Flying Solo Past the Point of No Return
For a few days, it seemed as if Don Imus would somehow pull out of the death spiral. After all, once he came under fire, Mr. Imus said he was sorry for the racial insult, said he was sorry again and then began a week of penance, raising money on his own show for sick children and turning up at various other microphones to renew his apology.
But even as he went through the ritual of public mortification, his backers began to see what he did not: the drumbeat was not going to stop. The controversy metastasized and by Monday, the media began to lock and load. Mr. Imus, who had shrugged off the initial criticism last week, was fighting for survival.
“All the elements were there,” said James Carville, the political consultant who has appeared on the show and has seen a few stories blow up in his time. “You had some dry brush, gasoline, high winds, no rain and low humidity and before you know it, man, it was a wildfire.”
The toxicity of Mr. Imus’s remark, the innocence of his targets, and his refusal to put down the shovel — he dug himself deeper just about every time he opened his mouth — made last night’s decision by CBS to end his show seem almost inevitable. Disparate media imperatives were at work, but they converged and whipsawed into a self-sustaining frenzy.
OLD MEETS NEW Mr. Imus is an old-school radio guy caught in a very modern media paradigm. When he started 30 years ago, if he made the same kind of remark, it would have floated off into the ether — the Federal Communications Commission, if it received complaints, might have taken notice, but few others.
But radio is now visible — Mr. Imus’s show was simulcast on MSNBC, and more to the point, it is downloadable. By Friday, reporters and advocates could click up the remark on the Media Matters for America Web site, and later YouTube, and see a vicious racial insult that delighted him visibly as it rolled off his tongue. The ether now has a memory.
IDLE HANDS An awareness of Mr. Imus’s “nappy-headed hos” remark grew on Friday, just as editors and reporters in both print and broadcast were staring down Good Friday and Easter. Filling up post-holiday reports is always a chore and there stood Mr. Imus, backpedaling and apologizing to anyone who would listen. The media apparatus, at loose ends, kicked in with a vengeance.
AN A-LIST MOMENT Most of the time when shock jocks step over the line, they are surrounded by a cadre of faceless enablers. Mr. Imus, because of his manifest interests, played host to the cream of journalism and politics. He may not have the biggest numbers in broadcasting, but his ability to book the likes of Senator John McCain and Tim Russert of NBC News means that he became a far worthier target. When most radio talkers go off the rails, the only question is whether advertisers will pull back. In this instance, his guests were implicated; whether they would return to the show became an issue of public moment.
THE WRONG VICTIMS Speaking of targets, Mr. Imus chose poorly. “Imus has a long history of saying far more negative, divisive things,” said Robert M. Entman, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. “In this case, he chose a college basketball team. College athletics is sacred in our culture in a way. We tell ourselves that it is a place that we have transcended race. This was an attack on the purity of sport, student athletes who are not paid to perform. In picking on a whole team, he chose the wrong noun to go with the adjectives.”
He also picked on the wrong coach. C. Vivian Stringer protects her posse; her eloquent, aggressive defense of the team — and the obvious class of the players at the podium — made for riveting television with a great deal of emotional content. The Rutgers institutional decision to treat the affair as a teachable moment put Mr. Imus in an even deeper hole.
SHARPTON’S WHEELHOUSE Should Mr. Imus have stepped to the mouth of the lion on Monday and appeared on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show, which effectively became a cable television show broadcast everywhere? Probably not. Mr. Imus gave the story stout legs by seeming to lose his cool on the show by calling his interrogators “you people,” a hoary racial trope. What looked like an effort to build a ledge became another trapdoor.
Mr. Imus might have learned by watching Michael Richards — another public figure whose racial remarks hit the YouTube megaphone — who went on the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s show and was left in a steaming heap. By seeking absolution from people with their own political agenda, Mr. Imus lost custody of his apology.
AN ARGUMENT WITHOUT END Sexism comes and goes on the Imus show, and all over the culture for that matter — but a visceral debate over racism in America is always there, waiting. “There is an insatiable appetite for race-related discourse in the country,” said Edward Wasserman, a journalism professor at Washington and Lee University. “Imus is just a barstool bigot, but there is such a river of anxiety about race in the culture that it doesn’t take much to tap into it.”
CASTING News thrives on the same thing entertainment does: character and narrative. In this case, a barely repentant curmudgeon had effectively mugged Cinderella. “It is a perfect story,” said Martin Kaplan, a professor of media and entertainment at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. “You have a grizzled cowboy up against innocent victims.”
Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton might have résumés at odds with their status as avatars of racial rectitude, but Essence Carson, a junior with a soft hand for both the piano and the jump shot, carried no such baggage when she suggested that Mr. Imus had some explaining to do. “The Rutgers women’s team this year will go down as one of the most famous teams in history, like the ’71 Nebraska team,” Mr. Carville said.
After listening to Mr. Imus on the “Today” show, Al Roker, the weatherman who is the very picture of America’s jolly uncle, made it plain in a post on his blog: “CBS Radio and NBC News need to remove Don Imus from the airwaves.”
Who countered for Mr. Imus? The cadre of white, accomplished males who have been his running buddies for years. He may have black friends, but they don’t show up on his show much and that broadcast apartheid left him without meaningful allies. Mr. Imus was alone and ineffective in his defense, after years of being surrounded by sycophancy that has left him reflexively entitled and ill-prepared for media opportunities in which he does not control the microphone.
A SPANKING MACHINE WITH NO EXIT Time heals, time forgets, but Mr. Imus was seeking to shore up his career immediately. Mr. Imus never caught a breath because he was in the middle of a 24-hour news cycle that kept him in the cross hairs. It is the kind of media ceremony that generally ends in a human sacrifice.