By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Don Imus's program relies on a stable of regular guests, many of them luminaries of politics or journalism. Tim Russert, Sen. John McCain, Bob Schieffer -- these and dozens of other notables call in every few weeks and spend 15 or 20 minutes batting around the issues of the day after some light banter.
Over the years, many of these stalwarts have developed a bond of friendship with the host. Imus mentions gifts that Russert has sent to his young son, and recounts donations that some guests have made to Imus-associated charities.
Imus has often joked about the need to provide a few minutes of buffer -- "a window of purity," he calls it -- between these guests and the raunchier segments on his weekday morning show, which is syndicated by CBS Radio and simulcast on MSNBC. But after the furor over the host's remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team, that window has slammed shut. Regular guests are now faced with a dilemma: jettison a longtime relationship, or be associated with a show now widely regarded as disreputable?
"Will I go back on?" said Schieffer, who called Imus's description of the team as "nappy-headed hos" indefensible. "If it were anyone else, I wouldn't have anything to do with them. But I'm not going to sever a relationship with someone who has apologized for what he said. He's my friend. I hate what he did, but he's still my friend."
Others can't be so certain. This is particularly true of Newsweek (owned by The Washington Post Co.), which has a "cooperative" relationship with NBC and MSNBC. Several of the magazine's writers have "contributor" contracts with the network. And while none have formal, paying gigs with Imus, Newsweekers including Jonathan Alter, Evan Thomas, Howard Fineman and top editor Jon Meacham have become frequent contributors. Newsweek now has its brand to consider in deliberating whether to allow its people to joust once again with the "I-Man."
"He said a hateful, despicable thing," Meacham said, "and he was rightly suspended. He appears genuine about changing the tone of the show so that nothing like this happens again. And if he follows through, then we're open to going back on. We're going to watch and learn, as the first President Bush used to say.
"We don't want to rush to judgment," Meacham continued. "At the same time, he's on serious probation here. It's a very big deal. We take this seriously. . . . CBS and NBC clearly want to see if he can reform, and we do, too. Imus appears genuine about changing the tone, but if there's any backsliding, then it's over as far as we're concerned."
Beyond personal loyalty, there are sound business reasons to "do" Imus. Other than Oprah Winfrey, few hosts can move copies of a book like Imus. (He often boasts about how the mention of a book on his show boosts its sales ranking.)
As Sara Nelson, editor of the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, said: "Let's put it this way: If Jon Stewart has become the master of selling books by young, often male authors to his young, often male audience, then Don Imus does that for authors and writers of a certain age."
Likewise, it doesn't hurt the Newsweek crowd to have their magazine mentioned half a dozen times during an interview, and ABC's Charlie Gibson gets a boost when Imus congratulates him for winning the latest ratings for nightly newscasts.
But, for Imus regulars, their appearances often have nothing to do with plugging anything. As CBS's Jeff Greenfield said on yesterday's show, "Imus in the Morning" has become a "salon where people talk about events in a way that they don't talk about it in most other places."
Imus urges them to digress, take shots (a running gag when he's grilling a just-the-facts reporter -- say, NBC's Andrea Mitchell: "Wouldn't you agree, Andrea, that Dick Cheney is a war criminal?") and bring out aspects of their personal lives. It was on "Imus" that Schieffer, the venerable chief Washington correspondent for CBS News and host of "Face the Nation," disclosed his bout with cancer.
So, too, did Newsweek's Alter in 2004. During one appearance, Imus accused Alter of being in a bad mood, going so far as to ask whether Alter's wife was beating him up. He sounded bad, Imus said. Yes, said Alter, he did feel bad -- because of chemotherapy. Alter would go on to talk about his lymphoma on the show several times afterward.
"There is a clubbiness to it," said Alter, who said Imus's recent comments were "racist" and "despicable." "It's a strange hybrid of serious, in-depth coverage with locker room banter. Fortunately I have never been on the air when that banter went over the line."
Still, Alter said, Imus will "do things like compare my wife to [attempted assassin of Gerald Ford] Squeaky Fromme, which I don't necessarily appreciate, but it's part of the usual tone in the show."