As a fan of women’s basketball, I never thought I’d see the day when a story about an NCAA women’s team led the national television networks evening news broadcasts.
We can credit this broadcasting first not to the wider publicity the women’s sport deserves, but to the enduring ugliness of racism and sexism. Also, Don Imus. But now that the veteran "shock jock" has lost both his CBS radio show and MSNBC simulcast for describing Rutgers players as "nappy-headed hos," a few questions come to mind.
The first is the obvious one: Why didn’t Imus get fired earlier? The veteran broadcaster had built a career as a professional misanthrope, a serial insulter who directed his ire against public figures of all stripes. Sometimes those sights were set on the traditional targets of bigots: women, blacks, and Jews. Imus even told CBS’ 60 Minutes back in 1998 that executive producer Bernard McGuirk was hired to handle the "nigger jokes."
Such talk is supposed to be part of the brash shock jock radio culture, so we’re told, a media gutter (I mean, "niche market") occupied by mostly unfunny and talentless hacks like Imus, Howard Stern, and others. Imus and his on-air gang thrived on ornery, cynical banter; mining the day’s news for whatever opportunities it might offer to reveal their smug, jaded view of humanity. The wit on display typically involved juvenile reflections on this or that pipsqueak, crybaby, gutless, lying weasel, fat pig, and skunk that Imus saw fouling the public square.
Ironically, for all his "edgy" jabs at the media and political establishment, Imus the radio rebel built his success by providing a venue for Washington insiders, media celebrities and the otherwise connected to hawk their books, campaigns, and other projects. In a talk media culture dominated by right-wing ideologues, Imus was actually more an outlet for leading Democrats than Republicans, as Peter Wallsten noted in the Los Angeles Times on April 13.
Unfortunately for Imus (and the Democrats?), the ringmaster of rude routine blew up when it did for several reasons. First, the Rutgers team chose not to remain silent. Led by coach C. Vivian Stringer’s passionate defense of her student players, the voices and faces of the Rutgers players shone before the American people in the dignified light they deserved. Notably, Stringer placed the insults directed against her players in a social context, as words symbolic of the historic oppression of blacks and women.
In turn, the team’s response appeared to open a valve on an apparent dam of pent-up public disgust with the sleaze and mean-spiritedness of the talk media culture. The backlash against Imus quickly spiraled. Civil rights leaders lead picket lines at CBS and MSNBC studios (even some MSNBC staff reportedly clamored for Imus’ dismissal), and the story took on headline dimensions. And then as it always does the bottom line intervened: American Express, General Motors, and other companies announced they would no longer advertise on Imus in the Morning. For CBS and MSNBC executives, the controversy over the future of the Imus show, which generated over $15 million in yearly revenue, had reached its denouement.
My Culture’s Better Than Your Culture
Not surprisingly, Fox News host Sean Hannity and other conservatives were obsessed with portraying the story as about anything other than a moment of public revolt against a case study in putrid media. Instead the issue became whether the reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were qualified to lead the protests against Imus. On NBC’s Today Show, host Meredith Viera accused Sharpton of a "double standard" over sexist lyrics in rap and hip-hop music, despite Sharpton’s ready acknowledgement that he shared her concerns over such denigrating language. Other critics pointed to past anti-Semitic remarks by Jackson.
But the anti-Imus groundswell clearly went beyond Sharpton and Jackson, or whatever influence they are supposed to have over misogynist rappers like Snoop Dogg. Contrary to Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock’s assertion that the black community had once again revealed its desire to "wallow in victimhood," the Imus show banter touched a nerve for one overarching reason. Racism and sexism remain potent social evils.
I doubt this latter reality is exactly a newsflash to Whitlock. But in an April 11 column he mocked the idea that blacks have anything to protest but their own "self-hatred." Ridiculously, he even told MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson that Jackson and Sharpton were the equivalent of "domestic terrorists" for attempting to force CBS and MSNBC to fire Imus.
