Apr 19 2007

Howard Kurtz’s Imus Amnesia

Critic forgets requests to shun racist show

The firing of Don Imus by CBS radio and MSNBC provided an opportunity for the many elite journalists who appeared on and supported his show to examine their own roles in enabling his bigotry (FAIR Media Advisory, 4/11/07). But the prospects of an honest self-examination are dim, as illustrated by this exchange on CNN‘s Reliable Sources (4/15/07) between the show’s host, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, and Post columnist Tony Kornheiser:

KURTZ: But did anyone ever say to you on this — the things that he would say– “How can you go on this show when he’s making fun of blacks and women?”

KORNHEISER: No. Did anyone say that to you?


KORNHEISER: No. And nobody said it to me.

In fact, Kurtz had been asked–repeatedly–about Imus’ offensive remarks by journalist Phil Nobile. Nobile has spent nearly a decade calling attention to Imus’ on-air bigotry, imploring prominent journalists and politicians to either refrain from going on the show, or use their appearances to challenge the show’s racism, sexism and homophobia. (Nobile is profiled in the April 23 issue of the New York Observer.) Nobile told FAIR on April 17 that he’d asked Kurtz on more than one occasion to stop going on the show.

Kurtz was one of the 25 journalists to whom Nobile sent his 2000 “Letter to Journalists,” a copy of which is published on TomPaine.com. In the letter, Nobile recited specific instances of Imus’ hateful material, and asked the recipients–including Kurtz–if they were aware of the show’s bigoted statements. He challenged these “friends of the show”: “If so, did you ever speak to Imus about them or reconsider your relationship with Imus because of them? If not, why not?”

Nobile also got the TomPaine.com website to publish an ad on the New York Times op-ed page (5/10/00), making a similar appeal to Imus’ pundit friends. Kurtz responded to Nobile and the ad in a WashingtonPost.com chat (5/22/00):

I don’t believe (as a regular listener and very occasional guest on the program) that Imus is in any way racist. He sometimes crosses the line, as he himself would admit, in trying to make people laugh, but it’s all shtick. He’s no bigot. (Ironically, some people say he’s anti-gay but he’s in favor of same-sex marriage). There’s a writer who’s been crusading against Imus, and he got the website TomPaine.com to buy a NYT op-ed ad denouncing the I-man, and that’s what has set this off, and prompted Jack White to write his Time column.

Actually, it was Imus’ bigotry that set it off, as Nobile pointed out at the time: “In no way racist? How about Imus’s 1997 60 Minutes admission that he hired his producer, Bernard McGuirk, ‘to do nigger jokes?'” wrote Nobile. “Surely, this nationally televised Mark Furhman moment was perfect proof of racism–in some fashion or other.” The Jack White column (5/20/00) mentioned by Kurtz referred to Nobile “asking why media bigwigs like Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather…feel comfortable appearing on a program that trades in this kind of swill.”

But Kurtz was not just one of the many “media bigwigs” that Nobile implored to show some reaction to the onslaught of hate that he had documented to be an integral part of Imus’ show. Recognizing Kurtz’s importance as perhaps the most influential media writer in the country, Nobile had dedicated an entire article to his efforts to get the Post reporter to take Imus’ bigotry seriously. In “Spotlight on Howard Kurtz: Missing in Action on Imus?” (TomPaine.com, 6/14/00), Nobile recounts his unsuccessful efforts–including confronting him at an Imus remote at the World Trade Center–to get him to tackle the subject. Kurtz’s most substantive comment on Nobile’s voluminous compendium of race-based smears, sexist attacks and assorted creepiness aired on Imus in the Morning: “We just plain disagree on this subject.”

Kurtz’s recent claim that no one asked him to justify his appearances on Imus obscures the fact that not only was he repeatedly made aware of the material he was associating himself with, he repeatedly attempted to defend Imus’ “shtick.” Kurtz wrote a 1995 Columbia Journalism Review piece that explained why “media types find him fascinating” and how “some of us relish the naughtiness.” In his 1995 book Hot Air, Kurtz wrote that “Imus’s sexist homophobic, and politically incorrect routines echo what many journalists joke about in private.” (Kurtz’s sticking up for Imus had a personal side benefit; the talk host’s plugging of Kurtz’s 1997 book Spin Cycle helped make it a best-seller, according to Newsweek–1/18/99.)

Even when Kurtz was the target of Imus’ bile– the host called him a “boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jewboy”–it didn’t change the media writer’s stance. “I wasn’t thrilled, but I just shrugged it off as Imus’s insult shtik,” Kurtz told Newsweek (4/23/07). “I don’t believe for a second that he doesn’t like Jewish people.”

Is it possible that Kurtz has forgotten the repeated exchanges he had with Nobile and others about Imus’ racism? It’s possible, of course–but such forgetfulness doesn’t bode well for his ability to report fully and honestly about his role in one of the major media stories of our time.


Contact Howard Kurtz at Reliable@CNN.com and ask that he correct the record on his history with Imus.