April 10, 2007
I have to admit Imus in the Morning is the white noise I wake up to in the morning. I like a jolt in the morning, and Don Imus, tempered by his elegant buddy Charles McCord and egged on by the abrasive and sharp-edged Bernard McGuirk, never fails to provide it.
I had the show on the other morning when the three began tossing around racial slurs about the Rutgers' women's basketball team. I shook my head and said to myself, "How does he get away with this stuff?" but I shrugged it off because "It's Imus. Nobody takes him seriously."
How wrong I was.
It was an offhand remark, in the midst of a discussion with Sid Rosenberg, a low-talent bigmouth who had been fired a few years ago from his job as Imus' sports reporter for making racist remarks about the Williams sisters. Yes, Imus's comment was offensive, but so are his insults to everybody from respected newsmen who frequent his morning shows to politicians in the highest offices in the land. He was trying to be funny, in a locker room kind of way -- which is his stock in trade. It was kind of like the old game of playing the dozens, which is a man's game, I understand, originating in the black community, of topping each other with insult after insult. One of the guys introduced Spike Lee's lingo of "jigaboo's" and "wannabe's" into the mix, and things began to get uglier from there.
There is no defense for what Imus said. There is no defense for his rudeness to everybody he deals with, except that it's meant to be funny and it often is. We all know people like this. Some of them are really racists, some are just going for laughs. If I laugh at it sometimes, does that reveal my own racism? I don't think so. I thought it was an awful remark. But not enough to turn off the set and refuse ever to watch again.
Then came the deluge of outrage ("fake outrage," according to comedian Bill Maher) from Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Maher says we not only want to humiliate those who insult us, we insist that they go away forever.) There were press conferences demanding his removal from his job as early morning bad-boy interviewer. On the Internet I found him called everything from a burnt-out fossil -- that one hurt because I am the same age as Imus -- to a mean-spirited racist. It began to look like the end of Imus.
Anderson Cooper did a segment on the controversy; David Gregory, hosting Chris Matthews' Hardball interviewed some of Imus' regulars, and there was constant reference even as the I-Man spent two hours on Sharpton's radio show apologizing for his comment. Sharpton remained rigid and demanded that important people refuse to appear on the morning show, even when the calls coming in were mostly in support of the shock jock.
Imus's defense, after his apology to the members of the Rutgers' women's basketball team, was that he has a comedy show rather than a news one. He does not claim to be a political pundit, and he is the opposite of "politically correct," that's his humor, insult humor in the vein of Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles and Richard Pryor. He's walking a tightrope and this time he fell off by saying the wrong thing. He did not do it to characterize any members of any race by their physical characteristics, and he certainly was not thinking that he insulted a whole generation of black women, as Sharpton maintains. He had to admit he wasn't thinking of anything.
He wants to meet with the basketball team and present his apology in person, whether or not they accept it. He appears chastened and the team has set a time to meet with him this morning.
No one who watches Imus regularly can say seriously that he is a racist. Why he said what he did even he doesn't know; but he said it in jest and his apology and suspension from his job should have been enough. However, he has promised to change the tone of his program when and if it is reinstated.
If that is so we can expect a contrite Imus and probably a somewhat revamped morning program in May. He may have more blacks on his staff if he returns to the air. He will have to watch his mouth. The era of saying anything that pops into his head is over for him.