I've been watching the Don Imus imbroglio with more than a bit of interest. Not only is his suspension the "story du jour" (at least until the Anna Nicole DNA results are announced), there's also an underlying political/media dynamic that's rather interesting, and (ultimately) holds the key to his future.
First, a couple of caveats. I don't know Mr. Imus. I do have a number of friends and former colleagues in the broadcast business, and many who know him describe Imus as one of the most disagreeable people they've ever met. One of my longtime friends is a news anchor a medium-market station that hosted Imus a few years ago, when they carried his program. As you might expect, the station rolled out the red carpet for the syndicated "morning star." Predictably, Imus was rude to virtually everyone at the station, making it clear that the visit was not his preferred way to spend a couple of days. Not long after the Imus pilgrimage, the station cancelled his show and launched its own morning program, which has garnered much higher ratings than Imus ever earned in that market. Imus has made more than a few enemies in the business (just ask Howard Stern), but he also has some important friends. More on that in a moment.
Secondly--and obviously--there's no excuse for what Imus and his producer, Bernard McGuirk, said about the Rutgers women's basketball team. Mr. McGuirk, who also supplies the "voice" of poet Maya Angelou on the program, has a long history of making racially-tinged comments. It was McGuirk who initiated the exchange about the Rutgers women, and Imus eagerly joined in, making the "nappy-headed hos" remark that landed him in hot water.
If McGuirk or the I-man had actually bothered to watch the game, they might have discovered that Rutgers displayed far more character and class than their opponents from the University of Tennessee. When the national anthem was played, the Rutgers team lined up in front of their bench, hands over their hearts. As the ESPN cameras lingered on the Rutgers players, viewers could even see some of the young women singing along with "The Star Spangled Banner." It was quite a contrast to the Lady Vols, who stretched lazily or whispered to each other during the national anthem. One shot from ESPN caught two of the Tennessee players staring at the floor. For many who watched last week's championship game, that brief moment spoke volumes about the Rutgers program, and the young women who play for that school.
Having said all that, I'm still puzzled by the Imus Apology Tour, which continued yesterday with an appearance on Al Sharpton's syndicated radio show. Apparently, Imus and the suits at CBS (which own his radio show) and MSNBC (his TV outlet) believed that the beleaguered host could show contrition by letting the Reverend Al rake him over the coals. Not surprisingly, Sharpton obliged, and is still callling for the I-man's scalp, an irony that is simply staggering. To our knowledge, Sharpton has never apologized for his role in the Tawana Brawley affair, or his anti-Semetic tirades that helped stoke the Crown Heights Riots in 1991, or the 1995 shootings and fire at a Jewish-owned business in Harlem that killed eight workers.
While Imus' comments about the Rutgers women were undeniably odious and racist, there is world of difference between his actions and those of Sharpton, who (quite literally) has blood on his hands. Lives were lost and reputations destroyed because of Sharpton's "activism," yet in today's perverse media universe, the Reverend Al still gets a national forum and is allowed to sit in judgment over Don Imus. In a just world, Sharpton would be rejected as a spokesman and leader for the Africa-American community. As for Imus, he's overdue for that ride into the sunset at his New Mexico ranch, preferably away from a microphone.
In the interim, Imus would be well-advised to follow the advice of Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine. Mr. Harrison believes that Imus should stop apologizing, for obvious reasons. The civil rights baiters (led Reverend Sharpton) will never accept his apology, and for the rest of us, the 'act" is wearing rather thin. Imus has offered enough apologies already, and should simply shut up and await his fate.
Which brings us to that media and political dynamic in all of this. In the talk radio wars, Mr. Imus really isn't much of a factor. His show is currently carried on about 70 stations around the country; by comparison, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have eight times as many affiliates, and reach a much larger audience, as do Glenn Beck, Neal Boortz, Mike Gallagher and other prominent hosts. On the TV side, the MSNBC simulcast of Imus' radio show trails even CNN in the morning, and reaches about half the audience of "Fox and Friends." However, the Imus program does attract an upscale audience; for years, he's attracted more listeners with six-figure incomes than any other morning host in New York City. Those are very desirable demographics, one factor that's kept the I-man in his chair, despite the fact that, in total listenership, he ranks well behind Stern, Curtis & Kuby, and other morning personalities.
But the Imus program has long been a favorite of the media and political elite. Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman and John Kerry have been frequent guests; in the early 1990s, then-governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas practically begged to get on the program, and even encouraged Imus to refer to him as "Governor Bubba." On the media side, Tim Russert, Brian Williams, David Gregory, Andrea Mitchell and Tom Brokaw have regularly appeared on the program, and ex-CBS anchor Dan Rather has even filled in for Imus's newsreader (and longtime sidekick) Charles McCord. It will be interesting to see how many of the "A-listers" stick with the I-man through his current troubles.
In the end, I'm guessing that Imus' ties to the political and media establishment will probably see him through. Politicos will rightfully criticize his comments (and a few may refuse to appear on his show), but in the end, the elites will circle the wagons around the I-man. Afterall, Don Imus is one of their own, the guy who gives them a chance to hawk their books, offer their "informed" expertise, plug their campaigns and cavort in his media sandbox. That's why much of the MSM and the political class have been reserved in criticizing the I-man, and some have even offered that the host is just "edgy" and not a racist. Just like Sandy Burger was "clumsy when he stuffed those documents in his socks at the National Archives.
And, of course, none among the politically correct crowd will address the double standard in this matter. Tune in to your local hip-hop station or put on a rap CD, and you'll hear references to black women that are even worse than what Imus said. But you won't see Reverend Al, Jesse Jackson or the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) coming down hard on the likes of Ludacris or 50 Cent.