Opinion Focus

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, April 10, 2007; 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, April 10, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Misogyny in the Morning (Post, April 10)

The transcript follows.


Eugene Robinson: So, I'm thinking this might be a lively hour. Today I wrote about Imus, the nappy-headed host whose mouth got him in trouble. Again. He says he's not racist, but then why does he keep saying racist things? For the record, I don't know the man and have never been on his show. Never will.


Washington: Gene: As you usually do, you have said it all, but what I don't get with Imus is why when he said they were "rough-looking" which I guess is at least maybe defensible. Also, the producer is the one who said "ho" first, why isn't that jerk suspended too? I'm confused.

Eugene Robinson: I didn't have space to get into the "rough-looking" comment, which preceded "nappy-headed hos," so thanks for bringing it up. Yes, what the hell did that mean? If you saw the team on TV this morning, you know they're not rough-looking at all. I think the only conclusion is that to Imus, black equals "rough-looking."

The producer works for Imus, so if Imus is suspended, he's suspended.


Washington: I'm curious, after reading your column: which part was more offensive, "nappy-headed" or "ho?" Because while both are offensive, it was the first which drew most of my attention, while your column seemed to focus on the second.

Eugene Robinson: I didn't want the "ho" part to go overlooked. Both are insulting, and together they add up to more than the sum of their parts. A stunning insult.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hey, isn't Sanjaya and American Idol your normal beat? Oh sorry, that's Lisa de Moraes. Based on the usual timetable for public meltdown or racist defrocking, Don Imus will be in rehab by Friday and back on the air in two weeks with the incident forgotten in three weeks. I don't listen to the radio, don't watch Don Imus, never did. It's obvious by a two-week suspension that Imus isn't quitting or getting fired. Don't you think that the loss of high-profile guests like Hilary Clinton, Cal Ripken, etc.(who won't go near the show with a ten-foot pole) will result in loss of interest and ratings for MSNBC? Even without a high-profile boycott, what corporation is going to continue advertising on his show? Nice try bringing Howard Stern into this. I'm not sure that Hilary Clinton or other prominent politicians appear regularly on his program. I'm sure if you listened long enough, you could hear something even more degrading than the Miss Black Howard Stern. Besides, the last time I checked, you had to pay to listen to Howard Stern on satellite radio -- big difference.

washingtonpost.com: Sanjaya: The Axis of 'Idol' (Post, April 6)

Eugene Robinson: It will be interesting to see how high-profile guests react. John McCain has said he is keeping a commitment to appear on the show, I think later this week. Ripken pulled out. There are many big-time Washington journalists who appear regularly. I wonder if they will continue, and I wonder what their bosses will think of that.


Central, Va.: While I am disgusted with Imus' remarks (and I usually am), I consider them less racist and more about the shock. These radio and TV hosts have got to shock people or no one listens -- no one is listening to the people who are calm and rational. If you don't call names and make ridiculous blanket statements, you are ignored, and that doesn't make for good radio or TV. We need to revert to what we all learned (or should have!) on the playground: Don't call each other names, and play fair. Imus will not be fired, because this is just the kind of controversy that shows are looking for.

Eugene Robinson: Thank you. I just never "got" the whole shock-jock thing. I find the humor unfunny and the whole atmosphere mean-spirited, even cruel. Why listen to cruelty in the morning? But clearly there's an audience for that kind of thing. Imus, Howard Stern and others have made millions from it. Never appealed to me.


Baltimore: Mr. Robinson, I wonder if you even listen to the radio, or just jump on the racist NAACP bandwagon when it suits your column. Firstly, you fail to mention that the the term "hos" was spoken by Mr. Imus' producer prior to his offensive statement in question. Secondly, you mention the "Miss Black Howard Stern" contest, but it does not seem that you listened to the segment or the show. If you did, you would know that Robin Quivers, an incredibly successful African-American woman, participated in the judging of the contest, in which all of the contestants applied to participate. You also fail to mention that Howard Stern grew up in the majority-black community of Roosevelt, Long Island, and continually points out racism in the media -- including columns such as yours -- that overemphasize the role of race. It's pretty clear that Mr. Imus' remarks were offensive, but why do you and others call radio hosts racist and misogynistic for saying and doing things that you have not heard or clearly do not understand? Based on your column today, I would classify you as ignorant and equally racist.

