Like many of the heehaw racists strewn across the cable dial and AM frequencies, Don Imus must be wondering why this time he got his tongue caught in the wringer. It was suddenly news that Imus shored up his ratings with racist cracks at blacks and Hispanics? Only at the start of April he went too far by insulting the women athletes of Rutgers? Is that when he crossed the Rubicon of racism and the shout went up, At long last, have you no sense of decency? It’s like announcing Bluebeard veered into unforgivable moral excess when he knocked off wife number five.
With the full sanction of his employers-primarily CBS and NBC-the man was at it for years, along with his sidekicks, Bernard McGuirk and Sid Rosenberg and his co-host Charles McCord. Ishmael Reed has a brisk resume of choice moments on the Imus Show in a piece in End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate, a very fine new book on the death of the Fourth Estate, mostly written by Jeffrey St. Clair and myself.
“On any day, ” Reed wrote, “you might find Bernard McGuirk the man, who, according to 60 Minutes, Imus hired to do ‘nigger jokes,’ doing a lame imitation of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, using a plantation-type dialect. Blacks, as satirized by McGuirk and others, spend most of their time committing malapropisms. McGuirk and co. refer to black athletes [are referred to] as “knuckle draggers.”
“I replay Don Imus as much as I can,” the intrepid Reed wrote, “because his putrid racist offerings are said to represent the secret thinking of the cognoscenti. Maybe that’s why journalists like Jeff Greenfield and others admire him so much. He says what they think in private.” True enough.
Those legions of mostly white men in the Chris Matthews genre, described as “political analysts” or “political strategists” all adored Imus. (And the panels of commentators on the Imus affair were 90 percent men too. I guess women were disqualified because they might be prejudiced.) One such Imus fan, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, made his continuing support an issue of principle, using the pulpit of the Tucker Carlson Show:
ALTER: I will continue to go on the show. I think what he said was racist, not to mention being unfunny and stupid, but if you don’t believe he should be fired, then you can’t call for a boycott, because a boycott would amount to the same thing as his being fired. If all of his guests, all of those senators in both parties, all the journalists all stopped going on, that would be the end of Imus. It would be. So if you favor boycotting him, you favor the end of Imus in the Morning.
Thus did Alter — who obviously cherished his sessions with the manly Imus crew — evolve the position that it is somehow a position of high moral principle, a courageous blow for free speech, to continue to go on Imus. Flaubert couldn’t have topped this.
I call Reed “intrepid” because I tried to watch Imus on MSNBC from time to time in recent years and have found the show far more boring than jewelry sales on QVC. Imus himself looked half asleep most of the time, which is probably why he tried to offer his audience a quick snicker about the Rutgers basketball players — it was just an attempt to wake himself up.
When he realized he was in serious trouble, Imus went full steam into contrition mode. America, far more than other cultures, adores full-bore apologies, leading to a full, low-interest-rate moral re-fi. Not believing in redemption, and schooled by Spinoza and Nietzsche, Europeans tend to take the position that remorse adds to the crime.
Imus’s trip to Canossa on the Reverend Al Sharpton’s radio program was a particularly rich session, with Imus sniveling that at bottom he is “a good man” and Reverend Al ushering on his daughter as a symbol of black womanhood defiled by Imus’s “ho” talk. Imus could have probed the Rev about his explicit statement on CNN a couple of years ago, amid his campaign to get rappers using physical violence to promote records banned from the airwaves for 90-day punitive periods, that these rappers had a perfect(First amendment) right to rap about violence and presumably hos. But Imus passed up the chance, preferring to dwell on his war on sickle cell anemia, a disease he appeared to think he alone had the courage and moral stamina to confront in his ranch in New Mexico. This culminated in another wonderful exchange, this one between Imus and Brian Monroe of Ebony:
MONROE: All right. Let me be clear. My magazine, Ebony magazine, has been writing and covering sickle cell anemia for decades now. Back when you were still doing radio spots for used cars. I cannot let you….
A used car salesman! Amidst his abasement, the worm turned.
IMUS: I’m not going to sit here and let you insult me.Don’t talk about me doing used car commercials.Let me tell you what — I will bet you I have slept in a house with more black children who were not related to me than you have.
In the end it was all to no avail. The execs at MSNBC and at CBS, saw the big advertisers peel away, and instantly threw in the towel. Imus was history – at least until he gets a show on Sirius just down the dial from Howard Stern and Dave Marsh.
And in the larger context of things-of Anne Coulter, of O’Reilly the Loofah King, of Limbaugh, of Howard Stern, of Cynthia Tucker and Juan Williams; of blacks paid by whites to dump on other blacks like Cynthia McKinney, of Chris Rock chanting the F word, of women-dissing rapper? One listens to the fuss about Imus and thinks, okay — but this is only one tiny square in our dirty national quilt. We live in a racist, profit-driven culture that is getting more degraded by the hour. War is at the apex of that degradation, and indeed these ceremonies of degradation are an integral part of the war machine, which drives the whole show along. Back in February Imus snarled into his mike, “It might be good to start with somebody who is willing to take three big ones and drop one on Mecca, one on Jeddah and one on Saudi-one on Riyadh.” No one asked him to apologize for that one. Take that, you towel heads.
