By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
If calling the Rutgers women's basketball players "nappy-headed hos" was the first deplorable and offensive utterance out of shock jock Don Imus's mouth, there probably wouldn't be a national firestorm over his reprehensible characterization. If this was some rare event, then there wouldn't be organizations lining up to demand he be fired. If this was the first time, or second, or 10th, probably Imus wouldn't have been suspended for two weeks from his syndicated radio show, which is simulcast on MSNBC.
But there's nothing rare about Imus's vile attacks. This is what he does as a matter of course. Imus and his studio cohorts have painted black people as convicts and muggers and worst of all, apes. Not only do they find it funny, they expect everybody else will as well.
Sid Rosenberg, whom Imus once fired, then rehired, said one morning in 2001 that Serena and Venus Williams would be better off posing in National Geographic than Playboy. He knew he was saying Serena and Venus are closer to wild animals than women.
Please don't tell me it's not fair to hold Imus accountable for that remark and others like it because it didn't come out of his mouth. Imus hires the people who utter this filth and, in fact, wants them to go as far as possible because he believes it insulates him to a certain degree from the harshest criticism.
This is what Imus has done for years and years, and Viacom and NBC Universal pay him a king's ransom to do it. Imus has been questioned about his tactics over the years, and he says repeatedly and dismissively, "Get over it." He certainly isn't the only morning shock jock doing this, but he's the one whose behind is being scorched now and justifiably so.
Imus is the one who said in 1995 of Gwen Ifill, an accomplished, award-winning black journalist of incredible dignity and grace: "Isn't the [New York] Times wonderful. . . . It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House."
It's Imus who called William C. Rhoden, the veteran Times sports columnist, "a quota hire." Of course, the work, accomplishments or stature of their targets do not matter to Imus and his stooges. He makes fun of former attorney general Janet Reno's Parkinson's disease.
So "nappy-headed hos" wasn't some weak moment of great exception on the Imus show. In 1997, during a "60 Minutes" profile, Mike Wallace confronted Imus and a former producer who quoted Imus as saying he'd hired a staffer to "do nigger jokes." When I mentioned that earlier this week on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, Imus responded on his show that it simply did not happen -- though I see it in a 2000 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review and had a producer access it through a transcript (also the audio version) on National Public Radio.
Wallace: "You've told Tom Anderson, the producer, in your car coming home that Bernard McGuirk is there to do nigger jokes.'"
Imus: "Well, I've . . . I never use that word."
Tom Anderson: "I'm right here."
Imus: "Did I use that word?
Anderson: "I recall you using that word."
Imus: "Oh, okay, well then I used that word, but I mean . . . of course that was an off-the-record conversation . . ."
Wallace: "The hell it was."
So, you'll excuse me if I dismiss Imus's apology as bogus. He's apologized in the past, told veteran black journalist Clarence Page on the air he would "promise to cease all simian references to black . . . black athletes." That was before Imus went back to the ape references, probably within a week.
Understandably, this has led to a whole lot of folks calling for Imus's head. Personally, I'd rather see Imus have to confront anger, scorn and ridicule every single day. I'd rather see him have to deal with the accusation of being a bigot. I'd rather the criticism come at Imus from every angle, indefinitely, rather than have him slink away to private life.
You'll have to excuse me for not believing a man can utter this brand of filth month after month, then proclaim testily he's not a bigot. Firing, in some ways, would let him off the hook too easily. I'll defend Imus's right to free speech, while pointing out that those of us who find him and his goons contemptible have the exact same right to free speech. I'd rather see Imus squirm in the face of withering criticism than be fired and turn up six months later as some kind of martyr.
I'd rather see him snubbed by Cal Ripken, who refused to go on the air with Imus after his remarks about the Rutgers women. Ripken was supposed to appear on the Imus show yesterday to promote his new book.
Already a little squeamish about appearing on the show, Ripken's decision to tell Imus no became an easy one after the latest spewing. "It was set up by the publisher, but I said no because I don't want anybody to perceive that I condone those comments because I don't," Ripken said in a telephone conversation yesterday. "And if you go on that show, that's exactly what the perception would be."
Ripken said he does not want to be seen as someone wielding a moral compass. But I wonder now how many of these prominent journalists and politicians who use the platform Imus provides (and therefore give him cover) will have as much conviction as Ripken displayed.
Imus, not surprisingly, is trying to frame the discussion in a way that paints him as a good guy who did a stupid thing, which might be okay if he wasn't such a serial offender. Yes, Imus routinely has riveting political discussions, as recently as last fall when he engaged Harold Ford, then running for the U.S. Senate, in conversations about running for office as a young black man in the South, in this case Tennessee. When Imus says he's not unfamiliar with black people, he's telling the truth. He's not some idiot segregationist who seals himself off from black people, which is what makes these episodes even more disgusting.
If you believe the bosses at Viacom and NBC Universal have any guts, and I'm not sure I do, then you might believe the suspension represents a warning of zero tolerance from here on in and that Imus is one more incident from being dumped. And while I'm not agitating for Imus to be fired, I'd certainly raise a toast if it happens. Until then, what Imus has prompted is a necessary national conversation. The meeting with the Rutgers women is necessary -- so is the vigil to stand over him and remind him that even if he doesn't get it, many of us do.