Dismissal may signal change

Women, blacks instrumental in Imus' firing

April 14, 2007|By Nick Madigan and David Zurawik | Nick Madigan and David Zurawik,Sun Reporters

When Rutgers University women's basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer announced yesterday that the team had accepted an apology from Don Imus, she expressed hope that the furor would be a catalyst for change.

But the speediness and manner of his dismissal from CBS and MSNBC, after calling the players "nappy-headed hos," may foreshadow a ripple effect on talk radio, industry observers say.

"What's different about this firing compared to that of other insult jocks is that people internal to the organizations - women and African-Americans at NBC and CBS - came forward and said, `I am in this organization, and I do not want to be associated with this kind of man,'" said Sheri Parks, a University of Maryland professor who teaches courses on race and gender.

While Imus' firing could have a dampening effect on shock-jock insults, she said, the lasting lesson for broadcasters is that empowered women and African-Americans were instrumental in prompting his removal.

Parks and other analysts noted that black business leaders played a major role in driving Imus from the airwaves this week: Kenneth Chenault, the chief executive officer of American Express, which pulled its multimillion-dollar account from his MSNBC show; and former NAACP President Bruce S. Gordon, who is a board member for CBS, which fired him Thursday from his radio show.

Black employees at Sprint Nextel Corp. successfully lobbied CEO Gary D. Forsee to pull the company's advertising, according to The Wall Street Journal.

"For the first time in our history on a media issue like this, we had African-American men and women who were in key positions of power and able to ask, `What is going on here with this kind of vile commentary?,'" said Jannette L. Dates, co-editor of the landmark book Split Image: African-Americans in the Mass Media.

"That means that even though there has been this nasty hatefulness in media with comments like the ones from Imus, there has also been progress among this very group of black men and black women that has been treated so vilely," she said. "Now, we see some of them in positions of power - with the means to end such hateful talk."

The calls for a more tolerant environment extend beyond CBS and beyond issues of race, observers say.

"The effect on radio will be chilling," said Douglas Gomery, scholar in residence at the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland. "No one in their right mind will want to risk the kind of advertiser pullout that hit Imus and CBS. Even the boldest shock jocks are going to think twice about what they say about certain groups in the wake of this."

Gomery thought the Imus episode was unusual in the speed with which it was concluded.

"There have been a lot of people in the history of talk radio who have been outrageous, but name anyone as big as Imus who lost two jobs in two days the way he did," he said.

Sean Ross, the former editor in chief of Billboard magazine's radio programming publication, Airplay Monitor, agreed, saying, "Imus' comments were inexcusable, but they weren't unusual." He urged radio program directors and general managers to adopt a "first, do-no-harm policy."

"It should apply to anything that hurts listeners - racism, sexism, homophobia - or stunts that invade people's privacy," said Ross, now vice president of music and programming at Edison Media Research, which provides data to media companies. "For 20 years, we've dealt with this only through crisis management. That's got to stop."

Ross pointed out that Imus' racially charged insult was not remotely the worst comment that has gone out over the airwaves.

"Had someone not brought this to the public's attention, it could easily have blended into the din," Ross said. He posted an essay on the Edison site yesterday suggesting that because of the Federal Communications Commission's increased scrutiny of indecency - and much larger fines - after Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl, race-baiting has become what some on-air personalities use instead "to ratchet up the outrage."

In the past few days, there has been no official word from radio's corporate leaders about a moratorium on expressions of racism or sexism, and no obvious dial-back from talk hosts and drive-time disc jockeys. But the Imus fiasco has so consumed the national debate that it cannot have helped but inspire some measure of introspection.

"You can see Imus as a dinosaur in an era of political correctness," said Tom Taylor, editor of the trade publication Inside Radio. "The act has worked for decades, but the dinosaur has stepped in a hole in the ground, and he's lying on his back. No one wanted his career to end like this."

Whether Imus ends up working elsewhere - perhaps on satellite radio, which is ungoverned by the FCC and where the notoriously crude Howard Stern has found a home - it remains to be seen whether Imus' less-known colleagues in broadcasting will heed calls to be less callous in their banter.

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