Thursday, April 12, 2007

Thursday, Apr. 12, 2007

The Imus Fallout: Who Can Say What?

Say this for Don Imus: the man knows how to turn an economical phrase. When the radio shock jock described the Rutgers women's basketball team, on the April 4 Imus in the Morning, as "nappy-headed hos," he packed so many layers of offense into the statement that it was like a perfect little diamond of insult. There was a racial element, a gender element and even a class element (the joke implied that the Scarlet Knights were thuggish and ghetto compared with the Tennessee Lady Vols).

Imus was a famous, rich, old white man picking on a bunch of young, mostly black college women. So it seemed pretty cut-and-dried that his bosses at CBS Radio would suspend his show — half frat party, half political salon for the Beltway elite — for two weeks, and that MSNBC would cancel the TV simulcast. And that Imus would plan to meet with the students he offended. Case closed, justice served, lesson —possibly — learned. Move on.

But a reasonable person could ask, What was the big deal? And I don't mean the lots-of-black-rappers-say-"hos" argument, though we'll get to that. Rather, I mean, what celebrity isn't slurring some group nowadays?

I exaggerate slightly. But our culture has experienced an almost psychotic outburst of -isms in the past year. Michael Richards and "nigger." Isaiah Washington and "faggot." Senator George Allen and "macaca." Mel Gibson and "f__ing Jews."

But we also live in a culture in which racially and sexually edgy material is often — legitimately — considered brilliant comment, even art. Last year's most critically praised comedy, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, won Sacha Baron Cohen a Golden Globe for playing a Kazakh journalist who calls Alan Keyes a "genuine chocolate face" and asks a gun-shop owner to suggest a good piece for killing a Jew. Quentin Tarantino has made a career borrowing tropes from blaxploitation movies. In the critics-favorite sitcom The Sarah Silverman Program, the star sleeps with God, who is African American and who she assumes is "God's black friend." And the current season of South Park opened with an episode about a Michael Richards-esque controversy erupting when a character blurts the word niggers on Wheel of Fortune. (He answers a puzzle — N-GGERS — for which the clue is "People who annoy you"; the correct answer is "naggers.")

This is not to say that Borat made Imus do it or to make excuses for Imus. Even in the midst of his apology tour last week, Imus did enough of that for himself, citing his charity work, his support of black Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr., even his booking the black singing group Blind Boys of Alabama on his show. (He didn't mention how, last fall, he groused about persuading the "money grubbing" "Jewish management" to okay the booking.)

But in the middle of his stunning medley of sneer, apology and rationalization, Imus asked a pretty good question: "This phrase that I use, it originated in the black community. That didn't give me a right to use it, but that's where it originated. Who calls who that and why? We need to know that. I need to know that."

So let's ask.

Imus crossed a line, boorishly, creepily, paleolithically. But where is that line nowadays? In a way, the question is an outgrowth of something healthy in our society: the assumption that there is a diverse audience that is willing to talk about previously taboo social distinctions more openly, frankly and daringly than before. It used to be assumed that people were free to joke about their own kind (with some license for black comedians to talk about how white people dance). Crossing those lines was the province of the occasional "socially conscious artist," like Dick Gregory or Lenny Bruce, who was explicit about his goals: in Bruce's words, to repeat "'niggerniggernigger' until the word [didn't] mean anything anymore."

Now, however, we live in a mash-up world, where people — especially young people — feel free to borrow one another's cultural signifiers. In a now classic episode of Chappelle's Show, comic Dave Chappelle plays a blind, black white supremacist who inadvertently calls a carload of rap-listening white boys "niggers." The kids' reaction: "Did he just call us niggers? Awesome!" The country is, at least, more pop-culturally integrated — one nation under Jessica Alba, J. Lo and Harold & Kumar — and with that comes greater comfort in talking about differences.

But that's a harder attitude for older people — who grew up with more cultural and actual segregation — to accept or to mimic. Part of the problem with Imus' joke was that it was so tone-deaf. "That's some rough girls from Rutgers," he said. "Man, they got tattoos ... That's some nappy-headed hos there." The joke played badly in every community, raising memories of beauty bias (against darker skin and kinkier hair) that dates back to slavery. Tracy Riley, 37, of Des Moines, Iowa, who is of mixed race, said the incident was among her four kids' first exposures to overt racism. "Our kids don't see color the way we do," she said. "They don't see it as much. 'You're my friend or not,' but it's not about race.'"

