By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 12, 2007
MSNBC said late yesterday it is dropping host Don Imus's morning program after a succession of advertisers suspended sponsorship of his cable TV show and outrage increased over his racially and sexually insensitive remarks.
Imus's four-decade career as a radio host also appeared to be in jeopardy after a board member at CBS Radio said he hoped the shock jock would be fired. CBS, which syndicates Imus's show to 70 radio stations across the country, continued to stand by Imus, saying it would "continue to speak with all concerned parties and monitor the situation closely."
Imus, whose show is simulcast on radio and MSNBC, first sparked outrage last week when he referred to Rutgers University's women basketball players as "nappy-headed hos." Team members have agreed to meet with Imus on Tuesday -- a day after the host is to begin serving his two-week suspension from CBS.
In a statement late yesterday, NBC, which owns the cable news channel, said the decision to drop Imus came after "an ongoing review process" that included "many conversations with our own employees." The broadcast company added: "Once again, we apologize to the women of the Rutgers basketball team and to our viewers."
MSNBC said that starting today, it would offer "expanded live news programming" from 5:30 to 9 a.m., the slot formerly occupied by "Imus in the Morning."
Imus's comments about the Rutgers team have prompted widespread condemnation and have turned Imus into a touchstone for a national debate on such topics as racial prejudice and the coarseness of popular culture. Some, including radio shock jocks Opie and Anthony, have supported Imus's freedom of speech and suggested that his slur was no worse than the lyrics of popular rap songs.
The pressure on NBC clearly was building after seven major advertisers -- including top sponsors Sprint Nextel Corp. and General Motors Corp. -- said over the past two days that they would no longer place ads on MSNBC's broadcasts of "Imus in the Morning," at least while the controversy over his comments is raging.
Amid widespread media attention and expressions of dismay from prominent officials, including White House press secretary Dana Perino, the advertiser defections were clearly a tipping point for NBC.
Imus's show has been a relatively low-rated but profitable weekday offering for MSNBC. The network has simulcast the video feed of Imus's radio program since 1996.
Sprint Nextel, the Reston-based telecommunications company, was among the advertisers that said yesterday it had directed MSNBC not to place its ads on Imus's program. "We don't want our advertising associated with content that we, our customers and the public find offensive," said Leigh Horner, a company spokeswoman. Sprint, like the other advertisers, didn't say how long it intended not to advertise on the program.
Sprint Nextel was the largest single sponsor of "Imus in the Morning" last year, with estimated expenditures of $1.57 million, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.
In announcing its pullout, General Motors Corp. said it "obviously does not condone the comments Don Imus made." The carmaker said it "welcomed" Imus's apology and intent to change his program, but that it had not committed to return as a sponsor. GM, however, said it would continue its support of Imus's charitable activities.
Imus has also lost ad support from American Express, Procter & Gamble, Bigelow Tea, Staples Inc. and drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline.
Imus -- who earns $8 million annually under his recently renewed five-year contract with CBS -- also got a strong rebuke yesterday from Bruce Gordon, a director of CBS Corp. and a former head of the NAACP. "He's crossed the line, he's violated our community," Gordon told the Associated Press. "He needs to face the consequence of that violation." CBS declined to comment on Gordon's statement.
Imus is scheduled to begin a two-day fundraising event today for several charities, including his organization that runs a New Mexico cattle ranch for children who have cancer. Although MSNBC and CBS had delayed his suspension until next week so the telethon could proceed, the fund drive will now be heard only on his radio network, which includes WTNT-AM (570) in Washington.
In a separate announcement, CBS Radio said former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle would replace Imus during his suspension. Barnicle, who left the Globe in 1998 after questions were raised about the existence of his sources, has his own troubled broadcast history. In 2004, while hosting a radio program in Boston, he described the interracial marriage of Janet Langhart and former defense secretary William Cohen as "Mandingo," a reference to a 1975 movie in which a black male slave and a white woman have sex. After the NAACP protested, Barnicle apologized on the air.
On Opie and Anthony's show, which is also syndicated by CBS, hosts Greg Hughes and Anthony Cumia fired back yesterday at Imus's critics, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has helped lead the campaign against Imus.
"Opie and Anthony" sidekick Jim Norton read the lyrics of hit rap songs containing multiple crude references to women. With the hosts' assent, Norton repeatedly called the anger over Imus's comments "phony outrage."
Staff writer Frank Ahrens contributed to this report.