ON ONE LEVEL, I've never understood what everyone sees in Don Imus. His speech is often incoherent (how did a guy with such bad articulation make it in radio?). He just sort of introduces segments, tries to crack lame jokes, plays some a few songs now and then goes to commercials.
Still, he apparently has a huge following. I don't have any Arbitron ratings in front of me, but there's a reason that big-time politicians and other media notables flock to his show. He offers them a megaphone to a vast audience. And it's not just any audience but a Middle American demographic that most of those pols and gliterati can't reach through C-SPAN, NPR and PBS. That's power.
Which is obviously why so many rather shrugged off Imus's remarks last week about Rutgers University athletes being “nappy-headed ho’s.”
Al Sharpton, naturally shot back, and this time he was right, telling the Associated Press, “I accept his apology, just as I want his bosses to accept his resignation.”
Today, Imus's bosses -- NBC and CBS, both of which carry his show on TV and radio -- took a pretty big step in that direction and suspended him for two weeks. That's a strong and appropriate signal, I think. Probably long overdue, as it's not the first time Imus has spouted off with such racial invective.
If only regular Imus guests like Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe and Evan Thomas of Newsweek saw it the same way. As David Carr reported in today's New York Times: “'Whatever problem there was, I think that he [Imus] took care of with his statement of Friday,' said Mr. Oliphant, one of the guests scheduled for this morning. 'It was classic Imus. He said he screwed up and he was sorry. Bang. Bang. It was very much to the point, and did not offer any excuses.'...'He should not have said what he said, obviously,' said Mr. Thomas of Newsweek. “I am going on the show, though. I think if I didn’t, it would be posturing. I have been going on the show for quite some time and he occasionally goes over the line.'”
Oh, don't mind him, they're saying, he's harmless. Besides, his audience is so huge, we can't afford to turn our backs on them. What would it mean for our careers? Why else would these guys, truly accomplished, thoughtful and respectful journalists, be wasting their time with an incoherent, racist guy?
It reminds me of all the equivocating we heard from equally thoughtful and respectful guys like them (such as Michael Kinsley, who I otherwise think the world of) when everyone suddenly began to realize that Patrick Buchanan's had, shall we say, some problems with Jews and non-Anglo immigrants and tried his best to fuel a nasty "culture war" along religious, racial and ethnic lines. He's a nice guy, a little feisty, maybe, but we need him for balance, said those who defended his prominent positions on CNN, not to mention his widely syndicated columns.
The truth was he was way beyond the pale of acceptable civil discourse, and the only reason he wasn't drummed out of his powerful media perches by voices of reason sooner was because he was good TV, good copy, and that means good ratings, good sales.
And that's how a guy of like Imus, who offers so little in the way of substance and even, forgive my snootiness, entertainment value, can be enabled for so long. People look the other way. They take what they can get from him and laugh off his "eccentricities." It's good for once that his bosses have not looked the other way, though I suspect they did it this time only because the pain was too severe.
I wonder if Evan Thomas thinks they're just "posturing."