In February 2007 retired basketball star Tim Hardaway was immediately and rightfully terminated from his employment with the NBA as a result of unacceptable bigoted anti-gay remarks. Despite gaining national media attention, there were virtually no “should Hardaway have been fired?” storylines, no heartwarming stories on his past good deeds, and no discussions about homophobic “double standards” that exist within hip-hop culture. And, thankfully, there was also no series of contrived and absurd pseudo-defenses in a national effort to save his job.
Enter Don Imus and his remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team last month. Similar recipe to Hardaway: just subtract two cups of hate, and add 10 cups of history. While Imus received widespread condemnation, too many Americans believed that Imus, the employee, should not have been terminated. Translation: “Lighten up. His remarks were bad, but not THAT bad. Get over it.” Additional translation: Come in after 9 am once too often? Get pink slip. Say “nappy-headed hos”, “boner-nosed beanie-wearing Jewboy”, or “knuckle-dragging moron” once too often? Well, we shouldn’t be so “hypersensitive”, “PC”, or “rush to snap judgments”. We should discuss this “like rational human beings”.
Half a World Away: It was not just his family members fighting to keep Imus employed. A recent national poll showed that HALF of all Americans believed the Imus firing was “too harsh”. This list includes John McCain and John Kerry (yes, both were past Imus guests). It includes otherwise clear-thinking media members, friends, and colleagues of mine who on other issues, I might value and respect their opinion. Death penalty? Abortion? Designated hitter? Yes, we can even “agree-to-disagree” on those. Imus keeping his job? Please put your hands up and slowly back away from the Kool-Aid!
Imus has been granted nine lives — TWICE: Once, through his track record, and again via a list of nonsensical defenses by his apologists. Ironically, many defenses originated from Imus himself through his numerous “yeah-I-was-wrong-but” apologies. After rightfully spanking Imus, the media still allowed him to control the direction of our national discussion no matter how ludicrous the logic. Had Imus suggested a “Manchurian Candidate Defense”, the media might have run with that too. Let’s review this study in [predominantly white] American denial.
1) The Slip-of-the-Tongue Defense: This was no tongue-slip. One must view the full video to see how Imus words are reinforced in ugly terms. And what about his long history of similar commentary (joking or otherwise)? Want more? Scroll down here. Only a “Tourettes Syndrome Defense” could explain this. We didn’t catch Imus at his worst moment on his worst day. We caught him having a bad Wednesday. Past interventions and vows to change had already come and gone. The only media storyline should have been: “How did all of us allow Imus to stay on the air this long?”
2) The Tenure Defense: This one claims that even some bad, bigoted, and reprehensible comments should not end a 30 year tenure that has been full of well, …bad, bigoted, and reprehensible comments. Hmmm.
3) The Shock-Jock Defense: While he deserves to be fired solely by shock-jock standards, Imus is so much more than a “shock-jock”. At least Howard Stern, who regularly books porn stars as guests, has the indecency to live down to his job title! Imus can be found interviewing senators, top media journalists, and presidential candidates campaigning for your vote. Imus reaches millions of listeners and has been cited as one of the 25 most influential Americans.
4) The Joke-Gone-Wrong Defense: Even most Imus apologists agree that such humor is indefensible. However, this disingenuous defense still insults the intelligence of listeners. The reason no one got the joke was because there really was no joke. It was more of a gut observation. That quick subconscious-to-conscious perception of the Rutgers women, was revealing. Critics weren’t just saying “how can Imus attempt such a joke?”, they were saying “Why was that in his gut in the first place?” The fact that he continued on with the banter for another minute was even more disturbing. And that is no joke.
5) The Mother Teresa Defense: This is also known as the “but-he-helps-kids-with-cancer” defense (including many African-American kids!). Ok, I think I get it. If I curse my boss out tomorrow, I should not be fired as long as I participated in the March of Dimes marathon the last 18 years! It is sincerely wonderful that Imus helps kids with cancer (no sarcasm). It would be extremely narrow-minded for anyone to think that Imus’ bigotry encompasses the entire man. Bigotry rarely operates that way. His efforts on behalf of autistic children and his involvement with other philanthropic causes also deserve high praise. Let’s hope that he continues this very important work while he is off the airwaves.
6) The Free Speech Defense: As an ardent 1st amendment advocate, I always thought that free speech meant that you can’t go to jail for saying really bad nasty things. Apparently, it now means your employer can’t fire you. Perhaps, I can still get away with cursing out my boss as long as I protest my dismissal by citing the US constitution. Speech may be a right, but a job is a privilege. Ironically, the Imus firing was a classic TRIUMPH of free speech. It was the same kind of victory that led CBS to dump the “Amos and Andy” show more than 40 years ago amidst similar pressure (see NAACP), and the same one that prevented the morally indefensible “If I Did It” by OJ Simpson from airing on Fox this past year. Finally, Imus and OJ are now free to go produce a CD with whatever content they choose. We should all fight very hard to preserve their right to do so.
7) The Spike Lee Defense: Spike made him “do the wrong thing”! This was first broached by Imus and marked the first of many “victim of double standard” defenses to follow. It argues that when Imus’ partner offered “jigaboos and wannabees” after his “nappy-headed hos” observation, they were simply borrowing language that was first used in Lee’s movie “School Daze”. This perversion of artistic context is simply laughable. However, it makes one wonder how Imus might have described the Rutgers women had he been a bigger fan of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction!
