Friday, April 13, 2007

Imus in the Aftermath


The death spiral for Imus came incredibly quickly -- sentence carried out a week after the infraction -- and incredibly slowly -- hard to accept that his media bosses were "shocked shocked" days after the offense and after lots of counties were heard from.

A very smart friend was the first to my knowledge to make the "Bonfires of the Vanities" allusion: "It's a Tom Wolf novel now," he wrote me, "not a 'conversation' about race."

But let's try to keep it a conversation about race or at least a conversation about standards and the price(s) for violating them.

I'm not sorry to see Imus go. But I was not a fan so I don't really count. He does have some friends loyal enough to say that the punishment did not fit his crime (and the less convincing "I know this man's heart" stuff).

Bill and Hillary, Sure. But Essense and Kia?

The remarks of his undoing, while typical after a fashion over the course of his career, were not particularly representative of his broadcasting schtick; unlike many wannabe radio stars who think their ticket to the top is
In serious matters that have both a personal and social component the question always is: who gets to decide?
routinely tormenting the weak, the Imus remarks were shocking in part because they were directed at people ordinarily way below his radar. Feel free to do whatever you want to Bill and Hillary (Imus did), but Essence and Kia? Please.

While Imus used some pretty intense street lingo, it isn't his habit to use pretty intense street lingo -- he actually sounded pretty dorky. There was, even from his fiercest critics, no accusation that Imus was a serial user of charged racial language on the air, only that any use could not be condoned.

So, something worthy of sanction occurred, everyone agrees. But in serious matters that have both a personal and social component the question always is: who gets to decide?

An easy answer in a commercial context is, of course, the market. Imus serves, contractual niceties notwithstanding, at the pleasure of his employers. An unusual development in the Imus case was the rapid exodus of sponsors -- organized boycotts seldom get any traction -- though his former employers have said it was their own disgust and that of Imus' colleagues which moved them to remove him.

Business is Business, But ...

Business is business, but was this power exercised with integrity? Should MSNBC and CBS have so quickly abandoned the period of reflection implied by their original decisions to subject Imus to concurrent two-week suspensions? I wonder who else now thinks
I fear now, with Imus effectively out of the discussion, not all of the right people will take part in whatever passes for conversation next. And worse, I fear we will now turn our attentions to other "demons" and the talk will instead be of retribution than of how people in a civilized place speak to, about and of each other.
those suspensions should have started immediately, radiothon or not.

What of the objects of Imus's language? Do they have a special standing in deciding his fate? The Rutgers woman's basketball team, and their coach, have never asked for his ouster. After meeting with him last night, they accepted his apology.

"These comments are indicative of greater ills in our culture," Coach Vivian Stringer said after the meeting. "It is not just Mr. Imus, and we hope that this will be and serve as a catalyst for change. Let us continue to work hard together to make this world a better place."

I fear now, with Imus effectively out of the discussion, not all of the right people will take part in whatever passes for conversation next. And worse, I fear we will now turn our attentions to other "demons" and the talk will instead be of retribution and of new targets than of how people in a civilized place speak to, about and of each other.

And Now .. The Backlash

There is some backlash against chief public Imus antagonists Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, including from an unexpectedly resonant quarter: Kansas City Star sports columnist Jason Whitlock, whose April 11 commentary has been widely circulated and who, next Monday, gets a coronation of sorts as a guest on Oprah (who hosted the Rutgers team this week).
You’ve given Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson another opportunity to pretend that the old fight, which is now the safe and lucrative fight, is still the most important fight in our push for true economic and social equality," Whitlock writes. "The bigots win again."
Imus, a very rich man, will be just fine and content in his own skin whether or not he's been wronged having wronged. But if Whitlock is prescient about the legacy of this whole affair, that would be a real tragedy. We don't have so many opportunities that we can afford to waste any of them.

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