On the phone to MTV News Snoopp Dogg dealt brusquely with the finger-pointing at rappers as Imus’ instructors in the use of “ho”.
“It’s a completely different scenario. [Rappers] are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We’re talking about ho’s that’s in the ‘hood that ain’t doing shit, that’s trying to get a nigga for his money. These are two separate things. First of all, we ain’t no old-ass white men that sit up on MSNBC going hard on black girls. We are rappers that have these songs coming from our minds and our souls that are relevant to what we feel. I will not let them muthafuckas say we in the same league as him. Kick him off the air forever. Ban him like they did ‘Pacman’ Jones. They kicked him out the [National Football] League for the whole season [for numerous violations of the NFL’s personal-conduct policy, including multiple arrests], but this punk gets to get on the air and call black women ‘nappy-headed ho’s.’ “
There are plenty of ironies. Claiming a pivotal role in drawing attention to Imus’ remarks about the Rutgers team is Media Matters for America, a watchdog outfit run by David Brock. Before he said he was sorry he’d been a neo-con and made his very successful trip to Canossa by publishing Blinded by the Right, Brock was one of the nastiest of the right-wing hatemongers, particularly against women. His sponsors in that period included the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Rev Sung Myung Moon and Richard Mellon Scaife, probably the prime funder of right-wing slime in the country. Brock wrote The Real Anita Hill, a book stemming from his attacks on Anita Hill in The American Spectator. He coined the phrase about Hill being “a bit nutty and a bit slutty”. He then led the charge on “Troopergate”, the scandal-mongering series about life in the Clintons’ gubernatorial mansion.
After Brock displayed an unseemly obsession with troopers being sent out to buy Tampax for HRC, he was semi-outed by Frank Rich in the New York Times, then finally outed himself as he hopped over the fence into liberal pastures, where he now grazes. Though Brock was re-born in the amniotic fluid of forgivenness, Media Matters did not favor forgiveness for Imus, and demanded that MSNBC and CBS can him permanently.
Media Matters is now beating the drum for further shut-downs of right-wing hatemongers, such as Neal Boortz and Glenn Beck. If the examples of unacceptable hate brandished by Media Matters are anything to go by, it looks as though the blue noses will be taking over. “MSNBC host Tucker Carlson twice referred to Canada as a ‘retarded cousin'”, Media Matters squawks angrily. Gee. Another Media Matters citation for unacceptable speech is issued to O’Reilly:
“O’Reilly responded to a Jewish caller to his radio show who objected to ‘Christmas going into schools’ and explained that he ‘grew up with a resentment because I felt that people were trying to convert me to Christianity.’ O’Reilly told the caller that America is ‘a predominantly Christian nation’ and that ‘if you are really offended, you gotta go to Israel.’ O’Reilly labeled the caller’s concerns ‘an affront to the majority’ and insisted that ‘the majority can be insulted, too.’ During his exchange with the caller, O’Reilly also mistakenly referred to ‘the seven candles’ of Hanukkah.”
So if the liberals have their way, O’Reilly will be fired for this, then indicted by the Justice Department for hate speech for getting it wrong about the seven candles.
Bill Dobbs, formerly of ACT-UP and UPFJ, wrote to me,
“Imus? He’s just got a foul mouth, all his pollution is words. Interesting to see the forces that lined up helped to send him to the gallows, even two journalist groups: National Association of Black Journalists, and National Association of Lesbian and Gay Journalists. Those who are in the minority ought to be pushing for more discussion rather than the reflexive shut up. But there’s nothing like a heckler’s veto. Meanwhile a show that actually wrecks lives, NBC’s To Catch a Predator is riding high helping the cops lock up the pervs. Even Jerry Springer causes so many physical confrontations that the show has big beefy bouncers at the ready. The price of Imus and all the other campaigns to shut up unpopular viewpoints may not come due immediately but it will have to be paid.”
There’s something to this, but the “just words” defense isn’t quite enough. As the Good Book says (Proverbs 18, 21) “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Imus was better than some of the scum who survive him. He was against the war and attacked Bush. But his show throve on the worst kind of slime. Missy Beattie has an example in her fine piece on this site this weekend:
For example, when Jill Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor reporter, was released by her kidnappers in Iraq, Bernard McGuirk [producer of the Imus Show] said that Carroll was the kind of woman who’d wear a suicide vest into the Green Zone. Later, he piled on the malice with more smear, suggesting that Carroll was pregnant, carrying the baby of terrorist al-Zarqawi. Charles McCord [Imus’ co-host] agreed. Imus attempted to persuade the two to apologize but they refused. Were these three laughing all the way to the bank?
Yes, they were laughing, just like MSNBC and CBS. People finally got mad and the networks blinked. That’s good, even though it won’t change anything. That would, as JoAnn Wypijewski wrote in her very popular piece two days ago on this site, take real politics.
A final thought. The collective daily audience for the three cable news channels — MSNBC, CNN and Fox – is somewhere around 3 million. Our CounterPunch site’s daily hits run at around 2.3 million, with unique visitors at anywhere from 60,000 to 1000,000 a day. So let’s not be too underdogged.
Footnote: a much shorter version of this column ran in the print edition of the Nation that went to press last Wednesday.
ALEXANDER COCKBURN’s new book, with Jeffrey St. Clair, is End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate.