any non-black players, so from that perspective it is clearly racially-charged. I just think that the sexist overtones (i.e., girls have to look good, etc.) are more potent than the racist overtones. I am surprised that there aren't more women's advocacy groups that are fired up about this (at least not as prominently as the NJ NAACP, National Association of Black Journalists, Rainbow/PUSH, etc.).

Also, it dawned on me that Chris Carlin is the sports reporter on the Imus show and also does Rutgers football games. I wonder what kind of awkward position - if any - this puts him in with respect to his relationship with Rutgers sports. It would be interesting to see what he would do if the Rutgers AD said that no one at RU would talk to him as long as he is affiliated with the Imus show.


ChuckJerry said...

" could easily argue that the fact that so many people listen to him is one more reason why he needs to be mindful of what he says..."

True dat.

I think the apology was weakened by the use of "we" rather than "I". I know it was not just him, but he is not on the Imus, Bernard, and Sid show. He sounds like Ronald Reagan saying, "Mistakes were made" rather than just owning up to his bigotry.

I think Bernard does most of the bigotry so that Imus can say that he's not making comments, but he's clearly in support of the comments since they do not stop.

MSNBC's statment essentially said, "Well, we don't produce the show. That's done by WFAN, all we do is air it." Which is like saying, "I didn't rob the bank. I just gave the guy a ride to and from the bank."

Maybe I'm just having trouble with the fact that Imus, to me, is just one of the worst people in the world, and yet he still has credibility with important people who, in my opinion, should know better. I guess that's it.

Side Bar said...

I agree that MSNBC's response is a cop out, and if I viewed "we" as an attempt to lessen the blame, then that's also a cop out (I just don't see it that way). I think he is owning up to what he said (going on Sharpton's radio show today, and has asked to meet with the players, coaches, and parents of players on the Rutgers team). Whether he thinks he did anything wrong or is just trying to clean up his mess is debatable (and I am sorry to say that I suspect it is the latter), but it is more than most do when accused of doing something wrong.

I just have a really hard time agreeing with your assessment that he is "one of the worst people in the world" (literary use of exaggeration notwithstanding), given all the good stuff he does (raises money for Hackensack hospital, raises money and awareness to combat SIDS, provides a free summer camp to kids with cancer and their siblings, etc.). You can say that his racism is enough for you to stop listening and advocate his firing, but you cannot deny that he has done a lot of good with his money and celebrity.

Max said...

I think Don Imus, and what he blurts out, is getting WAY too much attention from *anybody* - and not because of the number of listeners he has or doesn't have, but because it's a silly morning talk show! Imus' show is entertainment, nothing more. He's not Walter Cronkite.

Imus must be happy - what's the old adage in showbusiness, any publicity is good publicity?

Danny G said...

My final thoughts...

I agree with Max, this guy is getting way too much attention for a comedian who failed at humor. Unlike the Michael Richards incident, which clearly was a guy not in control of his emotions, Imus was not enraged. In this case (similar to former Sen. D'Amato's very poor Lance Ito impression a while back on Imus' show, which he distanced himself from immediately) Imus attempted a joke that failed, for a variety of reasons.

I think Jerry's last paragraph above sums up why I got fired up in response to his first post. It's clear that Jerry doesn't like Imus. That's fine. What's not fine is to take that dislike and use it to argue for a system-wide ban on Imus on the airwaves. As I noted, there are other ways to achieve the goal of diminishing the importance attached to Imus' messages, that done go as far as banning his ability to reach a wide audience.

And, as I said in my original comments, I think it's perfectly fair to ask why people like Tim Russert and Sen. Schumer and others go on his show all the time and don't call him out on some of this stuff. But not liking someone and wanting to undermine his or her credibility isn't the same thing as wanting that person off the air.

I despise Limbaugh. I think he's a hypocrite and full of shit and people shouldn't listen to him. I also think he's racist, sexist and a lot of other, way more damaging things to society, than just not entertaining. But I also don't think that just because I get offended by what he says, that my offense should govern what other people are allowed to listen to/watch.

Finally, I think that after watching the clips of Imus on Al Sharpton's radio show and their interview with Matt Lauer on Today, Imus should own his bigotry in the context of Avenue Q's "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist Sometimes" Key lines...

Everyone's a little bit racist
Doesn't mean we go
Around committing hate crimes.
Look around and you will find
No one's really color blind.
Maybe it's a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgments
Based on race.

Everyone's a little bit racist
So, everyone's a little bit racist
Ethinic jokes might be uncouth,
But you laugh because
They're based on truth.
Don't take them as
Personal attacks.
Everyone enjoys them -
So relax!

If we all could just admit
That we are racist a little bit,
Even though we all know
That it's wrong,
Maybe it would help us
Get along.

Everyone's a little bit racist
It's true.
But everyone is just about
As racist as you!
If we all could just admit
That we are racist a little bit,
And everyone stopped being
Maybe we could live in -

Full lyrics here: