Don Imus Suspended Over Racial Remarks
The suspension will begin Monday.
NBC News, which does a simulcast broadcast of Mr. Imus’s radio program on its cable news channel MSNBC, was the first to act, suspending Mr. Imus and calling his comments “racist and abhorrent.”
A short time later, CBS Radio, which is his chief employer, followed, saying it, too, would take Mr. Imus, 66, off the air for two weeks.
NBC also served notice yesterday that it would not tolerate insensitive remarks in the future. Mr. Imus had promised to change the tenor of the show, NBC said in a statement, and had agreed that the suspension was appropriate.
“Our future relationship with Imus is contingent on his ability to live up to his word,” NBC said. CBS made no statement other than that it was suspending Mr. Imus, who has been the host of “Imus in the Morning” for more than 30 years.
MSNBC will replace Mr. Imus’s program with news coverage. CBS was undecided about how it would fill the time.
The actions came at the end of a day of intensifying pressure on Mr. Imus from black leaders, who expressed outrage at his description last Wednesday of the Rutgers team as “nappy-headed ho’s.”
Mr. Imus tried to stave off calls for his resignation by appearing yesterday on a syndicated radio program that has the Rev. Al Sharpton as its host and making a more complete apology for what he said were “repugnant, repulsive, and horrible” comments.
He said he was trying to reach out to the team, its coach and players’ parents to issue a direct apology.
Mr. Imus said he wanted to try to “see if they’ll forgive me and if there is something that can be established here that I can do to begin to build something positive out of this — and then who knows?”
But his job still appeared to be in jeopardy, with Mr. Sharpton and other black leaders calling for Mr. Imus to be fired, threatening to initiate a boycott of sponsors and demanding that the Federal Communications Commission take action against him and radio stations that carry his program.
It is unclear whether members of the Rutgers team will agree to meet with Mr. Imus. The Rutgers athletic director, Robert E. Mulcahy III, said in a statement yesterday, “I have relayed the message of Don Imus and his offer to apologize in person to the students and asked them to let me know how they wished to respond if at all.”
It is also still unclear how much support Mr. Imus can expect from the roster of politicians, authors and media figures who make up his daily guest list. Some of his regular guests, like the author Tom Oliphant and the editor at large of Newsweek, Evan Thomas, have already appeared with him and offered support. But Mr. Sharpton said yesterday that he would be asking “all the candidates running for president if they plan to appear on the show.”
Some of those candidates, like Senator John McCain and Senator Joseph R. Biden, are regular guests. Mr. McCain said in an interview in Phoenix yesterday that he was a “believer in redemption” and hoped that Mr. Imus could satisfy his critics with his apology.
Mr. Imus also found support in the publishing industry where he is highly valued by authors and publishers. The publisher of Simon & Schuster, David Rosenthal, said it would be a shame if Mr. Imus lost his job.
“I think he has been a fantastic forum for authors and for people with interesting ideas,” Mr. Rosenthal said..
The “Imus in the Morning” program is popular in New York, where it reaches about a half million listeners on the radio station WFAN. Mr. Imus is an employee of CBS, but WFAN is the only CBS station to carry the program. It is, however, syndicated on Westwood One, a company that is managed by CBS. Executives from Westwood One declined to comment.
The program has become particularly important for MSNBC, serving as that network’s regular morning program. “Imus in the Morning” has been building its audience steadily on MSNBC, threatening to overtake CNN in that time slot.
At NBC, the decision to suspend Mr. Imus was made by the management of NBC News, in consultation with the company’s corporate management, headed by Jeff Zucker.
The suspension will not begin until Monday because Mr. Imus had scheduled a telethon to benefit research into a cure for sudden infant death syndrome and neither outlet wanted to hurt that cause.
In his appearance with Mr. Sharpton, Mr. Imus offered no real defense for his statement, other than to say it was an attempt at humor that had failed miserably. “I understand there’s no excuse for it,” he told Mr. Sharpton. “I’m not pretending that there is. I wish I hadn’t said it.”
His critics say Mr. Imus has shown a pattern of racially charged remarks over the years. Some of these he tried to defend on Mr. Sharpton’s program, saying they had been misinterpreted or were satirical.
Mr. Sharpton asked if the newspaper columnist Clarence Page had once gotten Mr. Imus to pledge not to do any more racial humor. Mr. Imus said he had.
“Do you repent once a decade?” Mr. Sharpton asked.
Mr. Imus argued that he was not at heart a racist: “I think what makes a difference in this context, and you can still call for me to be fired, that’s fine, but I think what makes a difference, a crucial difference is: What was my intent?”
Though he said he did not want people to think he was trying to excuse himself, Mr. Imus did point to charitable work he has done with children with cancer — many of them black — on his ranch in New Mexico, as well as his effort to raise money to find a cure for sickle-cell anemia.
Mr. Sharpton said intent could not be considered when actions were “over the line.” He also said that no matter how good or decent Mr. Imus might be at heart, his actions in this case had “set a precedent” that would invite other commentators to make similar comments.
He promised he would push the issue with sponsors and the F.C.C. It was not known last night how advertisers, which have included Bigelow Tea, Chrysler and the New York Stock Exchange, would respond.
The F.C.C. may not have a direct means to address the issue. It was under a mandate from Congress to act against what was deemed indecency, but there is not a similar mandate against other types of speech by a broadcaster.
Several media executives said a bigger problem for Mr. Imus may be advertisers’ response to calls for a boycott. Most such boycotts usually prove to be ineffective but Mr. Sharpton and other black leaders promised to make this one work. Mr. Sharpton also said he wanted to make sure Mr. Imus did not come out of this experience unscathed.
“I’m scathed,” Mr. Imus said. “Are you crazy? How am I unscathed by this? Don’t you think I’m humiliated?”
Mr. Sharpton replied, “You’re not as humiliated as young black women are.”