The line was as damning as anything for what it suggested about Imus' thought process: a 66-year-old white male country-music fan rummaging in his subconscious for something to suggest that some young black women looked scary, and coming up with a reference to African-American hair and a random piece of rap slang. (Maybe because older, male media honchos are more conscious of — and thus fixated on — race than gender, much of the coverage of Imus ignored the sexual part of the slur on a show with a locker-room vibe and a mostly male guest list. If Imus had said "niggas" rather than "hos," would his bosses have waited as long to act?)

So who gets to say "ho," in an age when Pimp My Ride is an innocent car show and It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp is an Oscar-winning song? As even Essence Carlson, one of the Rutgers students Imus insulted, acknowledged at a press conference, black rap artists labeled young black women as "hos" long before Imus did. And while straight people may not be able to say "faggot," Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Will & Grace helped mainstream the nonhostile gay joke for straight people. But all this reappropriation and blurring — distinguishing a good-natured "That's so gay!" from a homophobic one — has created a situation in which, when Richards went off on his Laugh Factory rant, it was possible to wonder if he was playing a character.

The license to borrow terms other people have taken back can worry even edgy comics. A few months ago, I interviewed Silverman, who argued that her material was not racist but about racism (and I agree). But she added something that surprised me, coming from her: "I'm not saying 'I can say nigger because I'm liberal.' There is a certain aspect of that that I'm starting to get grossed out by. 'Oh, we're not racist. We can say it.'"

Comedians work through these danger zones in the presence of other comics. In a comedians' get-together or a TV writers' room, nothing is off-limits: without airing the joke that goes too far, you can never get to the joke that flies in front of an audience. Trouble might come if material meant for that smaller audience went public, as in 1993, when Ted Danson got in trouble after word got out of a Friars Club routine he did in blackface, though his jokes were defended — and reportedly written by — his then girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg.

Today, because of cable and YouTube, because of a media culture that rewards the fastest, least censoring mouth, we are all in the writers' room. (Friars Club roasts are now televised on Comedy Central.) Punditry and gonzo comedy have become less and less distinguishable. (And I'm not talking here about The Daily Show, whose host Jon Stewart is, ironically, one of the most conservative defenders of the idea of sober, evenhanded news — see his 2004 tirade against Tucker Carlson.) Got something on your mind? Say it! Don't think about it! If you don't, the next guy in the greenroom will! C'mon, it'll kill!

Right-wing pundit Ann Coulter is probably the best example of this, playing a constant game of "Can you top this?" with herself, as in March, when she told the Conservative Political Action Conference that she would have a comment on Senator John Edwards, "but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word faggot." Coulter is only the most egregious example — from Bill O'Reilly on Fox to Glenn Beck on CNN, offense is the coin of the cable realm.

The flip side of the instant-attention era is the gotcha era. We may be more inured to shock than ever, but when someone manages to find and cross a line, we're better able to generate, spread and sustain offense. You get eaten by the same tiger that you train. Imus got special love from the media over the years because his show was such a media hangout. But when the controversy erupted, it snowballed in part because the media love to cover the media.

Every public figure — athlete, pundit, actor — now has two audiences: the one he or she is addressing and the one that will eventually read the blogs or see the viral video. A few have adapted, like Stephen Colbert, whose routine at last year's White House Correspondents' Association dinner was decried by attendees as rude and shrill — but made him a hero to his YouTube audience. Imus, a 30-plus-year veteran of radio shock, seemed to underestimate the power of the modern umbrage-amplification machine. The day after his remarks, Imus said dismissively on air that people needed to relax about "some idiot comment meant to be amusing." Shockingly, they did not, and by the next day, Imus had tapped an inner wellspring of deepest regret.

As in so many scandals, the first response may have been the most authentic — at least we're inclined to take it that way because the contrition cycle has become so familiar. You blurt. You deny. You apologize. You visit the rehab center or speak with the Official Minority Spokesperson of your choice and go on with your life. Although — or maybe because — it's so easy to get caught today, it's also easier to get forgiven. In 1988 Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder was fired by CBS for saying black athletes were "bred" to be better than whites. In 1996 CBS golf analyst Ben Wright was suspended indefinitely after he was quoted as saying that lesbians had hurt the sport.

To his credit, Imus never played the "I'm sick" card. Perhaps he felt confident because he had been legitimized by his high-profile guests. Imus could have made a remark just as bad years ago and suffered few if any consequences. Scratch that: Imus did make remarks as bad or worse for years. Speaking about Gwen Ifill, the African-American PBS anchor who was then White House correspondent for the New York Times, he said, "Isn't the Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House." He called a Washington Post writer a "boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jewboy" and Arabs "towelheads."

