By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2007
Bowing to a national outcry and internal protest, CBS Radio said yesterday it would end Don Imus's morning program "immediately," possibly bringing the sometimes inflammatory broadcaster's four-decade career to a swift and ignominious end.
CBS followed NBC, which Wednesday canceled the MSNBC simulcast of Imus's radio show. Imus touched off a conflagration last week when he made racist and sexist comments.
Imus -- as well as CBS and NBC -- struggled for the past eight days to craft an effective response to widespread criticism after he called the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos." But neither repeated apologies nor a two-week suspension imposed this week by the two media companies quelled the furor. Advertisers deserted Imus's show and protests continued, inside and outside the companies.
CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves said he made the decision to stop carrying Imus's program after he and CBS executives heard from "all segments of society" in recent days.
"In our meetings with concerned groups, there has been much discussion of the effect language like this has on our young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this society," Moonves said yesterday in a statement. "That consideration has weighed most heavily on our minds as we made our decision."
Imus indicated that the end of his CBS run was near during yesterday's program, a radiothon for charities he has supported for years on his show: "I don't know if this will be my last radiothon. My suspicion is it will be." Imus, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, said on his show that the uproar had become "insane" and "out of control."
Civil rights leaders such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson became closely identified with protests against Imus. But one of the earliest sparks may have been provided by the National Association of Black Journalists, an organization based at the University of Maryland in College Park.
The group said it heard about Imus's remarks the day after they aired from one of its members -- an employee of MSNBC -- and quickly issued a news release calling for a boycott of Imus's show. The release caught the attention of organization members at media outlets across the country, prompting some of the initial news coverage, said Kristin Palmer, an NABJ spokeswoman.
Imus's demise hits CBS Radio particularly hard. As a morning "drive-time" star, he brought in some $20 million annually to his flagship station, CBS-owned WFAN-AM in New York, plus undisclosed millions more in syndication fees from affiliated stations, including WTNT-AM in the Washington area.
He is the second major personality to leave CBS Radio in the past two years. Fellow shock jock Howard Stern jumped from CBS to Sirius Satellite Radio last year.
Radio executives speculated that Imus could return, after an interim, on satellite radio, which permits a more freewheeling atmosphere than traditional broadcast radio. XM Satellite Radio rehabilitated the careers of New York radio duo Opie and Anthony after they were fired in 2002 for broadcasting a stunt in which a Northern Virginia couple allegedly had sex in Manhattan's St. Patrick's Cathedral. Washington shock jock Doug "Greaseman" Tracht, however, has never fully recovered his prominence since making racially inflammatory remarks on the air in 1999.
CBS did not indicate who might replace Imus in that time slot.
"I didn't see CBS having any other choice," said Dave Pugh, who heads Clear Channel Communications Inc.'s group of radio stations in the Washington and Baltimore region, including WTNT. "Imus just took it to an unforgivable place."
NBC dumped Imus's daily MSNBC show Wednesday after a meeting a day earlier among some two dozen African American employees, NBC News President Steve Capus and MSNBC General Manager Dan Abrams at the network's headquarters at Rockefeller Plaza in New York.
"We all expressed very strong and deep feelings about the comments and the wider issue of what this says about decency in broadcasting," said Ron Allen, an NBC correspondent. "The comments were so beyond any line we could draw -- I just couldn't believe I could hear something like that and hear it in a place where I work."
The meeting proved a turning point in Capus's decision to halt the MSNBC simulcast of Imus's CBS Radio show after an 11-year run. Amid a swelling tide of other pressures -- from major advertisers pulling out to condemnations and boycott threats from minority leaders -- Capus said he was influenced most of all by the anger in his own shop.
"I listened to people on both sides of this issue," Capus said yesterday during an interview on "Today." "I got into an elevator today and somebody said, 'You made the wrong call, man.' I appreciate that people have that viewpoint. But . . . when someone says that could have been my daughter [Imus was insulting] and that person works for me, how can I ignore that?"
Allen, a New Jersey native whose father and sister graduated from Rutgers, had been an occasional Imus guest and found himself "consumed" by the controversy. He aired his views in private e-mails to Capus, then went public with a blog posting on NBC's Web site. "Today" weatherman Al Roker also condemned Imus's statements on his "Today" show blog.
NBC anchor Brian Williams, a regular Imus guest, played the role of in-house sounding board, constantly asking staffers what they thought about the Imus controversy and relaying their unhappiness to Capus and other managers, according to Williams.
Williams has spoken to Imus once since the remarks were made, but he and other news stars have never developed an off-air relationship with the radio host, and they were conspicuously silent when it came to defending Imus from the storm of criticism. The Imus issue had particular sensitivity within NBC News because many of its personalities -- Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, David Gregory, Andrea Mitchell, Tim Russert and Chris Matthews -- have been frequent guests on Imus's show.
Rather than seizing the initiative early on, however, CBS's and NBC's top executives had to be pushed to take action.
When the first protests against Imus were raised last week, both organizations condemned the comments but imposed no punishment. MSNBC even issued a statement pointing out that Imus's program "is not a production of" MSNBC (it is originated by WFAN) and that Imus's views "are not those of MSNBC."
By Monday, as the protests mounted, CBS and NBC announced that they were suspending Imus for two weeks.
MSNBC has weathered at least two previous rounds of protests about his on-air comments.
In January 2006, MSNBC apologized but took no further action after the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation complained that Imus's description of the male leads in the film "Brokeback Mountain" was homophobic. In December 2004, the network had a similar response when Arab American groups protested after an Imus sidekick, Sid Rosenberg, referred to Palestinians as "stinking animals."
In both instances, MSNBC issued statements with identical wording: "The views expressed on the program are not those of MSNBC. Having said that, it was unfortunate that these remarks were telecast on MSNBC. We sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by these remarks."
This time, however, there was too much heat.
The group at the center of the controversy -- the Rutgers team -- has not called for Imus's ouster. The players met with Imus for about three hours at the governor's mansion in Princeton, N.J., last night. Imus left without commenting to reporters, according to the Associated Press, and the team did not immediately issue a statement.
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey yesterday, the team's coach, C. Vivian Stringer, said she wanted to wait until meeting with Imus before passing judgment. "He has hurt us tremendously," she said. But she added, "We promised to come to the meeting with an open heart and mind."
Staff writers Howard Kurtz, Lisa de Moraes and Frank Ahrens contributed to this report.