The Bigotry-As-Indecency Defense: Bigotry is so much more than just “indecent” or “offensive”. A “harmless” stereotypical joke to one is an ironclad truth to another. Bigotry doesn’t just “hurt feelings” of individuals, it promotes discrimination of GROUPS. Even the slightest unconscious amount of it in the hands of an employer, judge, or loan officer will directly affect lives. At its worst, bigotry is at the root of war, genocide, and all the ugliest chapters in our own country’s history. It has killed more people than HIV. And because it’s so wildly contagious, we all have a civic responsibility to keep our nation’s T-cell count as low as possible. So, it is one thing when Imus is our hopelessly-flawed, cranky, but still-loved uncle whose rants and power are quarantined to our dinner table. It is quite another when our uncle spreads germs to millions and serves as a gateway for future presidents. Unfortunately, the media morphed the bigoted words of Imus into a national discussion on INDECENCY. By doing so, 1000 other unpunished tasteless remarks became equivalent. This opened the door for Imus to be portrayed as a victim of an array of “double standards”. First batter up: Hip-hop. (What? Were you expecting Tony Soprano?)
9) The “Hip-Hop-Crysy” Defense: This defense, jump-started by Imus – a-gain, is an extension of defense #8, just with the necessary racial twist to really sell it. The day after his firing, the media’s hip-hop backlash was in full swing. Spike was out, Snoop was in! It was like magic. Imus –not the Rutgers women– became the victim, and “hip-hop” became the perpetrator. Abracadabra! …Yes, there is no shortage of distaste, indecency, and misogyny to be found in rap and other music, but as socially damaging as it may be, it is not grounded in the same racial subtext as the Imus remarks. They are different contexts with different meanings in different mediums that form a different discussion. Again, Imus is free to produce a CD like any other musician or comic.
Note: Yes, the “hip-hop discussion” is still a critically important one, but should occur as part of a FAIR conversation on the overall misogyny, violence, and indecency that permeates our larger culture. Rightly or wrongly, if the Imus affair ends up serving as an uneven segue for that purpose, then good. However, we absolutely cannot allow it to serve as a scapegoat or perverted pretext to justify or minimize the behavior of Imus. That would be wrong, dishonest, and hypocrytical.
The media’s racial “script-flipping” was not limited to Imus defenses. Journalists from Pat Buchanan to Frank Rich (yes, both were past guests) characterized the Imus dismissal as a “lynching”. Such inflammatory metaphors and misplaced outrage make it necessary to remind everyone exactly what transpired on April 13, 2007: A MAN LOST HIS JOB! (Perspective: Just two days earlier, Citigroup announced the layoffs of 17,000 employees.) This man thoroughly embarrassed his bosses, had past “unsatisfactory” employee evaluations, and was granted previous interventions to improve his performance. The nine lives given to Imus begs the question: “If Imus shouldn’t get canned, then exactly who should?”
1) It’s not about Imus, it's about our media! Those covering this story included his close friends, colleagues, and former guests. The Imus rap sheet was no secret as many African-American journalists had been boycotting his show for years while our highest ranking white journalists continued on. Many past guests weren’t just protecting the job of Imus, but moreso their own reputation by avoiding charges of hypocrisy (video: Gwen Ifill takes Tim Russert to task). But bias in mainstream news media goes far beyond personal friendships. National broadcast journalism is predominantly filtered through one perception: white males (studies reveal "80-80 % rule"). This lack of diversity might help explain why the story of Shaquanda Cotton which exposed widespread racial bias within our juvenile justice system was virtually ignored altogether even though it spread like wildfire across alternative media. Cable news is even more imbalanced. This study on Imus coverage by “Media Matters” shows that:
- ALL 35 cable news hosts are white and 29 (83%) are men.
- Selected guests tend to be more white men.
- Even at the peak of the Imus-Rutgers story there was a paucity of female-minority guests (perhaps unqualified to interpret "nappy-headed hos").
- When discussing "non-race topics", minority guests are rarely found at all, and latinos not named Geraldo are almost non-existent.
- Perhaps not coincidentally, the primetime cable news show with the best record for racial and gender diversity was the only one that had a female host (Paula Zahn).
The Imus coverage is merely a symptom of greater structural racial and gender imbalances. Imus may have lost his job, but biased news coverage will undoubtedly continue if there is not immediate reform across the board.
2) It’s not about Imus, it's about our leadership! Presidents, senators, and congressman let all of us down. Not one past political guest would provide the leadership in stating something like this: “Yes, Imus deserves to be fired. Yes, I was a past guest on his show. I used Imus as a tool to reach a broader audience and rationalized that the ends justified the means. I was wrong to do that, and I accept full responsibility for that mistake. I would rather deal with charges of hypocrisy than to be wrong once again in acting as an enabler for unnacceptable bigotry…”
3) It’s not about Imus, it's about us! Following Don’s cues, biased media, and bad leadership, half the country followed along for the ride. Tim Hardaway never knew that any of these people existed. So what we are left with is the fact that over 100 million Americans believe that the consistent spreading of blatant bigotry is not worth a man losing his job. And here is, perhaps, the scariest part: just how much bigotry from OTHER employees (police, lawyers, teachers, etc.) in powerful positions are we also willing to excuse or deny. In this light, Don Imus can be viewed as a gift to America. He served as a thermometer to take our country’s racial temperature in 2007. The results are in: We are still very sick.
Related Posts – Don Imus in 2047: Precedents & Presidents - May 2007
Scarlett Letter Myth: Don Imus and The Brighter Side of Bigotry (The Comeback) – Dec. 2007
"The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference." — Elie Wiesel