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The Imus Enablers Are Back

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It didn’t take long for the Don Imus enablers to re-emerge. Just months after the racist, sexist and homophobic shock jock was fired for his on-air characterization of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed ho’s” — and less than two weeks after Citadel Broadcasting announced his impending return to radio -– the Big Media and Big Politics elite are crawling out of the woodwork to embrace Imus all over again.

It’s no surprise that executives of major media corporations rushed to defend Imus by claiming, as did Citadel Broadcasting CEO Farid Suleman, “He’s more than paid the price for what he did.” After all, as recently noted in the New York Observer, “redemption and rehabilitation are secondary concerns” for Citadel. Phil Boyce, operations manager at the company’s flagship station WABC, spelled it out in stark terms, explaining, “Obviously, there are a couple of reasons to look at him, but the biggest reason is the revenue opportunity. There’s a lot of money to be made there. And we’re in the business of making money.”

But what excuses and explanations are being offered by the many leading journalists and politicians – some of whom distanced themselves from the self-styled “I-Man” in the wake of the Rutgers controversy – who now say they will once again appear on his program? No amount of high-toned talk about “guilt and redemption” and “second chances” can obscure the serial offenses of a man who made a career – and tens of millions of dollars – from repeatedly using hate speech against women, gays, minorities and foreigners in exchange for cheap laughs, hot controversy and higher ratings.

Consider, for example, the curious case of CNN political commentator James Carville, who had the temerity to compare the travails of Imus to those of his former boss Bill Clinton. “I think I’ve had some history of defending friends of mine that have been in uncomfortable circumstances,” Carville told the Observer. “I defend the speaker, not the speech. If there’s no redemption, what are we here for?” Dare I suggest that Carville – set to appear as a guest on Imus’ first day back, December 3 – is there for publicity, self-aggrandizement, access to the I-Man’s audience, and the benefit of the shock jock’s well-known ability to help sell books?

Sadly, Carville is not alone in his purportedly principled stance. In fact, many of Imus’ previous enablers from the corrupt nexus of politics and media are welcoming him back. Former Senator and presidential candidate Bob Kerrey, for example, recently gave Imus his own “Seal of approval” in an article in the New York Daily News.

Kerrey began by comparing Imus not to President Clinton but to “Freddie Krueger, the terrifying lead character in ‘Nightmare on Elm Street.’” To Kerrey, “as with Freddie, there is something about the I-Man that is scary but irresistible.” After urging fellow Democrats, particularly those running for president, to “sit down, chit chat and legitimize a man they once reviled as something close to a racist,” Kerrey went on to note, “I myself have appeared on Imus before and would welcome the chance to go on the show again.”

At least Kerrey was honest about his motivation for doing so: “As offensive as his remarks were about the Rutgers women’s basketball team… he will have a big and influential audience,” Kerrey said. Moreover, to Kerrey’s mind, “Imus adds a lot to the American political debate.” Apparently, epithets like “brillohead, dark meat, Mandingos, Uncle Ben, gooks, chinks, slanty-eyed bastards, queers, homos, ho’s, lesbos, gorillas, pimps, and knuckle-dragging” African-Americans are among these worthy contributions to our political discourse.

But Kerrey offered “another reason” he believes politicians shouldn’t boycott Imus. “If they keep away from the show all the way through next year, it could do real political damage, if not in votes lost, at least in courage points,” he says. “We can’t afford to start putting our interviewers through purity tests.” Instead, Democratic politicians should simply look the other way when confronted with the “impurity” of the I-Man’s transparent racism and trade their silent complicity for access to his audience of millions and their votes.
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Kerrey’s exhortation aside, to date only one current Democratic presidential candidate has decided to return to the racist ranter’s airwaves. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson will ignore Imus’ history of on-air racial blunders, since, in the words of his press secretary, Tom Reynolds, he “strongly believes this is a society of forgiveness and second chances, and that the radio host has paid his debt for his mistake.” On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani is already on record as saying he would not boycott the shock jock, and Arizona Senator John McCain says he will return to Imus’ show, since he thinks the talker deserves –- here we go again — a second chance. “I believe in redemption, and I’ve made so many mistakes in my life and I’ve asked people to give me another opportunity,” McCain said. “What he did was unacceptable, but all of us in life, I think, ought to be able to move forward.”

