Friday, November 2, 2007

Six Months Heals All Wounds


Don Imus is back on the air. Has it been six months already? Did I miss the national conversation about race while I was out at Starbucks?

As a very smart friend told me during that frenzied week that saw Imus outed, ousted and banished, this was "Bonfires of the Vanities II." Sadly, sequels are almost never better than the original. But if George Steinbrenner got back to running the Yankees a couple of years after being banned for life, I guess Imus doing morning drive time before Spring's leaves even change color is nothing.
Imus picks up where he left off on Dec 3 and, thanks to CBS's blink, he got an unscheduled paid vacation at a rate of perhaps more than $2 million a month. So what was this all about? As Emily Litella used to say: "Never Mind."

Imus's trajectory is immaterial to me. I wasn't a fan so I wasn't sad to see him go. But I did hope that this time, at least, something would somehow justify yet another pagan dance around the bonfire. Instead, Imus looks wronged and he's been paid off for his trouble.

What a Difference 150 Days Make

"Imus in the Morning" and the MSNBC simulcast was canceled in April after Imus referred to the mostly black Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos" during a discussion of the team's playoff triumphs. It didn't take long for the shit to hit the fan. Members of Imus' A-list guest roster of best-selling authors and politicos squirmed when each was inevitably asked whether he would appear on his program ever again.

After announcing that Imus would be suspended for two weeks -- a suspension that was foolishly delayed for a few days to continue an on-air fund-raising radiothon, which only let Imus remain a lightning rod -- the story caught fire: advertisers got cold feet, the enormously sympathetic Rutger's players looked enormously pained on TV, and coach Vivian Stringer wouldn't let go of the mic.

Imus threatened to sue CBS for breach -- alleging that his on-air behavior was not only contractually protected but contractually encouraged -- and got a settlement said to be between $10 million and $20 million.

Nothing is Forever

But evidently nobody actually thought Imus would or should stay off the air. Major detractors Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are MIA on Imus' return. Joe Scarborough, who hosts "Morning Joe" in the old Imus 6-8 am time slot, was this morning shaking his head at the treatment his predecessor had endured and high fiving Imus's windfall.

Imus picks up where he left off on Dec 3 and, thanks to CBS's blink, he got an unscheduled paid vacation at a rate of perhaps more than $2 million a month. So what was this all about? As Emily Litella used to say: "Never Mind."

A Pew Research study conducted at the time of the Imus firing found that 54% thought the punishment fit the crime (61% of whites and 53% of blacks). Another 32% overall thought it was too tough.

The study found that the percent of news coverage devoted to the saga was 26% while only 20% said they followed that story most closely. The war in Iraq filled 10% of the news hole but was identified by 26% as being the story they were most interested in. Only 6% thought the Imus story got too little coverage, while 57% thought it got too much.

Disconnect? Sure, and no real surprise there.

Coach stringer might have summed this up better than anyone:
"I figured that he probably would be going back at some point, and as we said all along, we never said he should never work again," Stringer said in a recent interview with ESPN's Doris Burke.

"But at the end of the day, what can we do? We could have fallen into the same ditch that we all do and call him all these names and demand that he be fired and all these other things. But I think that if he's sincere about his apologies and his remarks to our players, then we'll see a much-changed Imus."
Or not.

Any bets on whether this gets cued up all over again? Anyone struggling to figure out lessons learned here is not alone.

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