Whitlock sees self-hatred in the "bitches," "hos," and "niggers" vernacular used in some rap and hip-hop music. No doubt the tenor of such music is a far cry from the days of the civil rights movement when the talk was of brothers and sisters, or James Brown singing, "Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud." But does Whitlock think "self-hatred" prevents blacks from more thoroughly scouring the want ads, since unemployment among blacks is more than twice that of whites? According to the Urban League’s 2007 State of Black America report, working black men still earn less than 75 percent of white men (for black women, deduct another $5,000 in annual income). Are such lower wages the result of "self-hating" rap music lyrics and the low self-esteem of black workers?
Whitlock’s argument implies that all corporate and cultural barriers to racial equality have been achieved. But if blacks have nothing to fear but themselves, or their music, then this is a journalist who is backing himself into a racist argument I doubt he really wants to make. Because how then does he explain the reality of the social and economic disparity blacks continue to face?
As for all the talk about "hos," whether emanating from Don Imus or Snoop Dog, it’s all cut from the same cloth of disrespect for women. In the case of the Rutgers women, they were not savvy, powerful Washington politicos, but just a group of accomplished young women. Athletic heroes. In this they proved to be quite the wrong target for an otherwise influential media star. But what if the Rutgers players weren’t future doctors or musical prodigies, as well as great athletes? What if they had been just muscle- and tattoo-bound hoopster "rough girls?" Would it be okay then to relegate them to society’s junkyard where misanthropic radio hosts could use them for target practice? Are there really some women: any women: who deserve to be called bitches and hos?
Or, to be pejoratively referred to as "the cleaning lady?" That was how Imus once described New York Times journalist Gwen Ifill. It was a racist jab. It was also elitist. Can we wonder how many Times reporters would be petitioning their boss for more telecommuting options if the "cleaning ladies" didn’t keep their venerated newsroom from becoming an uninhabitable dump? Maybe it should matter a little what those emptying wastebaskets on the graveyard shift think about all this?
An Endless Climate of Hostility
Unfortunately, the larger question that arises in the Imus controversy doesn’t at present have a satisfying answer. Why in a media culture permeated with right-wing hate is the house-cleaning limited to Imus? It’s not just Rush Limbaugh amusing himself with his "Halfrican American" references to Barack Obama. Or last year’s fashion critique by syndicated radio host Neal Boortz, who decried then Congresswoman’s Cynthia McKinney’s new "ghetto slut" hairstyle. It’s the whole endless climate of hostility and insults, the jocular disrespect and sexist banter and xenophobic cheerleading for a war that has killed hundreds of thousands. It’s the pompous radio moralists who expect to be taken seriously as they explain (or is it explain away?) the allowable parameters for torture. It’s the small-minded, sneering attitudes, the pundit sensibility that nothing is worth dreaming of anymore, short of that which offers immediate payback on the paycheck.
Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, an industry magazine for talk radio, initially said Imus could survive the calls for his firing by CBS and MSNBC if he just stopped apologizing so much. In other words, Brand Imus was all about the contrarian image, the "rebel" cowboy who thumbs his nose at all the prissy hall monitors of liberal political correctness who want to decide what can or cannot be said on the air. Too much groveling would tarnish the brand, so worry such industry analysts.
What petty dreariness. This is the thinking representative of a media culture whose myopic focus on ratings and profits blinds it to the larger reality that the professional talk industry is saturated with brands stuck boot-first in the sludge. Whether it’s Brand Imus or Brand War on Terror, it’s all a slide down the slope into that dim place where edifying discourse, enlightened thinking about race and gender, and even hope for humanity’s future prospects intersect with an industry’s vision only as an occasional byproduct of some thought about advertising revenues.
Mark T. Harris is a writer based in Bloomington, Illinois. You can write to him at [email protected] Website: www.Mark-T-Harris.com.