Eugene Robinson: Is it supposed to be a mitigating factor that Imus' producer used the word "hos" before Imus did? It doesn't mitigate anything for me. I think the Miss Black Howard Stern thing was degrading, and Robin Quivers makes her own choices in life. I call radio hosts racist and misogynistic when, in my estimation, they are.


Fairfax, Va.: I don't usually participate in this chat, but I wanted to compliment your column on Imus. Personally, I don't really care about him -- whether he's racist or a misogynist. That's his business. But if I had my way, I'd fire him in a second. Regardless of who he is or what kind of following he has, his comments were just stupid. They were damned stupid, and pointless. Clearly we all have bigger fish to fry than one man's hatred, yet you're right -- the fact that what these creeps say on their radio shows resonates with so many (and makes people laugh in assent) is scary. And that's when words and ideas become powerful -- when they are lodged so deeply inside of us that they never force us to step back and reflect upon those bigger fish. Ugh.

Eugene Robinson: Ugh indeed. I would love to see Imus and his program shunned, ignored, relegated to obscurity. I did not call for him to be fired, for two reasons. First, I've been a journalist for 30 years and I strongly believe that offensive speech should be rejected, ignored, refuted -- but not squelched. I don't like squelching.

The second reason is that I don't want Don Imus to become some kind of martyr. I don't want people to be able to claim that he's some kind of victim of political correctness.


Marietta, Ga.: While I find the comment regarding the Rutgers women morally apprehensible, where was the outrage when Sid Rosenberg, a sports announcer for Imus, said that Venus and Serena Williams were better-suited to appear in National Geographic than Playboy?

Eugene Robinson: Or when former secretary of defense William Cohen (white) married Janet Langhart (black), and Imus referred to the marriage as "jungle fever." Or when he referred to PBS host Gwen Ifill, then a New York Times correspondent at the White House, as "the cleaning lady" (which Imus now apparently denies, but others say he did). Or when any of a dozen other incidents happened.


Richmond, Va.: I am one of those who raised my voice in protest to Imus' comments, but I am wondering how many of his regular listeners did (I am not one of them). In short, did his audience care, or are they just part of an ever-growing segment of the population that loves the shock, the ugly and the vulgar, and demand it of their hosts (radio, televisions, Internet)?

Eugene Robinson: I'm not a regular listener either, but I think Imus' regulars are inured to this sort of thing. Otherwise, why do they keep listening?


Indianapolis: Hi Eugene. I saw your discussion w/David G on Hardball tonight regarding Imus. It is hard for a white guy (me) to fully understand what kind of impact racial comments must have on minorities. There really isn't any corresponding experience where I adequately can relate. I know it must be terrible. I selfishly find myself (an Imus listener) very saddened that this may be the end for his show -- and struggle with the thought that one terrible comment will end his career and tarnish him as a racist/bigot. Should one comment define a career? Also -- didn't Jesse Jackson atone for insensitive comments regarding New York Jews and continue with his career? Is that a poor comparison?

Eugene Robinson: If this were the first time Imus had made a clearly racist comment, there would still be a controversy but I think more people might be inclined to forgive. He has done this kind of thing consistently over the years. He has promised to stop, but he doesn't. So it's hard to believe him now.


Washington: Eugene: Classic demonstration of the pot calling the kettle black! When was the last time Don Imus' saw the inside of the Hair Cuttery?! Imus' comments have turned the heat up on a simmering pot of issues (within the black community) to high. Now that the issues are boiling over, I wonder what we will do as black Americans to help clean up the overflow. Just getting Imus off the air is not enough. As we point the finger at him, there are three others pointing back at us. We have to hold our men accountable for putting down black women the same way we want to hold Imus accountable. Then, climb up the totem pole and attack the heads of the media institution that continue to let this be acceptable forms of self-expression. Our beef should not stop there. It is quite a mess, Eugene, quite a mess.

Eugene Robinson: A mess indeed. I have sons, not daughters, but I found myself imagining how I would feel if I had had a daughter on that basketball team. Then I thought about how I would feel if a daughter of mine were called a "nappy-haired ho" by a black man. Of what I would do to my sons if I ever heard them refer to a black woman, or any woman in such derogatory terms. There's no place for that, not on MSNBC -- and not on BET either.


Chicago: Eugene, you are right all of Don Imus's "humor" in cruel and mean, not just to innocent 18-year-old college girls. So why are David Gregory, Tim Russert and Mike Banicle so quick to declare Don Imus a "good person"? They are part of a culture that supports and promotes Don Imus's "humor."

Eugene Robinson: You are absolutely right to ask that question. It's not as if this is a first offense on Imus' part.


