Don Imus slips and falls hard

April 13, 2007|By Clarence Page | Clarence Page,Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- As she faced the world's television cameras to respond to a gross insult by radio and television showman Don Imus, a member of the Rutgers University women's basketball team spoke volumes with one sentence: "I'm not a ho," she said Tuesday at the team's first news conference after the "nappy-headed hos" incident. "I'm a woman and ... I'm somebody's child."

Indeed, she is. So are the rest of Rutgers' Scarlet Knights. And anybody who would make them out to be anything else should be ashamed. Unfortunately, shame is in short supply in the field of shock radio.

Just before the Easter weekend, Mr. Imus apparently thought he could get away with a brief apology at the beginning of his program for his racially charged remarks. But by Monday, the controversy had percolated to the boiling point. Civil rights activists called for him to be fired. He was apologizing all day long. By day's end, his employers, CBS Radio and MSNBC, had suspended Mr. Imus for two weeks.

Yesterday, his radio show was canceled.

The Imus controversy was not a big surprise to me, although the punishment was. Back in 2001, I led Mr. Imus in an on-air pledge in which he promised to avoid humor that relied on inflammatory racial or gender stereotypes, including "simian references to black athletes" and other abuses of which he had been accused.

I had been part of his stable of journalists and commentators who appeared on his show for more than five years. We were invited to the show to offer political views. He took the pledge, and we continued with our usual interview, although interestingly I have not been invited back since.

That's probably not surprising. For more than three decades, Mr. Imus has been one of America's most popular radio personalities, combining some of the shock-jock elements of a Howard Stern, for example, with the irreverent political sense of, say, a Bill O'Reilly.

But when you dance along the edge, you run the risk of slipping. What made the backlash from the Rutgers statement more serious than his previous dust-ups?

For one, it was such an obvious cheap shot. The rich and famous might be fair game, but why pick on a group of college women?

Second, it was a slow holiday news weekend, which only brought additional attention, spurred by insatiable 24-hour news cycles.

And third, I have a theory, based on the impact of bloggers, YouTube and other Internet-era phenomena, that mass anger of all types has new ways to grow farther, faster and hotter than ever before. After years of surviving controversies that have cost other shock jocks their jobs, Mr. Imus and those who profit from his talents finally found themselves feeling a pinch in their pocketbooks and their reputations.

In full damage-control mode, Mr. Imus went to the national confessional that the Rev. Al Sharpton's syndicated radio show has become for racial transgressors. What could make Mr. Imus look more sympathetic than to be berated for an hour or more by a man widely despised by Mr. Imus' core audience of mostly white males?

And the ironies don't end there. After all, if Mr. Imus offended black folks with his use of words such as "ho" and "nappy head," it was today's black culture that gave him the vocabulary. I understand those who ask whether it is fair to condemn Mr. Imus for using language that gets a pass when black rappers use it. Actually, I have condemned the demeaning language of rap. So have Mr. Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and many other black commentators.

Still, it is not enough. We must passionately condemn the language of hate, not only when others direct it against us but also when we direct it against ourselves.

If anything good came out of this episode, it is the opportunity it gave us to see the women of Rutgers' basketball team. In contrast to the negative images of raunchy radio, they showed the world grace, intelligence, determination and dignity. They had given the world their best. They deserve better than what Don Imus sent back to them.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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