April 11, 2007

Imus Pays the Price

E! News - MSNBC Unplugs Imus for Good

MSNBC has dropped the daily Imus simulcast in the wake of the controversy over his insulting and racially tinged insult to the Rutgers basketball team and perhaps more significant, the exodus of big name advertisers from his show such as Sprint, Amex, Staples, Procter & Gamble and General Motors who began pulling ads from Imus's time slot. Now CBS has fired him as well, bringing this little media drama to a close.

In listening to the commentary and opinion on this, I heard certain sentiments again and again: "why is anyone surprised? This is Imus being Imus". "We have a whole rap industry calling women ho's every day, why are we getting mad at Imus?". "This is about free speech and not succumbing to the heckler's veto"

Indeed, fair questions. Here are my answers. I don't think anyone is surprised that Imus is saying something provocative. This is a man who has built his fortune on being provocative and offensive because it draws in listeners. The shock jock approach is how he makes his living. So people say why are you getting mad at him for doing what he has always done? The simple answer is, he went too far. He crossed the line of what the majority of his listening audience thought was within the bounds of decency. Simple as that. Most people listening at the time cringed when he issued his insult. Because it was just that bit too much over the "line".

While we may be fuzzy at times about what the "line" is, we know it when its been crossed. He crossed it. And its all the more egregious because he is a shock jock for a living. He makes his livelihood on being a provocateur. And even for them, there are things you CAN say, things you can say and get away with and things you just don't say or should not say. And when you make your living being provocative, you damn well better be able to make that moment to moment judgment call.

He blew the judgment call. He misread the moment and he misread the target of his insult and he misread the tolerance level of his audience. I regard his comment as racially tinged because the women he was insulting were black and the comment he made referencing their hair is a specific reference to the textual quality of black people's hair. White people don't describe their hair as "nappy" or use that terminology when talking about their hair. So thats the racial element. I don't think the hyperbole of calling the comment and Imus "racist" is necessary or accurate simply because its so ordinary. The calling of these women as ho's is just a tremendous, horrible insult to women that if he had said such a thing to their faces I'm sure someone would have felt completely justified in slapping his face.

He blew the judgment call. He misread the moment and he misread the target of his insult and he misread the tolerance level of his audience and why was it such a big misread? Why were his listeners and the public appalled even though we know he makes his living being provocative? Because his targets were completely undeserving of such treatment. He insulted with no cause or basis a group of fine young female student athletes, champions, playing the game of basketball. Young college women who had distinguished themselves on the court, achieving a winning record and upholding the values of sport - teamwork, perseverance, courage - that we Americans hold in high regard. Hard to imagine a more inappropriate target of such sophomoric and hurtful insults.

In my view, thats what pissed people off. That he made such a foul insult to a group of very nice upstanding female student athletes who were doing the kinds of good things we think any clean cut American kid ought to be doing. They didn't deserve it. It was so unwarranted and ugly and unnecessary to insult their character and their appearance that it just plain pissed people off. We are Americans and we have a sense of fair play. This was just way out of bounds to the average American. Even for a shock jock of long standing.

People called for him to be fired. I didn't agree with that. The media, aided and abetted by race hustlers such as Sharpton and Jackson whips this sort of thing up beyond what it really deserves. I thought there ought to be a price paid. And given the outrage, I figured he was going to pay a heavy price no matter what his bosses did - a diminished reputation, loss of sponsors, loss of respect. And thats what happened. Others said it was about "free speech", his right to say what he wanted and be heard. There is NO free speech issue here. You get a free speech issue when the government tries to muzzle you because they don't like what you have to say. Thats not what happened here. The people who pay for Imus's content to be broadcast (his employers and the advertisers) decided his product was not worth paying for anymore because it became an embarrassment and liability to them. Its not a free speech issue, its a business issue. Imus is as free to speak today as he was yesterday. He's just not going to get paid millions for it, or get to do it over the public airwaves. But he can still say what he wants. But don't hype it on the Imus defense side by saying his rights to free speech have been hindered. Thats baloney. You get the same crap from Howard Stern who wants to constantly elevate his locker room commentary to the level of important social satire and parody. Get real. Imus and all the others like him are "entertainment". He is an entertainer. His shock brand of radio commentary, that format, has been successful in getting an audience who find it entertaining. But that is all it is, an entertainment program on which advertisers can hawk their wares via commercials and when it ceases to be of use for that purpose, it gets canned. Period, end of story.

Perhaps the ultimate price paid here is that maybe people stand back and think about his show and others like it and say to themselves " you know, I don't really want to listen to this kind of stuff anymore". And they switch them all off. His near term career and the long term opportunity for shock talk radio may be substantially over because he did something very ugly and the people who listen to him and shows like him may decide that listening to those shows makes them as ugly as the commentary of those shows sometimes is.