Imus Incident Cuts to America 's Core
April 23, 2007
What Don Imus revealed in his racist, misogynistic vulgarity was his fundamental bigotry. But that's not the full story. Underlying the awful things he said, all the ensuing emotional reactions, and the wall-to-wall press coverage, is something more vitally important than his words, or their consequences. This greater story is about the intolerance and bigotry in all of us—the bigotry that has run through the consciousness of our great culture during all of our history.
Imus's inexcusable on-air insults didn't come out of nowhere. I recall listening to Imus a few times, perhaps fifteen or twenty years ago. I figured out pretty quickly that he relied on boorishness, arrogance, intolerance, and disrespect. I learned nothing from his show that I couldn't learn elsewhere, without the assaults and insults. I moved on to better sources of information and entertainment. But Imus didn't go away. He prospered. He spread his cancerous spirit from radio to television, ever expanding his following, and enriching himself and his various employers.
The list of sponsors who pulled their ads from his show last week reads like a Who's Who of American consumerism: General Motors, American Express, Staples, Procter & Gamble, Sprint, and Nextel, among others. Good for them. It's what they should have done, of course.
But wait a minute. Imus's comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team weren't exactly out of character for this guy. Why didn't American Express and Procter & Gamble pull their ads a week, a month, or a year earlier—for some other stupidity that might have been just as bigoted, but simply didn't get the press that this outrage received? And why did all of these icons of American commerce ever attach their good names to such offensive material in the first place?
CBS and NBC fired Imus. That can't be wrong. But wait another minute. They fired him for doing exactly what they'd hired him to do in the first place. They'd renewed his various contracts again and again. They'd given him ever greater exposure. Apparently they'd never discouraged his barbarous behavior.
I worked in radio years ago. I recall a station manager once reminding his staff that they didn't work in the music business, or the entertainment business—they worked in the advertising business. It's the eyes and ears business. CBS and NBC make their money by delivering eyes and ears to the likes of Procter & Gamble or General Motors. And they do it through predictability. One of these major advertisers is willing to pay astronomical sums for radio and TV spots, not because someone like Don Imus drew a huge audience one day last month, but because they know he will have that mammoth audience tomorrow, and next Wednesday, and next month, and every day, for the duration of the current spot contract. Imus was a known commodity, with a tangible real value.
That discussion gets us to the question of those eyes and ears. Who was watching and listening every day as Imus played out his highly predictable shtick? His audience was not comprised of a stream of people who sampled his wares and didn't return. His listeners and viewers were not the idly curious who occasionally checked in to see if he was still awful. No, the predictability that advertisers paid for was that of a habitual, even dedicated mass of regular participants. And here I call them participants rather than audience, because they were the real product. They were the eyes and ears the sponsors paid for.
Imus isn't the only bigot in this story. He's not even the most important one. The stations and networks that employed him—and the sponsors that paid him are more culpable than Imus. But over the two or three decades of Imus's career, the ultimate culprit is the audience. That audience is you and me.
I already told you that I sampled Imus briefly, moved on and never returned. Perhaps you did the same. But I still don't give myself a pass here, and I hope you won't either. Let me tell you the short version of my own story of bigotry.
I grew up in a bigoted home. Many of us did. My dad was reared a century ago in a small town in northern Missouri . He said there was a sign in the center of town that read something like, "Ni___r, don't let the sun set on you here." Dad told that tale almost with a kind of pride. He talked that way himself. He had a pejorative term for any racial or ethnic group. The darker their skin, the more offensive his moniker. Again and again, I heard Mom say, "Don't talk like that!" That was my environment, probably a lot like Dad's childhood environment.
My dad was like many of us—a good man with some not-so-good traits. And he changed considerably in his later years. But in my early adulthood, I was just like him. I had the same racial attitudes. I used the same language to express them.
As a young boy, I didn't know any people who looked much different from me. In high school, in the sixties, I had my first significant exposure to African-American people—we still called them Negroes then. My high school was integrated—sort of. Students of all races walked into the doors together, but we didn't see much of each other in the hallways and classrooms. White students had classes mostly with other white students, Blacks and Latinos with other Blacks and Latinos. Occasionally, the underlying tension would erupt into a fight, or some other ugliness. It seemed we had all been taught that the other races were horrible, and we set about proving it to each other. Still, I met a few black people I liked. My bigotry softened, almost imperceptibly.
Teachers truly can make a difference. In college I had a sociology teacher who made us confront our bigotry and try to defend it. It's indefensible, of course. My recovery began. I was still in this process when Dr. King was assassinated. By that time I didn't have a valid perspective of my own. I could no longer hold on to my old ideas, and I didn't really have new ones yet. I watched Bobby Kennedy emerge as the kind of leader I believed I could follow—then fall to assassination himself, just weeks after King. In August, I watched television in horror as Chicago police beat protesters outside the Democratic National Convention.
I was remade by all of those events. I understood the poison of bigotry and hatred. Later, I came to understand that it wasn't enough to want to be different. I had to stand differently. That college sociology teacher had taught us that we were part of the problem if we laughed at bigoted humor, and pretended to go along with hate-driven ideologies.
I knew I had changed when in the late 1970s, as a minor executive in a large department store, I was leading a sales meeting. Amid considerable laughter, a group of my employees were trading stories about their Jewish customers in one of the branch stores. I didn't stop the exchange. I didn't participate. And I didn't laugh. After a few minutes, someone noticed my quietude, and asked about it. Softly, I said, "I'm Jewish." There was a collective, embarrassed gasp, followed by awareness. They knew I wasn't Jewish, but it took them a moment to remember. In the next moment they knew what I'd done—then they realized what they'd done.
I had confronted my own bigotry, and I'd led my staff to confront theirs. That's what we have to do. First ours—then theirs.
Is there still bigotry in my heart? Of course there is. In yours? I can't answer that, but you'd be pretty unusual if there were not. When I see my own bigotry, it is my human duty to acknowledge it, and be willing to have it gone from me. When I see the bigotry of others, it's my human duty, at the very least, to express that I see it. That's what I'm doing here. I don't really care a whit about Imus. I care about America . I care that you, and I, and CBS, and Procter and Gamble all allowed him to go on for so long.
I'm just acknowledging what I see and know.
If I do that—if you do that—the room in our hearts where hatred can dwell becomes a little smaller. In time there will be so little space for it, that it will cease to steer our culture. Then, we will have a victory.