Washington, DC: Gene, Did you read Lisa de Moraes' column today? Apparently, there are fun-for-the-Imus-show insults, and then there are real insults. What a wuss. Here's an excerpt from the column about Imus' appearance on Al Sharpton's radio show:

"At one point Imus chastised the participants in Sharpton's show for not supporting him when he was trying to educate his audience about sickle cell anemia.

"Monroe took issue with that, saying Ebony magazine 'has been writing and covering sickle cell anemia for decades ... back when you were still doing radio spots for used cars.'

"Imus was outraged.

" 'Don't come on this radio program and insult me, because I'm not insulting you,' he said, with, we regret to report, no indication that he saw how wildly ironic it was for him to make that comment on this particular show on this particular day."

" 'I'm not going to sit here and let you insult me!' he snarled.

" 'You can keep talking all you want,' he said as Monroe continued. 'You are not going to insult me. Don't insult me. I have not insulted you. Don't talk to me about doing used-car commercials.' "

washingtonpost.com: Don Imus Is Punished With Two Weeks of Radio Silence (Post, April 10)

Eugene Robinson: Of course I read the divine Lisa's column. Somewhat ironic.


New York: Gene: One reason the Imus comments were so slimy is that they were directed by a powerful, successful walking-corpse (oops! that was gratuitous) old white man against young, striving, student-athlete women; they are trying to make it in a world that evidently is still quite racist and misogynist; why doesn't Imus use his power to skewer the powerful (and plentiful) hypocrites and downright dangerous folks? Instead he says wounding, cruel, ridiculous things to young women who are by definition high-achievers: both students and team athletes. I wish he truly were ashamed instead of just embarrassed that he has to mumble some fake-contrite remarks. Thanks as always for your columns.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks, New York. I'm not defending Imus here, but for the record he does skewer the powerful as well.


Framingham, Mass.: I just finished watching the Rutgers basketball team's remarkable news conference. The players showed their strength of character, but they also showed the depth of hurt personally caused to them by Imus' comments. How do you think their own words will affect the tenor of this debate, which up to now has been obscured by the distraction of the involvement of the Revs. Sharpton and Jackson? Perhaps I'm naive, but I believe that many of the people who have been defending Imus -- and calling this criticism of him an example of political correctness gone astray -- will see that this is about more than the words: It's about a group of young women who saw their moment of pride denigrated by a hateful slur.

Eugene Robinson: I agree. What an impressive group of women. I hope, and expect, that they will quickly move beyond this whole thing and get on with their lives. This is about Imus, not about them. It's his problem, not theirs.


Pittsburgh: Seems like the Rutgers women's basketball team and their coach are behaving with great public dignity throughout this ordeal. How do you think they should deal with Imus? Accept an apology and forgive him, or what?

Eugene Robinson: I think it's incredibly generous of them to agree to meet with him. I wouldn't have. They don't owe him a thing. They certainly don't owe him a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the public -- or even a let's-all-cry-together meeting that allows him to feel good at the end of the day.


Bethesda, Md.: Would the Imus comments even be an issue if he and his staff were black? Would Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and the esteemed Eugene Robinson be clamoring for his termination if he worked for WPGC? Let's not be racist here and establish double standards based on race. This is something I believe African-American "intellectuals" have a real hard time understanding, because they themselves are as racist as the people they criticize and call racists.

Eugene Robinson: I don't think any radio host, white or black or whatever, could have gotten away with calling the Rutgers basketball team "nappy-headed hos."


Seattle: Why doesn't Ann Coulter face similar consequences for her hate speech? Imus says "nappy-headed hos" and is a pariah. Coulter calls John Edwards a "f-----," advocates the bombing of the New York Times building and the assassination of Supreme Court Justices, and she's laughed off. I don't get it. By the way, I am in no way saying that Imus doesn't deserve this backlash, because he certainly does -- I'm just not clear why he's being so severely punished compared to much of the angry, homophobic, white-centric garbage spewed out of the radio and talking-head TV on a daily basis.

Eugene Robinson: You have a point, especially about the angry garbage. Imus is different largely because of his corporate sponsorship -- CBS radio and MSNBC cable -- and the fact that so many prominent people go on his show. All this amounts to tacit endorsement of his act.


