Enabling insults, injuries and Imus

Published April 15, 2007

As I sat in a TV studio Wednesday, waiting for a turn to speak on MSNBC that never came, I was amazed by the absurd media drama exploding around shock jock Don Imus' unraveling career.

Asked to appear on Keith Olbermann's MSNBC show Countdown (I was bumped to make room for someone else, probably the Rev. Al Sharpton), I watched as Olbermann grilled Jesse Jackson on when he was going to protest Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Glenn Beck - conservative radio personalities who all have their own reputations for racial insensitivity.

And a thought came to mind: Is he badgering the wrong guy?

After all, Olbermann had just spent long minutes talking with Steve Capus, the head of news at MSNBC, who was trying to explain why it took a week of protests, acres of bad publicity, major sponsor defections and rebukes from NBC News employees such as Al Roker to finally convince him Imus' two-week suspension should become a permanent vacation. (CBS followed suit Thursday, canceling Imus in the Morning, the radio show.)

Wasn't it NBC News brass who initially decided to simulcast Imus' radio show on TV, at a time when he already had a reputation for slinging nasty race-based jokes on air? Wasn't this the same cable channel that had hired the virulently antigay Savage a few years ago to do commentaries until he said something so horribly homophobic they had to fire him?

It was a shining example of what I understand least about all the pontificating that has surrounded this scandal: contempt for those who took a stand.

At a time when everyone from Meet the Press host Tim Russert to presidential candidate John McCain was looking the other way on Imus' ugly tendencies, Jackson, Sharpton and members of the National Association of Black Journalists decided his April 4 slur calling the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos" was too much. (Full disclosure: I am chairman of the Media Monitoring Committee for the NABJ.)

Not so for names such as Democratic strategist James Carville and Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, who announced intentions to keep appearing on Imus' show, despite mounting evidence of his transgressions over many years.

Even Washington Week host Gwen Ifill, a black journalist whom I respect immensely, didn't write a column about Imus calling her a cleaning lady on his show until just days ago - 14 years after it happened, and nine years after a journalist first wrote about it.

True enough, Jackson and Sharpton have their own missteps about race to reconcile. But why are so few sharp questions reserved for the corporations, executives and high-powered guests who looked the other way while Imus built a 35-year career, in part, on insulting minorities?

Maybe those questions are too tough. Here are some answers I've discovered while pondering these issues for my blog, my newspaper story and the wide array of media outlets who have interviewed me.

Imus' apology wasn't sufficient because he didn't admit what he really did wrong.

I hate to quote Dr. Phil, but he says, "You can't change what you don't acknowledge." And Imus' apology didn't acknowledge that what he said was racist, that he had a long history of airing similar humor and it's deeply hurtful. So how could anybody be sure he wouldn't do it again?

Media executives who profit from racist material are responsible too.

Critics like me have spent years confronting media executives about broadcasters like Imus, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage. But when these same businessmen are finally forced to take action when they cross a line, somehow those past warnings are forgotten.

Doesn't Time Warner-owned CNN air Glenn Beck's show on its Headline News channel? Doesn't a division of Clear Channel Radio syndicate Rush Limbaugh's show?

When did it become the Rev. Jackson's job to keep these guys from airing racist, homophobic and misogynistic material? Shouldn't Olbermann have been asking his boss - and the bosses at Time Warner and Clear Channel - why they hire these guys?

And shouldn't those bosses listen when critics tell them these guys are crossing the line?

Mainstream America isn't aware of black people's protests about the offensive language of rappers, because mainstream media aren't covering it much.

Black civil rights leaders have protested offensive language of gangsta rappers since 1993. Jackson and Sharpton have been involved in the protests for at least a year. Why does every TV interview they give on the Imus scandal include being asked why they aren't criticizing black rappers?

Perhaps the real question is whether the cable channels, newspapers, Internet outlets and radio stations who made the Imus incident into a blockbuster would have done so if he were black.

The phrase "nappy-headed" is not a racial slur on its own.

I discovered some white people now were assuming "nappy" was a racial insult when some goober radio personality in Denver kept playing a clip from a Stevie Wonder song referring to nappy heads over and over during what turned out to be a very short interview.

For the record: The phrase simply refers to a black person with a natural hairstyle who has not combed it out. But if a white person uses it on a group of black people he doesn't know and who don't actually have natural hairstyles, it's probably meant as a race-based insult.

Even people who aren't racists can do racist things.

For days, Imus insisted that because he takes care of black kids at his Imus Ranch for seriously ill children and because he has some black friends, that he cannot be the kind of guy who regularly says racist things.

But his example proves the opposite. Let's hope all the powerful people and institutions who enabled Imus' shtick have at least learned that lesson, so we don't have to worry about this ugly history repeating itself.