If you were under the impression that Don Imus’s departure from CBS radio and MSNBC TV would usher in a new era of socially responsible talk on TV and radio, well, think again. What did Imus in was the fact that Ryan Chiachiere, a young analyst at Media Matters, noticed his “nappy-headed ho’s” comment from the show’s simulcast on MSNBC and then prepared a blog post about it for his organization’s website. A flood of calls to MSNBC and the National Association of Black Journalists’ demand for an apology combined with twenty-four-hour cable culture to create a mushroom cloud over CBS and NBC and a full-blown public relations crisis for Imus’s corporate overlords.
Imus’s racism and homophobia have inspired protests for decades. And while many more people got involved this time–particularly black journalists–the crucial factor was the avalanche of exiting advertisers. Remember the sequence. First came the apologies and condemnations. Next came the suspensions. Finally came the ax, but only after Procter & Gamble, General Motors, American Express, GlaxoSmithKline and SprintNextel said they were leaving. Had the advertisers followed the example set by, say, Tom Oliphant, formerly of the Boston Globe, who appeared on the program and announced “Good morning, Mr. Imus, and solidarity forever, by the way”–then Imus would surely have been back in the black/gay/Jew/woman-bashing business faster than he could (again) say “nigger jokes.”
The post-Imus landscape, what’s more, is hardly one dominated by Bill Moyers or even Brian Williams. Most right-wing radio and much of cable resembles a sonic cesspool of anti-black, anti-gay and anti-almost anything but white Christian male rhetoric. ABC and CNN are both so enamored of the opinions of that right-wing ranter Glenn Beck, they are willing to share him. Beck returns the favor by employing the public airwaves and fiber-optic cables to warn that if “Muslims and Arabs” don’t “act now” and “step to the plate” to condemn terrorism, they “will be looking through a razor-wire fence at the West.” He also announces, “We need to be the first ones in the recruitment office lining up to shoot the bad Muslims in the head.” It’s not merely Muslims at whom Beck directs his hate speech. He termed Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen soldier, “a pretty big prostitute” before changing his mind and offering up “tragedy pimp” as somehow more accurate.
His colleague Neil Boortz, a radio host, explains to listeners that Islam is “a religion of vicious, violent, bloodthirsty cretins” and that former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney is a “ghetto slut.” Michael Savage–fired by MSNBC for, predictably, telling a gay caller he was a “sodomite” who should “get AIDS and die” but is still in good standing on talk-radio–terms Barbara Walters “a double-talking slut” and a “mental prostitute.” Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, while marginally more civilized in most instances, nevertheless regularly traffic in anti-black, anti-Arab, anti-gay, anti-female–and in O’Reilly’s case, anti-Semitic–stereotypes with equivalent consistency. Fox’s John Gibson calls Iraqis “knuckle-dragging savages.”
Imus possessed a supernatural power to make the highest-minded of character cops turn a blind eye to his crimes against civil behavior. Sometimes he received a Good Housekeeping Seal directly from his victims, Stockholm Syndrome-style. For instance, according to Imus, Howard Kurtz, CNN and the Washington Post‘s deeply conflicted media cop, is “a boner-nosed…beanie-wearing Jew boy.” But Kurtz, who enjoyed Imus’s promotion of his books on the air, says he “just shrugged it off” as “Imus made fun of blacks, Jews, gays, politicians. He called them lying weasels. This was part of his charm.”
While almost everyone involved with the man was guilty of some level of hypocrisy, perhaps the most delicious was that of the self-appointed Moralizer in Chief, Joe Lieberman, whose appearances were an Imus staple. As the late and much-missed Lars-Erik Nelson once noted, Lieberman could complain from one side of his mouth that “we are lowering the standards of what is acceptable in our society, and we are sending a message to our children,” and denounce an “acceptance of rude language, foul imagery and gross behavior in the entertainment mainstream.” But that very week, Lieberman’s buddy Imus contributed to the public discourse references to then-Attorney General Janet Reno in crotchless pantyhose and as a drunk repeatedly saying “shit.”
Because of Imus’s unique status both within the elite and as the opening act on MSNBC’s daily lineup, he was also uniquely vulnerable to the kind of frenzy that demanded a dramatic ending. Savage, of course, lost his brief MSNBC gig, and Beck might be vulnerable to a similar campaign someday, should Media Matters catch him in the act. But generally, white radio shock jocks are granted the same pass, when it comes to transgressing the boundaries of good taste and verbal violence, that has been accorded to gangsta rappers.
Liberals prefer to ignore this comparison, insisting that there is something authentic and artistic about hate speech coming out of the mouths of millionaire black men as compared with millionaire white men. I disagree. While the social contexts that produce such speech are obviously quite different, the desensitizing effect it has on cultural communication is the same. Both talk-radio and gangsta rap represent women as legitimate objects of sexual violence. Both teach white men to regard nonwhites as subhuman. Both invite verbal and sometimes actual violence against gays and Arabs. If we seek to eliminate one, we can hardly excuse the other. If, instead, we take a position on behalf of free speech and against censoriousness and political correctness, that has to be consistent as well. Leftists have paid a significant price in the marketplace of debate in recent decades for their failed efforts to try to control the speech of those with whom they disagree. Speaking purely politically, the “political correctness” campaign has proven a kind of boomerang, undermining the credibility of those who demand it.
Honestly, figuring all this out is a lot harder than it looks.