Imus’s career ended by media-savvy public

On April 12, NBC News canceled outspoken media personality Don Imus’s show after a 28-year run in the morning rush-hour slot. CBS Radio, Imus’s main employer, issued Imus a two-week suspension from the air.

The suspension was a result of a racially offensive remark Imus made on April 4 about the African-American women on Rutgers’ basketball team, whom Imus referred to as “nappy-headed hos.” The networks’ decisions were a response to the backlash from people of all races that emerged on the women’s behalf, led by figures like the Reverend Al Sharpton, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, and New Jersey Senator and Rutgers alumna Nia H. Gill.

Executives of both networks apologized for the incident, but that’s not the point. The Rutgers incident is only the most recent of a continuum of offensive remarks that have brought a certain brand of fame to Imus since the beginning of his career. Imus’s career should have been nipped in the bud after he referred to African-American sports columnist Bill Rhoden as a “*New York Times* quota hire” and PBS anchor Gwen Ifill as a “cleaning lady” more than 20 years ago.

But Imus is an equal-opportunity discriminator. He has been caught on the air calling Arabs “ragheads,” the employees of publishing company Simon and Schuster “thieving Jews,” and repeatedly using derogatory terms to refer to women, gays, Catholics, and others.

Imus’s recent stint generated a spell of radio rubber-necking by the American public at large. Like drivers who can’t turn away from a gruesome car wreck on the side of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, listeners couldn’t help tuning in to catch the fallout from the incident. The morning following the show in question, 624,000 people did so, a 50 percent increase from the size of the show’s typical audience. Imus’s abhorrent behavior pushed the ratings of Imus in the Morning on MSNBC to their highest level in months.

The question still remains — after decades of offensive behavior, why does Imus get the ax this time? Because of an increasingly media-savvy, not to mention desegregated, public. So many people tuned into Imus’s show the day after the incident not just to gossip about it, but for reasons of genuine public concern for the impact of the media on groups that don’t have the name or the fame to talk back quite as publicly. These people — of all races, no less — lent their voices to fight back on behalf of the African-American women on Rutgers’ basketball team. Had there been such a public to stage a backlash of the same degree 20 or 30 years ago, Imus’s career would have been extinguished before it began.

Editorial Dissent

Don Imus’s career is a quest for candor in a society that is politically correct to the point of self-deception. He said publicly what millions will only think or say in the most private of settings. He forced people — famous and influential interviewees and listeners alike — to face the music. Each time someone was taken aback listening to his show and asked “Can he say that?”; Imus succeeded. Imus wasn’t fired for making derogatory remarks on air. Our society has no problem with that — open discrimination against homosexuals, women, blacks, Arabs, and dozens of other groups is condoned in the media continuously. But now that Imus has been fired, we can all get back to hiding our darker side.