In addition to Big Politics figures such as Kerrey, Richardson, Giuliani, McCain and Carville, other leading Imus enablers include such media luminaries as David Gregory, Andrea Mitchell and Tim Russert of NBC News. Russert recently told Aaron Barnhart of The Kansas City Star that he would return to the show, if his bosses at General Electric gave their permission. “If he asked me to come back and talk about political developments, I would absolutely do that,” Russert said. “But I guess I’ll have to check with the folks at NBC.”

Perhaps Russert’s corporate overlords will conveniently refuse permission. Here’s hoping they follow the lead of Newsweek, whose managing editor Jon Meacham, editor-at-large Evan Thomas, and columnists Jonathan Alter and Anna Quindlen were once Imus regulars as well. They got off the hook last week when a Newsweek spokesperson announced, “We will not participate in the Imus program.”

New York Times columnists Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd, along withTimes Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, also benefited in the past from their appearances with Imus. Given the tone of the apologia Rich penned for the Times last April in the wake of the ‘nappy headed ho’s’ affair, the odds seem good he will return to the program. In his column, Rich accurately included himself “Among the hypocrites surrounding Imus… I’ve been a guest on his show many times since he first invited me in the early 1990s, when I was a theater critic… As a book author, I could always use the publicity.” In exchange, Rich explained, he was willing to look the other way: “Of course I was aware of many of his obnoxious comments about minority groups, including my own, Jews.” Of course…

Times Book Review editor Tanenhaus — whose biography of Whittaker Chambers was praised by the I-Man — also wrote in The Times about his appearances on Imus in the Morning. In the article, entitled “Playing Along with Imus,” Tanenhaus mused about the “surprisingly muted signals from some of the most thoughtful people” - authors and journalists – “who have traveled in the curious orbit of the Imus in the Morning program.” In the wake of the Rutgers controversy, he wrote, “they are sifting through the complex issue of their own culpability and complicity.” Suddenly the Times man is having second thoughts. “The whole business felt a little heavy-handed to me.” Tanenhaus now says. “There was a lot of piling on. I was one of the piler-on-ers. I assume he’s a little chastened, a little chagrined. So let him start all over again. Why not? When I make my own inevitable disastrous screw-up, I hope someone gives me another chance.”
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Other leading media figures set to return to the Imus airwaves include The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, who really ought to know better, having written extensively about Imus and his transgressions in the past. “I said I wouldn’t go on at the time of the controversy,” Auletta now says. “But I wouldn’t make that same claim today. Because I think people deserve second chances. If you believe in rehabilitation, if you don’t believe in the death penalty, you believe that some people can be reformed and changed.”

Then there’s the curious case of leading media pundit Howard Kurtz of Washington Post and CNN ubiquity. Kurtz is on record as saying, “I don’t believe (as a regular listener and very occasional guest on the program) that Imus is in any way racist. He sometimes crosses the line, as he himself would admit, in trying to make people laugh, but it’s all shtick. He’s no bigot.” No bigot? Judge for yourself, from Imus’ own description of Kurtz as a “boner-nosed… beanie-wearing Jewboy.”

Why would Kurtz put up with such bile? Perhaps it’s because, as Auletta noted in his New Yorker article, (quoting a top Simon and Schuster executive,) Imus is “the second most powerful person in the country in terms of selling books.” The publisher specifically credited the shock jock with boosting his company’s print order for Kurtz’s book “Spin Cycle” from twenty-five thousand copies to two hundred thousand. The motivation for Kurtz’ acceptance was perhaps best explicated by the novelist, Newsweek and onetime New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, who when speaking of the market power of Imus, told Auletta, “All you need do is hear him wax poetic about your book and you say, ‘Hell, I’d buy that book.’” As Auletta concluded, “Five mornings a week, from five-thirty to ten, Imus in the Morning takes care of his ‘guys’—promoting their books, their columns, and their lives to more than ten million listeners.” The payback? “The program generates nearly half of the fifty million dollars a year in revenue which WFAN contributes to its corporate parent, CBS Radio.”

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Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the 'Media Is A Plural' blog, accessible at www.roryoconnor.org.

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