Advertisers Pull Out of Imus Show
'I Don't Deserve to Be Fired,' Says the Shock Jock, Under Attack for Slur
By Paul Farhi and Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 11, 2007; A01
As skittish advertisers began to pull out and calls for his resignation reverberated, embattled shock jock Don Imus yesterday continued a campaign of contrition over racially and sexually insensitive remarks he made, even while insisting that he shouldn't lose his national television show and syndicated radio program.
Imus, who last week called the Rutgers University women's basketball players "nappy-headed hos," said on his morning show yesterday that he will seek a meeting with the team. His on-air slur has mushroomed into widespread condemnation, fueled round-the-clock news coverage and resulted in a two-week suspension of his show, carried on MSNBC and CBS Radio.
"I don't deserve to be fired," Imus, 67, said yesterday during his show. "So I should be punished, and I'm being punished, and not insignificantly, by the way. I'm not whining, because I don't feel as bad as those kids feel."
Imus's comments came a few hours before an emotional news conference by the Rutgers team. Her players seated next to her, their faces fixed with grim expressions, Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer told the assembled reporters, "We have all been physically and emotionally spent and hurt" by Imus's remarks, which she called "deplorable, despicable and abominable and unconscionable." The team's players said they would meet with Imus.
Three advertisers -- office supply chain Staples Inc., Bigelow Tea and Procter & Gamble -- said late yesterday that they would stop placing ads on the show out of dismay over Imus's comments. Any further defections could significantly erode economic support for a program heard in about 70 radio markets, including Washington. CBS Radio, which syndicates Imus, has not announced how it will fill the time slot when Imus's suspension begins on Monday. MSNBC said it would program expanded news coverage during the time.
Imus has gone past the edges of propriety many times during his long career, but nothing has approached the storm that now swirls about him.
As early as 1982, former Imus employer WNBC in New York promoted him and co-worker Howard Stern as radio bad boys. The pair blazed a trail for a generation of shock jocks, including Doug "Greaseman" Tracht, who was fired from Washington's WARW in 1999 for uttering a racist remark on-air, and Opie and Anthony, a New York duo fired in 2002 for a stunt involving a Virginia couple allegedly having sex in a Manhattan church.
Over the past decade, however, Imus has crafted a radio show that has become part of the political and media establishment while maintaining an inflammatory edge.
The list of Imus's guests over the years is a who's who of the media and political elite, including former senator Bill Bradley, Tom Brokaw, James Carville, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Rudy Giuliani, conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, Sens. John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and John McCain, Dan Rather, NBC News anchor Brian Williams, New Yorker writer Ken Auletta and Washington Post reporters Howard Kurtz and Dana Priest. He also has become a must-stop for many authors promoting their books.
Yesterday, a number of those guests distanced themselves from Imus.
"The comments of Don Imus were divisive, hurtful and offensive to Americans of all backgrounds," said presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, who recently promoted his book on Imus's show. "With a public platform comes a trust. As far as I'm concerned, he violated that trust."
The controversy follows years of incendiary statements by Imus and members of his on-air team, many of which attracted little attention from the news media or civil rights activists .
In March, Imus's executive producer and longtime sidekick Bernard McGuirk said that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was "trying to sound black in front of a black audience" during a recent speech on civil rights in Selma, Ala. McGuirk added that Clinton "will have cornrows and gold teeth before this fight with Obama is over."
In a November broadcast, Imus referred to the "Jewish management" of CBS Radio as "money-grubbing bastards," according to the Forward, a Jewish daily newspaper.
Imus has endured barbs from critics in the past. But this time, Imus may have picked the wrong victims at the wrong time.
The Rutgers slur was directed against blameless and generally unknown young women who had just played for a national championship. The story was picked up by media outlets facing the news vacuum of a long holiday weekend. Finally, the evidence was preserved by video-sharing Web sites.
"Chatter on the Web makes outrage spread father, faster and hotter than ever before," said Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, who appeared on Imus's show several times during the 1990s.
In May 2000, Imus was under attack from people who called his show racist and took out an ad in the New York Times criticizing him. As that controversy crested, Page went on Imus's show and asked half-jokingly: "Am I your last black friend in America?"
During that appearance -- Page's last on the show -- the columnist asked Imus to swear off racially and otherwise offensive humor.
"I, Don Imus, do solemnly swear that I will promise to cease all simian references to black athletes," Imus said. Further, Page urged Imus to swear off "homophobic epithets . . . xenophobia . . . no more mocking Indians as Gunga Din," and so forth. Both Imus and Page chuckled through much of the pledge.
"I am very disappointed about him going off the wagon," Page said yesterday. He said Imus's suspension is merited, "but he's still getting special treatment because he's worth a lot of money to these companies," meaning CBS Radio and NBC Universal, which owns MSNBC.
"It's easy for me to say I won't be on his show again -- I haven't been asked back," Page said. "But I couldn't look myself in the mirror if I went on again."
Imus's pledge in 2000, which was quickly broken, was written by Brooklyn author Philip Nobile, a longtime critic of the radio host. The shock jock's suspension and excoriation are sweet vindication of a decade-long quest -- almost: "Only if he's fired," Nobile said yesterday.
"The fact is, Imus is a skinhead in elite-media dress," said Nobile, who once was a guest on the Imus show. "It is the shame of elite journalists and politicians to enable him to thrive on his bigotry shtick."
Despite its incendiary content, Imus's daily program defies simple categorization. Imus and a crew of sidekicks banter about news, politics, sports and popular culture, with the often cranky host often veering off into idiosyncratic comments and diatribes.
It is also a platform for an array of Imus's philanthropic causes, from his cattle ranch and camp for children with cancer to his advocacy of autism research. The show once featured more song parodies and sketches -- an enduring Imus character was a preacher named Billy Sol Hargis -- but these have been downplayed in recent years in favor of discussion and interviews with prominent guests.
The range of Imus's racial commentary is also more complicated than the current controversy would suggest. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he said the government's sluggish response reflected an indifference to New Orleans's poor and black residents. When former congressman Harold Ford Jr., who is black, lost his bid for the Senate last fall, Imus blamed racial prejudice. And as Imus himself has noted, he has hosted countless minority children at his cattle ranch and camp in New Mexico.
Although Imus has hosted some of Washington's most famous figures on his show, ratings suggest that he's actually a marginal figure among viewers and listeners in the region. But Imus's show, which last year generated as much as $20 million in total revenue for flagship station WFAN in New York, is low-cost, high-revenue programming for MSNBC.
Imus is scheduled to return from his suspension April 30 -- just in time for the spring TV ratings sweeps in May.