Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Don Imus Flap: Product Recall of the Shock Jock

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

It’s over.

Now that three major advertisers have pulled out (including Procter & Gamble), all that’s left for Don Imus is to decide with which satellite radio company he wants to finish his career. As far as the major media are concerned, the “product” called “shock jock” has been recalled.

The recall is occurring even as the members of the Rutgers women basketball team continue to comport themselves with a dignity that should haunt public consciousness for many months to come. The women are appropriately cast as both victims and avengers. Decisively powerful, decisively visual images of these women memorialize their pain.

For CBS radio, as well as MSNBC, the corporate decision is all about product. With what should they replace the morning drive time vulgarities? In the unlikely event Imus delays the inevitable, his corporate fathers are reaching a decision even as we write: It is time for something new.

Typically, when celebrities like Don Imus fall off a cliff – as Mr. Imus certainly did when he called the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed ho’s” – communications professionals focus their commentary on how they can regain equilibrium and resuscitate their careers.

But this is not a “typical” celebrity scandal. In fact, there is probably no way for Mr. Imus to return to former prominence as he simply does not have a fund of goodwill to draw from or high-visibility supporters to come to his rescue. After all, the guy made his career by insulting people.

No doubt there are chits he could try and call in from luminaries who may owe him a few. Yet even if they’re willing to risk their own reputations, what can they possibly say? – that the poor fellow made a mistake and “this isn’t the Don Imus I know”?

Well, it is the Don Imus they know. Consider an April 10 New York Times piece by African-American journalist Gwen Ifill, who advises that Imus once described her on air as the “cleaning lady” generously assigned to “cover the White House.”

Lesson: if you want to survive a crisis tomorrow, start behaving yourself today.

To be sure, there are still such lessons here for a corporate America that, unlike Imus, has not altogether squandered its legacy of good will as a result of continuous past misbehavior…

  • Understand that, in the Internet age, audios and videos are played and replayed at warp speed. Waiting 24 hours to see how a matter will evolve – or two weeks in the Imus matter – is sometimes smart and sometimes fatal. With racism and sexism thrown into the mix, some sort of immediate response is compulsory even when, as with Imus, the final decision can be deferred.
  • When the brand is divided – the broadcast companies speaking in one voice with their own priorities and Don Imus on the other side pondering his personal future – a sacrifice must sometimes be made. For CBS and MSNBC, the sacrifice is Don Imus. Sometimes the sacrifice takes weeks to make, as in this case, or when Presidents let errant cabinet members or White House staffers swing for weeks in a public noose. At lower levels, the needed sacrifices can typically be made more quickly.
  • Simple contrition may not be enough when there are powerful victims in the spotlight. How can the transgressors make it up to the Rutgers women? If there is a way, it will speak louder than any public apology or expression of regret.
  • Are there allies? For Imus, few have been willing to step forward. Meanwhile, who besides CBS and MSNBC can speak for CBS and MSNBC?
  • Control the Internet. Imus supporters are surprisingly sparse in the blogosphere. They’re out there, to be sure, but it’s hardly a robust band for a celebrity after a successful 30-year career, and hardly any of the supportive blogs qualify as “high-authority.”

The Imus case is instructive because it shows just how valuable such best practices are, and yet how few are actually available to him. With this “recall,” the insurmountable problem is that decades of willful misbehavior define the damaged Imus “product.” Even if there is some sort of public laying-on-of-hands and a feel-good display of forgiveness in the offing, Imus cannot then return to being a shock jock. Once bullies apologize, they can never be credible bullies again.

As the media fathers impose a two-week test period to assess public reaction and ostensibly decide on Imus’ future, the future of shock jockey-ism itself will be decided. The painful memory of the hurt caused the Rutgers women won’t go away soon. It will adumbrate every broadcast by every Imus wannabe.

Imus does have defenders; for example, an April 11 piece by Kathleen Parker in the Chicago Tribune argues why Imus should be forgiven. Again, though, the limits of what can be safely said in the context of a shock broadcast have finally been set. Yet the appeal of shock broadcasts is that there are no limits and that anything can happen. The product’s appeal is thus critically diluted.

Ten years ago, Howard Stern’s point – in strong language of his own he opined that Imus should simply have said it was all a joke and defiantly refused to back down – might have been a shrewd one as it would have allowed the bully to continue being a bully. Now, however, it may well be that public taste for this kind of programming is a fever that’s run its course. America finally saw victims, up close and personal.

If the era of the shock jock isn’t over quite yet, the end is now in sight.

How appropriate that the fever finally broke on the 20th anniversary of the Fairness Act repeal. That FCC regulation required broadcast licensees to present controversial issues in an honest, equal, and balanced manner. By repealing it, Congress fully opened the door for Don Imus and his sundry shock jock compeers.

Expect the media industry to close that door again. It is no longer good for business.