Apr
11
2007

Rallying Around Their Racist Friend

Before firing, pundits defended Imus

In the aftermath of the racial outburst that got talkshow host Don Imus' dropped from MSNBC--referring to the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos"-- a Washington Post editorial (4/10/07) posed a question many critics have been asking for years: How do prestigious journalists defend their cozy relationship with a well-known bigot?

As the Post put it: "But those who bask in the glow of his radio show ought to consider whether they should continue doing so. After all, you're judged by the company you keep." Since discovering Imus' long record of bigotry, misogyny and homophobia is not difficult (Slate, 4/10/07), it's a question reporters should have been asking long ago—FAIR posed the very same question to NBC's Tim Russert six years ago, for example (Action Alert, 3/1/00).

When journalist Phil Nobile (TomPaine.com, 6/28/01) presented many top pundits with evidence of Imus' bigotry, few (of the white ones, anyway) seemed to think what Imus was saying should affect their decisions to appear on his program. Nobile noted that Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz wrote in his 1996 book Hot Air that "Imus's sexist, homophobic and politically incorrect routines echo what many journalists joke about in private."

Really? Do Washington journalists really call people "thieving Jews"--and then make mock apologies, saying that the phrase is "redundant" (Imus in the Morning, 12/15/04)? Did they really call Clinton's attorney general "old Bigfoot shaky Janet Reno," taunting her for her Parkinson's disease (Imus in the Morning, 6/12/01)? Do they really laugh uproariously at the news of hundreds of Haitians drowning (Imus in the Morning, 3/20-24/00)? If so, Kurtz has been sitting on a great many scoops.

Whatever their private conversations, many pundits are now being forced to answer questions about their associations with Imus, and those answers are worth documenting. Appearing on the Imus in the Morning show on April 9, Newsweek's Howard Fineman explained:

You know, it's a different time, Imus. You know, it's different than it was even a few years ago, politically.... And some of the stuff that you used to do, you probably can't do anymore.... You just can't. Because the times have changed. I mean, just looking specifically at the African-American situation. I mean, hello, Barack Obama's got twice the number of contributors as anybody else in the race.... I mean, you know, things have changed. And the kind of—some of the kind of humor that you used to do you can't do anymore. And that's just the way it is.

Fineman's suggestion, clearly, is that Imus' brand of racism was acceptable not too long ago—at least before Barack Obama was able to raise significant campaign donations.

On PBS's NewsHour With Jim Lehrer (4/9/07), Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant rejected the notion that appearing with Imus gave some form of cover to his bigotry:

I don't consider myself an enabler. But I recognize--and one reason I feel that it's possible to be this tough on him is that I think he understands that those of us from politics and public affairs and whatever who work with him are going to be seen as enabling. And if that's the case, then his conduct is of interest to me as much as it is to you.

Those words stand in contrast with what Oliphant said on Imus' show that very morning:

The train went off the tracks, which, you know, can happen to anybody. And, of course, what counts when the train goes off the tracks is what you then do.... Those of us... who know better, have a moral obligation to stand up and say to you, "Solidarity forever, pal."

That's not enabling?

Other media defenders point out that Imus does charity work, as if this gives him more room to be a racist. As USA Today's Peter Johnson noted (4/10/07), "His politically incorrect satire has been tempered by an intellectual and considerate side: He runs a camp for sick kids, cares about politics and has an eye for books that can catapult them onto the best-seller list." (As the Wall Street Journal has pointed out—3/24/05—Imus' ranch spends $3,000 a night to host each child; other organizations that do similar work spend about one-tenth as much.)

Appearing on the CBS Early Show (4/10/07), CNN host Lou Dobbs said much the same. While calling Imus' remarks "inexcusable," Dobbs went to offer what sounded very much like an excuse:

These calls for his resignation, frankly, in my opinion, this is a man you have to take into account. He does more public service, works with kids, he is an absolutely exemplary person in terms of his humanitarianism. And those who suggest you can't take into account the broader man for these, as I say, ignorant and inexcusable remarks, I don't think is adequate.

NBC reporter David Gregory (MSNBC, 4/9/07) stressed that "Imus is a good man," and that "this is a difficult time, not just because of the hurt that he has inflicted and what he said, as he tries to deal with it, but for all of us who are on the program and certainly don't want to be associated with this kind of thing that he's done, as all of this plays out." Gregory apparently wasn't so bothered with his association with Imus before this latest controversy.

Others made it seem as if deciding not to appear on the Imus show would be a problem. Newsweek editor Evan Thomas told the New York Times (4/9/07), "He should not have said what he said, obviously. I am going on the show, though. I think if I didn't, it would be posturing." To which the Charlotte Observer editorialized (4/10/07), "Which raises this question for Mr. Thomas: What posture would that be--upright?"

In a Los Angeles Times report (4/11/07), some Imus guests appeared to have second thoughts about their silence. CBS reporter Jeff Greenfield said, "That's something people like me should have challenged him on." (Greenfield, to his partial credit, did try to raise the issue when he interviewed Imus on Larry King Live--2/24/00.)

Others, meanwhile, seem to think Imus really means it when he says he's sorry. CBS host Bob Schieffer condemned Imus' remarks, but "said he would probably go on Imus' show again, noting that they had been friends for 15 years." The Times quoted Schieffer: "There's probably a good lesson for all of us in this. We all need to refocus and be sensitive to these things. Maybe sometimes he's gone too far and some of us really haven't been paying attention." Newsweek editor Jon Meacham (Washington Post, 4/11/07) said: "We don't want to rush to judgment.... Imus appears genuine about changing the tone, but if there's any backsliding, then it's over as far as we're concerned."

Pundits making such assessments might consider that this was not the first time Imus has appeared to sound contrite about his words, so it's hard to know why to believe him this time around. In a recent Vanity Fair profile (2/06), Imus said: "I regret the times I've been mean to people.... It's fine to pick on people who can defend themselves and deserve it. Some people don't deserve to be picked on who I picked on, so I don't do it anymore."

He made a similar pledge on his show years earlier (3/4/00):

There's no reason to hurt people's feelings. In some cases I have, and I'm not going to do it anymore. I get accused of being a racist all the time, but I'm not. I realize that we do things here that are misconstrued and frankly I regret it. People have criticized me and they're right.

Given Imus' repeatedly violated vows to rein in his racist schtick, one has to look to his pundit friends—his enablers—to show more resolve. Unfortunately, given their co-dependent relationship with the talk host, such resolve is unlikely. As Newsweek's Fineman put it (Imus in the Morning, 4/9/07): "You know, all of us who do your show, you know, we're part of the gang. And we rely on you the way you rely on us."