Yet politicians and journalists (including TIME writers) still went on his show to plug their candidacies and books because Imus knew how to sell. "If Don Imus likes a book," says Katie Wainwright, executive director of publicity at publisher Hyperion, "not only does he have the author on, he will talk about it before, during and after, often for weeks afterwards." The price: implicitly telling America that the mostly white male Beltway elite is cool with looking the other way at racism. They compartmentalized the lengthy interviews he did with them from the "bad" parts of the show, though the boundary was always a little porous. And evidently many still do. "Solidarity forever," pledged Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant in a phone interview with Imus on April 9. Senator John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani said they would return to the show. "I called him a little while ago to talk to him about it personally," Giuliani told the New York Times. "And I believe that he understands that he made a very big mistake." (Senator Barack Obama, who appeared on the show once, has said he will not go back; other politicians have hedged.)

In fact, while there might be more media and blogger scrutiny of Imus' future guests, his suspension may have inoculated them — if his radio show survives. The show draws 2 million daily listeners, and it's a more valuable property on radio than it was on TV. (It brings in about $15 million annually for CBS Radio compared with several million for MSNBC.) But the show has already lost advertisers, including American Express, Staples and Procter & Gamble.

Imus argued repeatedly that his critics should consider the "context" of his larger life, including the formidable work for sick children he does through his Imus Ranch charity. But it's not Imus Ranch he broadcasts from 20 hours a week. You can't totally separate the lives of celebrities from their work — it didn't excuse Gibson that he attacked the Jews in his free time — but finally what determines who can make what jokes is the context of their work: the tone of their acts, the personas they present, the vehicles they create for their work.

That context is not as kind to Imus. He comes out of the shock jock tradition, but all shock jocks are not created equal. If Opie & Anthony or Mancow had made the "nappy-headed" comment, it wouldn't have been a blip because future Presidents do not do cable-news interviews with Opie & Anthony and Mancow.

Then there's personality, or at least persona. Compared with Imus, for instance, his rival Howard Stern may be offensive, but he's also self-deprecating, making fun of his own satyrism, looks and even manly endowment. Imus doesn't take it nearly as well as he dishes it out. His shtick is all cowboy-hatted swagger, and his insults set him up as superior to his targets and the alpha dog to his supplicant guests.

Imus uses jokes to establish his power, in other words. He's hardly the only humorist to do that. But making jokes about difference — race, gender, sexual orientation, the whole list — is ultimately about power. You need to purchase the right to do it through some form of vulnerability, especially if you happen to be a rich, famous white man. But the I-Man — his radio persona, anyway — is not about vulnerability. (The nickname, for Pete's sake: I, Man!) That's creepy enough when he's having a big-name columnist kiss his ring; when he hurled his tinfoil thunderbolts at a team of college kids, it was too much. "Some people have said, 'Well, he says this all the time,'" Rutgers' team captain Carson told TIME. "But does that justify the remarks he's made about anyone?"

Of course, assessing Imus' show is a subjective judgment, and setting these boundaries is as much an aesthetic call as a moral one. It's arbitrary, nebulous and, yes, unfair. Who doesn't have a list of artists or leaders whose sins they rationalize: Elvis Costello for calling Ray Charles a "blind, ignorant nigger," Eminem for peppering his lyrics with "faggot," Jesse Jackson for "Hymietown," D.W. Griffith for lionizing the Klan or T.S. Eliot for maligning Jews?

You might say that there's no excuse and that I'm as big a hypocrite as Imus' defenders for suggesting that there is one. Which may be true. That's finally why "Where's the line?" is a misleading question. There are as many lines as there are people. We draw and redraw them by constantly arguing them. This is how we avoid throwing out the brilliance of a Sacha Baron Cohen — who offends us to point out absurdities in our society, not just to make "idiot comments meant to be amusing" — with a shock jock's dirty bathwater. It's a draining, polarizing but necessary process.

Which may be why it was such a catharsis to see the Rutgers players respond to Imus at their press conference in their own words. "I'm a woman, and I'm someone's child," said Kia Vaughn. "I achieve a lot. And unless they've given this name, a 'ho,' a new definition, then that is not what I am." She stood with her teammates, a row of unbowed, confident women. For a few minutes, anyway, they drew a line we could all agree on and formed a line we could all get behind.