Imus Down Under

I’ve only heard Don Imus on American radio a few times in the car while visiting the States. He struck me as a small town put down artist. He recently went too far – as shock jocks sooner or later do – and referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team a “nappy headed hos.” The New York Times has the story with links to a transcript and a video here.

For a few days, it seemed as if Don Imus would somehow pull out of the death spiral. After all, once he came under fire, Mr. Imus said he was sorry for the racial insult, said he was sorry again and then began a week of penance, raising money on his own show for sick children and turning up at various other microphones to renew his apology.

Bottom line – CBS pulled the show. For me, the story is an excellent example of McLuhan’s idea that the red meat of content distracts the watchdogs of the mind. But to his great credit Times reporter David Carr really understands that this whole thing happened because the media environment has changed:

Mr. Imus is an old-school radio guy caught in a very modern media paradigm. When he started 30 years ago, if he made the same kind of remark, it would have floated off into the ether — the Federal Communications Commission, if it received complaints, might have taken notice, but few others.

But radio is now visible — Mr. Imus’s show was simulcast on MSNBC, and more to the point, it is downloadable. By Friday, reporters and advocates could click up the remark on the Media Matters for America Web site, and later YouTube, and see a vicious racial insult that delighted him visibly as it rolled off his tongue. The ether now has a memory.

Exactly. And that memory is publicly accessible and cached so if you try to go in and alter the record, as some have done, you get nailed again. Its good to see the Times recognize that the rules of the game have changed for radio shock jocks even if they often show little recognition that the rules have changed for them too. In the Imus case, the categories of clearly public and clearly private speech haven’t changed, but the gray areas have. Radio chatter used to be more that kind of ephemeral, largely private speech you hear in bars and that from time to time causes fights to break out. It was archived on tape but not casually accessible. Now anyone with access to the Net can look it up.

In looking around for a different take I found this by a blogger named Cobb – a very astute observer who is black and a regular Imus listener.

I’m going to miss Imus. Unlike most of the black folks I know, I actually watched him because I am up at the crack of dawn out here on the West Coast. But this isn’t really just about the nappy headed hos comment. He’s been dripping this kind of water in the bucket, drop by drop, for decades. I’m sad because, minus all the so-called humorous part of the show, I tuned in to see the politicians and sensible pundits. I don’t understand why he couldn’t let that part of his show go because it really didn’t fit with the rest of the program.

I must admit I never heard the part of the show where Imus interviewed politicians like John Kerry or John McCain or media figures like Tim Russert. What I heard was the entertainment part and I must say I wasn’t impressed either. Here is Cobb’s view of Imus based on a lot more experience of him than I have.

He’ll be back but I think he needs to take a rest and think about the kind of show he really wants to have. I don’t listen to stupid black buffoonery on the radio in the morning, I definitely don’t want to hear it from people like him. I think he needs to stop apologizing and just try to decide what kind of show he wants to have next. If he keeps it to politics, I’ll tune in again. But, funny, he is not. Those skits, even when they weren’t insulting to women and minorities, were just plain lame.

Lame does it for me. Here is Times reporter David Carr again with a observation from a from a media prof who I assume is non-black.

Sexism comes and goes on the Imus show, and all over the culture for that matter — but a visceral debate over racism in America is always there, waiting. “There is an insatiable appetite for race-related discourse in the country,” said Edward Wasserman, a journalism professor at Washington and Lee University. “Imus is just a barstool bigot, but there is such a river of anxiety about race in the culture that it doesn’t take much to tap into it.”

It terms of anxiety about race, Cobb and his commenters don’t strike me as very anxious – or if they are it is in a very different way than us non-black folks often seem to be. Again, the Cobb article and the comments are well worth reading because they deal with a lot of issues raised by the incident from a black point of view that I don’t begin to touch on here.

Finally, I was visiting a friend here in Australia this weekend and discovered that the Imus story had made the news here in Australia despite its dubious relevance. We talked about the demise of fellow shock jock Howard Stern and how Imus might follow him onto satellite radio. When I explained how in America satellite radio is not regulated by the FCC and that pretty well anything goes, my friend laughed and said. “Ho hum.” and gave me that look Australians give Yanks when they are slipping a pun into the conversation they are afraid we might not pick up.


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