The Minuses of Don Imus

The Thinker by Rodin

I am not a Don Imus fan. Come to think of it, I am not a fan of any syndicated radio talk show host, except possibly Diane Rehm. At best, I only get around to listening to her show sporadically and on my days off. Like most of us hard working Americans, I do not have the time to tune in to regularly syndicated talk shows. If I did a lot of driving alone then perhaps I would be regularly listening to the Don Imuses and Howard Sterns out there. I can see where listening to shock jocks would be entertaining if I spent a lot of time in a car. If nothing else, listening would help me not fall asleep at the wheel. I suspect that shock jocks primarily depend on commuters and truckers for their audiences.

Shock jock Don Imus, of course, is very much in the news now. Last Wednesday, he said about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, which is predominantly African American, “That’s some nappy-headed hos there, I’m going to tell you that.” Apparently, not all of his estimated 361,000 listeners are Republicans or bigots. It did not take long for the non-bigots among us, and African American leaders in particular, to state the obvious: his remark was racist and offensive to most of us.

If there were any of us who had any illusions about Imus’ true character, this remark clarified it. Imus has since apologized and sought absolution by groveling for two hours during Al Sharpton’s radio show. Many now want Don Imus kicked off the airwaves permanently. Some are petitioning CBS and MSNBC (which syndicate his show) to make it happens. CBS and MSNBC have responded by giving Don Imus a two-week suspension in the hope that the controversy will cool off. Clearly, they do not want to get rid of Don Imus, unless he becomes toxic to their balance sheet. Even if they fire him, there is an apparently a sizeable market for Imus’ snide, sarcastic and frequently derogatory remarks. Some other syndicate would pick him up. If worst came to worst, he could avoid FCC fines by joining Howard Stern on Sirius Satellite Radio. There he could probably make more money and he would never have to worry about censorship again. Imus could be Imus.

Unfortunately, I have been exposed to Don Imus on a regular basis. This is because for a couple years in the late 1990s I carpooled to an office in DC with two staunch Republicans. This was in the middle of the Monica Lewinski affair. Imus, as well as Rush Limbaugh and many others, were practically catatonic over the so-called scandal. I guess expecting Imus not to talk about Bill Clinton and semen stained blue dresses for months at a time was to expect the impossible. In retrospect, that whole matter was ridiculous and vastly overblown. Not only was Don Imus no paragon of moral virtue (he is both a recovering alcoholic and former cocaine addict) but he reveled and regurgitated each salacious detail endlessly. He was like someone from the Moral Majority informing us about the sin taking place at a topless dancing establishment by providing detailed descriptions of just how puffy each dancer’s nipples were. He shamelessly pimped the affair. Doubtless it was great for his bottom line. The sad truth about Don Imus and his listeners at that time were that they secretly identified with Bill Clinton. Don Imus allowed them to talk about these details and have fun with it. By projecting all that scorn on Clinton, they drew attention away from their own fascination with loose women, lying and infidelity. Among these men was former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who, as we learned recently, was busy having an affair himself in the middle of the Lewinski scandal. Anyhow, by the time I arrived at work I often wanted to take a shower.

Imus of course is in the entertainment business, not the news business. His specialty though is developing rapport with many political insiders. I do not know whom he has been talking to lately. However, I remember listening to him regularly talking with Washington insiders like John McCain, James Carville and Andrea Mitchell. What developed was a disgusting symbiotic relationship between politicians and this good ol’ boy shock jock. It was all “good fun” of course. It allowed prominent politicians to let their hair down a bit. They could pretend that Don Imus was not a jerk and that underneath all that bravado was a civilized, principled and egalitarian man.

If he is this way in real life, it really does not matter. What does matter is how he behaves on the public airwaves in front of 300,000 plus listeners. To put it mildly, the character he is on the air would be one of the last people that I would invite to a party. I am hardly a paragon of virtue and I confess to being a regular sinner, sometime even an egregious sinner. Yet even I would not want to be associated with him. Therefore, it is even more surprising that so many politicians would engage their reckless side by chatting with him regularly on the air. By doing so, it says far more about them than it does about Don Imus.

Imus though wants to project a kinder side. When he was not talking about Lewinski’s stained blue dress, I remember him yammering about his Imus Cattle Ranch for Kids with Cancer in Ribera, New Mexico. It is nice that he cares about kids with cancer, although one has to wonder why it costs his charity close to $3000 a night for one child to stay at the ranch. It was enough to raise the eyebrows of then New York State Attorney General (and now governor) Elliott Spitzer and investigate the charity in 2005.

I am confident that as long there are human beings on the planet we will still crave the Don Imuses and Howard Sterns of the world. They fill the void in many of our lives for outrageous and salacious. It is unwise for us to go around acting like Bluto Blutarsky, so they get to do it for us. They seem to be part of the price we pay to live in a free society. If the FCC though is going to insist on being nannies of the public airwaves, it might as well go after egregious examples on the right too, like Don Imus. While I certainly do not approve of Don Imus’ behavior, I actually would prefer less micromanagement by the FCC on the content of our public airwaves. The shock jocks in the broadcast world, by being increasingly outrageous, tend to dig their own graves in time. Don Imus got a long overdue case of karmic kick in the ass last week. Now most of the public, which was only dimly aware of him before or did not even know who he was, has a convenient and rather accurate set of labels they can associate with him: pompous racist hypocritical prick.

As for the prominent politicians who openly associate with people like Imus, if they are going to play in the mud, they should expect to be slimed too. They need to exercise sounder judgment. Granted, spending an hour or two on the air with Don Imus is probably a lot more fun than your day job of going to boring committee hearings and running for president. A certain amount of decorum and political correctness comes with being a politician. The many political friends of Don Imus, tenaciously cultivated over the years, should realize that fair or not, the public will judge their character by those with whom they associate. When it comes to associating with rapscallions like Imus, they should take the advice of Nancy Reagan and “Just say no.”