In the wake of the latest racial slur broadcast on Don Imus' show, the question is not whether Imus is a racist—the man, after all, admitted to hiring one of his co-hosts to do "nigger jokes" (60 Minutes, 7/19/98)—but why CBS, NBC and top media pundits seem to feel no embarrassment over associating with his racism.
The Imus in the Morning radio show is aired on CBS-owned radio station WFAN, and is syndicated nationally by CBS-owned Westwood One. It is simulcast daily on MSNBC, a cable news channel in which GE subsidiary NBC Universal holds a controlling interest. Top media pundits like Tim Russert, Howard Fineman, Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd are frequent Imus guests. The show has also been a conduit for televised racism and other bigotry for years.
FAIR and others have documented numerous instances of Imus and his on-air colleagues expressing overt racism and other forms of bigotry. Imus himself has referred to African-American journalist Gwen Ifill as "a cleaning lady," to New York Times sports reporter Bill Rhoden as "quota hire" and to tennis player Amelie Mauresmo as "a big old lesbo." Imus called Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz a "boner-nosed... beanie-wearing Jewboy," referred to a disabled colleague as "the cripple," and to an Indian men's tennis duo as "Gunga Din and Sambo." In Imus' words, the New York Knicks are "chest-thumping pimps."
Imus' on again/off again sidekick Sid Rosenberg was temporarily fired in 2001 for calling tennis player Venus Williams an "animal" and remarking that the Williams sisters—Venus and her tennis player sister Serena—would more likely be featured in National Geographic than in Playboy. Rosenberg insisted to New York's Daily News (6/7/01) that his comments weren't racist, "just zoological." In 2004, MSNBC had to apologize when the rehired Rosenberg referred to Palestinians as "stinking animals."
In May 2005, MSNBC let Contessa Brewer out of her short stint as a news reader on Imus' morning show after Imus had made a daily game of crude personal attacks against her, calling her a pig, a skank, dumber than dirt and other similar felicities, all on air. MSNBC claimed they "expressed their displeasure" to the host (New York Post, 5/1/05), while noting that his "humor" was "often brilliant and provocative."
In his most recent racist outburst, on April 4, Imus called the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos," just moments after sidekick and executive producer Bernard McGuirk (the "nigger jokes" hire) called them "hard-core hos." The Rutgers team, which recently played in the national championship finals, is made up of eight African-American women and two white women.
On April 6, Imus issued an apology for the slur of the Rutgers team. It was the latest in a long line of apologies for bigotry on his show. Past apologies have served to take pressure off Imus, but haven't resulted in a change of behavior by the host or his colleagues.
Niether has Imus' history of bigotry dissuaded prominent journalists and pundits, more after publicity than principle, from appearing on Imus' show. Friday's show, in addition to Imus' apology, featured an interview with NBC's Meet the Press host Tim Russert.
In an exceptional report on April 9, New York Times reporter David Carr noted Imus' history of racism and the parade of media luminaries who have appeared on his show, who have rarely raised questions about the show's bigotry. Carr noted that, even in the aftermath of the latest Imus slurs, Newsweek editor Evan Thomas defended appearing on the show, explaining: "I am going on the show, though. I think if I didn't, it would be posturing. I have been going on the show for quite some time and he occasionally goes over the line."
It's time for CBS and NBC to acknowledge that Imus is unlikely to ever rein in his bigotry, that the crude and hateful insults are a key part of his routine: Like the cowboy hat, they provide an air of "edginess" to what is often otherwise a dull exercise in Beltway insider back-scratching.
A media company that chooses to run such a show has two choices: It can declare, explicitly or implicitly, that calling people "nappy-headed hos" and "beanie-wearing Jewboys" is an acceptable part of the national discussion. Or it can end its affiliation with said program.
The Russerts, Finemans and the like who elect to appear on Imus' show have a similar decision: Are you down with "nigger jokes" or aren't you?
Contact Westwood One president Peter Kosann and MSNBC general manager Dan Abrams and ask whether, given the track record of empty apologies from Don Imus, their companies have any problems with the hateful slurs the talk host will predictably air in the near future.
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