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Why Imus Had to Go

Rutgers University students at a protest this week of comments by radio host Don Imus.
Rutgers University students at a protest this week of comments by radio host Don Imus. (By Mike Derer -- Associated Press)

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, April 13, 2007

Now that the networks have pulled the plug on Don Imus, let's have no hyperventilation to the effect that the aging shock jock's fall from undeserved grace raises some important question about just who in our society is permitted to say just what. Wherever "the line" delineating acceptable discourse might be, calling those young women from Rutgers University "nappy-headed hos" is miles on the other side.

Especially for a 67-year-old white man with a long history of racist, sexist and homophobic remarks.

For young black hip-hop artists to use such language to demean black women is similarly deplorable -- and, I would argue, even more damaging. But come on, people, don't deceive yourselves that it's precisely the same thing. Don't pretend that 388 years of history -- since the first shackled African slaves arrived at Jamestown -- never happened. The First Amendment notwithstanding, it has always been the case that some speech has been off-limits to some people. I remember a time when black people couldn't say "I'd like to vote, please." Now, white people can't say "nappy-headed hos." You'll survive.

While we're at the business of blunt truth, do the big-time media luminaries who so often graced Imus's show have some explaining to do? You bet, and so do the parent news organizations, including my own, that allowed their journalists to go on a broadcast that routinely crossed the aforementioned line. All these trained observers couldn't have failed to notice Imus's well-practiced modus operandi. "He never said anything bad while I was on" doesn't cut it as a defense.

Nor is there much exculpatory power in Imus's defense of himself, which can be paraphrased as "I'm not a racist, I just keep saying racist things." What characteristics, do you suppose, could possibly identify a person who was indeed a racist? You think maybe that saying racist things might be a fairly reliable clue?

One of the most interesting things about the Imus meltdown is how MSNBC and its parent company, NBC Universal, moved from sluggish inaction to ordering a two-week suspension to bidding Imus, his cowboy hat and his unfunny entourage an abrupt adios. A day later, CBS Radio followed suit and canceled Imus.

The pressure applied by Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and other activists certainly got NBC and CBS's attention, and the news conference held by the offended Rutgers team was devastating. News stories citing Imus's past transgressions were embarrassing. And the withdrawal of Imus's biggest advertisers -- General Motors, GlaxoSmithKline, American Express, Ditech.com, Procter & Gamble, Staples, Sprint Nextel -- removed any financial incentive for MSNBC to keep the show on the air.

It would be logical to conclude that money talked and therefore Imus walked. But I tend to believe NBC News President Steve Capus when he says that the biggest factor was the internal reaction from NBC News employees, who told him in no uncertain terms that enough was enough.

Two of the network's on-air stars -- "Today" weatherman Al Roker and NBC correspondent Ron Allen -- authored strong anti-Imus posts on NBC blogs. Producers of NBC and MSNBC news shows gave the controversy nonstop coverage. Meanwhile, Capus was hearing from dozens of NBC employees who worried about what continued association with Imus would do to the network's reputation. Among them were women and minorities who told Capus they felt the sting of Imus's attacks personally.

Which is a sign of how the world has changed.

Four decades ago, when Imus started his long and lucrative radio career, there were few women and minorities at NBC in a position to influence the company's decision on an issue like this one. Take it another step: There were few women and minorities in positions of authority at the firms that advertised on Imus's show.

In think tanks and on college campuses, intellectuals still argue about diversity, but in corporate America the issue is settled: Diversity is a fact of today's world. In the nation's two most populous states, California and Texas, minorities already form a majority. Companies realize they cannot survive, let alone thrive, without courting diversity among their employees and their customers. You certainly can't run a television network these days without taking diversity into account.

Imus's advertisers couldn't afford to be associated with racist, misogynistic views, and neither could NBC. This doesn't portend any sort of chilling effect on free speech, as some have suggested. It doesn't mean that white males are being relegated to the dustbin of history. Last time I checked, guys, you still ran most of the world. You just have to be a bit nicer these days, and you have to share.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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