Glen Mills, Pa.: Heard you today about Imus. I am his age, 65. I have lived in Pennsylvania for the past 25 years, but lived in northern Ohio in the early 1970s when we both were in our early 30s. His show then was "Imus in the Morning" out of Cleveland (check the tapes). On that show he performed as several characters, none of which I can remember. But one of them described how he'd solve a problem: he'd invite all blacks to a party in the Grand Canyon. Then he'd drop a nuke on them. My description is paraphrased but I never forgot that. Now, with today's outrage, I can never allow him to back out of this one.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks. I hadn't heard that one.


Washington: I'd just like to say that despite all the criticism against Imus, I think he's got a great face for radio.

Eugene Robinson: Indeed.


Silver Spring, Md.: Re: Robin Quivers ... I suppose as long as you get the endorsement of one black person, you're in the the clear, right? Give me a break!

Eugene Robinson: Word.


Journalist?: Another issue the Imus situation raises is that of professional journalists vs. other media producers. A former professor of mine suggested that journalists be certified -- that way it distinguishes between trained journalists/broadcasters and bloggers, shock jocks and all others with a forum. Do you think that would make a difference? At least that way, audiences won't hold the media responsible.

Eugene Robinson: Journalists should not be certified. I've worked in countries where journalists need official certification, and it's a bad system. If government or some professional agency controls who is allowed to seek contemporary truth, the public's ability to know always suffers. Either professionals seek to limit entry to the profession, assuring themselves sinecures while blocking aggressive young would-be reporters; or government only wants to certify journalists who will report the official version of the truth. Our system is messy but infinitely better.


Richmond, Va.: What do you think the reaction would have been to a black comic making the same comments at a stand-up performance? It's interesting that the term that Imus used was basically appropriated from the "gangsta rap" sub-culture. Somehow, it seems less authentic coming from an over-the-hill white guy.

Eugene Robinson: Stand-up comments say things like this all the time, and people either laugh or they don't. Part of the problem is that Imus was referring to a team full of fresh-faced, wholesome young women who had just played for the national championship. No comic would have tried to make them the brunt of that joke.

I should add that white comics do talk about race, and use hot-button words, and get away with it. Unless they lose their minds like Michael Richards...


Brooklyn, N.Y.: I saw you on TV in MSNBC, discussing the Imus racial slurs. I used to think that the whole liberal media stuff was a made-up thing by the neocons, but now I'm not so sure ... how can people still go on this man's show? If Rush Limbaugh would have made those comments, we would be frying him now. I am angry that this man Imus is still on the radio. Are there two standards?

Eugene Robinson: All I can say is that I have never gone on Imus's show, and certainly would not go on it now.


Washington: Why is that when a rapper uses the word "ho" or "whore" it's considered firmly established, and an African-American artform? Why don't any rappers have to embark on a Tour of Shame on radio and TV shows? If you turn on the radio to any station playing rap or hip-hop, you are practically guaranteed to hear things far more offensive than anything Imus said on his program. Even if the lyrics are bleeped out, it's not difficult to figure out what's being said. I think Imus' comment was offensive, and I'm not excusing his actions, but if a black radio host had made the same comment, would we be having this discussion? When the Revs. Sharpton and Jackson call for one person's head after making offensive comments, that's fine -- but to ignore a constant stream of vulgarity posing as an "artform" smacks of a double-standard and hypocrisy.

Eugene Robinson: No one, white or black, should refer to black women as hos. It's a vile insult.


Can I change the topic for a sec?: What do you think of the "no-hassle-zones" for illegal immigrants that were in The Post today? On the one hand, they deserve police protection, and it seems that most of them are employed and working hard. On the other, they broke the law to get here, and the "broken-windows" theory seems to apply as well. I'm torn. Your thoughts?

washingtonpost.com: Upcoming Discussion: Cities Setting Own Immigration Rules (washingtonpost.com, 2 p.m. today)

Eugene Robinson: Fascinating issue, but haven't thought it through yet. I'll check it out.


Manassas, Va.: I must tell you that your take on this mess was the most sensible commentary that I've read or heard. Very perceptive. Imus has to appreciate what you wrote and learn that his thoughts and ideas are way out of the realm of civility, and are of use to no one. The whole Shock Jock community needs to benefit from this example and find better ways to use their positions in front of a microphone. Could such a thing happen!? Or is there just no profit in being a benefit to society?

Eugene Robinson: Shock jocks without the shock? I just don't see it happening, I'm afraid. This offensive nonsense makes a lot of money for its practitioners. Sigh.

Hey, my time is up, folks. Thanks, everyone. There was no way I could get to every question, alas. See you next week.


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