Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Real Deal with Imus
I don't have a whole lot to add here, though I think the Rude Pundit has his (presumably smelly) finger on one big issue here with this post. I've always found Imus something of a jackass, a supreme narcissist jaded by nonstop verbal fluffing from his crew of mutant flunkies. And it always bugged me that so many political leaders--mostly but not all white men, in both major parties--treated him like a down-market Larry King (it's exceedingly faint praise, though true, to say that Imus was a better interviewer) and solicited his approval in between the mean-spirited little jibes and sketches with which he otherwise filled his time slot. At times, the show was inadvertantly useful--as when former Senator Al D'Amato would come on to throw around ethnic slurs--but generally, the people who were dicks on Imus's show were dicks in any context; at best, as in D'Amato's case, their conduct got a bit more widely noticed.

Annie and I watched Tim Russert's "Meet the Press" roundtable chew over the Imus affair this morning, and it was one of the more interesting half-hours of Sunday morning TV I've ever seen. You had Russert and David Brooks, mainstream white guys who had been on the show multiple times, offering occasional defenses of Imus's character or, more feebly, trying to change the subject to the bad language and bad behavior of hip-hop artists and others. Then you had Gwen Ifill, repeatedly calling bullshit on them both. I'd never had strong feelings about Ifill one way or the other (though I did enjoy her recent Colbert appearance) until her Times guest op-ed last week, regarding Imus:

The serial apologies of Mr. Imus, who was suspended yesterday by both NBC News and CBS Radio for his remarks, have failed another test. The sincerity seems forced and suspect because he’s done some version of this several times before.

I know, because he apparently did it to me.

I was covering the White House for this newspaper in 1993, when Mr. Imus’s producer began calling to invite me on his radio program. I didn’t return his calls. I had my hands plenty full covering Bill Clinton.

Soon enough, the phone calls stopped. Then quizzical colleagues began asking me why Don Imus seemed to have a problem with me. I had no idea what they were talking about because I never listened to the program.

It was not until five years later, when Mr. Imus and I were both working under the NBC News umbrella — his show was being simulcast on MSNBC; I was a Capitol Hill correspondent for the network — that I discovered why people were asking those questions. It took Lars-Erik Nelson, a columnist for The New York Daily News, to finally explain what no one else had wanted to repeat.

“Isn’t The Times wonderful,” Mr. Nelson quoted Mr. Imus as saying on the radio. “It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.”

Maybe I'm more aware of Ifill than I am the Rutgers women's hoop team, this hit me even harder than the recent comment. Being an African-American woman at the pinnacle of her profession, and having to hear that, must have felt like getting kicked in the stomach. It was groundless, cruel, and easy. And I hope she relished sticking the knife in last week; revenge might not be pretty, but it's sometimes justified.

Still, Ifill's passion and eloquence, both in the op-ed and in the discussion this morning, isn't really the point here. As everyone has noted, what Imus said a couple weeks ago isn't new for him, nor does it particularly stand out in his legacy of cheap shots and bigotry. He hasn't changed; the world has. Both Russert this morning and network drones like Leslie Moonves of CBS over the last week or so talked about the personal objections of staff within those companies; that's bullshit. The reason Imus didn't survive this one is very simple: the sponsors got scared and pulled out, and the networks got scared about both having to replace that ad revenue and becoming the business target of whatever wrath remained among the public.

The untold story here is why the sponsors pulled out, and why the networks then dumped Imus. I suspect it has a lot to do with the rising economic and political power of African-Americans--and I'm not talking about the mostly irrelevant Jesse Jackson and the mostly embarrassing Al Sharpton.

The big companies that own the networks can't afford to potentially alienate millions of American consumers--much less the public figures who are now or might soon be in positions to do a great deal of damage to corporate interests. Charlie Rangel chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, which makes tax and spending policy; John Conyers chairs Judiciary; Jim Clyburn is Majority Whip. And there's some chance that Barack Obama will be the next president or vice-president. Simply put, and totally independent of doing the moral thing, you don't want to piss these guys off.

I'm actually a bit surprised that nobody has picked up on this. It's a pretty encouraging story for capitalism (the growing wealth and spending power of the African-American market) and democratic pluralism (the rise of thoroughly mainstream political champions who happen to be black). That these big forces helped bring down a jerk like Imus is nice and all, but that they exist suggest that in some fundamental ways, our system is still working.

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