Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

One of the problems with being a believer in the First Amendment right to freedom of speech (just one of the rights contained in that amendment, by the way) is that you sometimes find yourself having to defend those who utter indefensible words. Thus we find outself embroiled in the Don Imus situation, which seems to have taken on the same kind of life as Anna Nicole Smith’s death (no doubt to be knocked off the news channels once the next Anna Nicole “revelation” is made).Now, no doubt that Imus’ comments were everything he’s admitted to them being: rude, insensitive, indefensible and incredibly stupid. Definitely stupid. Supremely stupid. And, in a way, Imus sets himself up for this kind of controversy by the very nature of the show he does: a mixture of political discussion (frequently sober and wide-ranging, encompassing the whole spectrum of political opinion) mixed with a sort of aging “shock jock” presentation mixed with what passes for “humor” in our society. Mixing politicals and comedy is never an easy process. The result is frequently bad political discourse mixed with even worse (and unfunny) “comedy.” Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO is likewise guilty of this. Maher’s best discussions are usually when he and his guests are not trying to be funny.

The first thing I noticed (that no one has mentioned, as far as I know) is something that — to my ears — is heard in right before Imus lets go with his “nappy-haired ho’s” line. Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in radio studios (both behind the mic and in control rooms, monitoring what’s going on), and I think that someone off-mic (one of Imus’ brain-trust) actually uttered the term “ho” before the I-man. To Imus’ credit, he has never said anything indicating that his stupid remark might have popped into his head at the suggestion of someone else. This is as it should be — like the President, the buck stops here (Oh wait, this President doesn’t subscribe to that theory, does he?). When you’re on the radio, you’re ultimately responsible for what comes out of your mouth. Of course, in this era of “voicetracking” and automated radio, talk radio is one of the few segements of the radio where you can’t go back and erase what you’ve said and do it over again. “Flying without a nut” is what makes (or made) radio interesting: you never knew for sure what would happen. And all of us who have done have had times when we shoved our foots firmly in our mouths (though most of us have had the sense not utter offensive comments).

Today the Rev. Al Sharpton was all over Imus (who appeared on Sharpton’s show). Now, I sometimes agree with Sharpton; frequently I disagree. Judging from the excerpts shown on the news, Sharpton seemed to be attempting to put words in Imus’ mouth, while Imus kept insisting he wasn’t telling anyone how they should feel about him or how they should react. Imus did (and has) seemed to be genuinely upset and sorry for his comments, and trying to find a way to make amends. Sharpton has been calling for him to lose his job; CBS Radio put Imus on a 2-week suspension (which seems to me to be entirely justified and fair). When asked by Imus about the use of similar terminology in the Black community and among rappers and other Black performers, Sharpton acknowledged the need to clean up that use as well. He has not, however, suggested that rappers be fired by their record companies or restrained from further use of those terms. There seems to be a double-standard here:  persuasion for one group; censorship and deprivation of employment for another.

Sharpton is not the only person calling for Imus to lose his job. A lot of people seem to be using this incident as a way to get themselves on news programs and advance their own agendas.

I’m sorry, but I get very nervous when people start calling for others to lose their jobs over what they say (even when I violently disagree with those opinons). It was not so long ago in this country when people were losing their jobs. If your name was listed in Red Channels, or you were suspected of not being “loyal enough” to the United States, you could lose your career. Go look up John Henry Falk and Dalton Trumbo for just two examples of this disgraceful period in our history.

As a broadcaster, Sharpton knowns (or should know) that the FCC is expressly prohibited from regulating content of radio and TV program. Exceptions have been made for indecency and obscenity (always a tricky thing to spot), but not for “offensive” content. The FCC used to enforce a Fairness Doctrine, which allowed those who were attacked on radio or TV to have the right to equal time to reply. That went out with the first round of “deregulation.” But the problem with regulating “offensive” speech is: who decides? If it’s me, I’m going to start by tossing Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham off the air, following by destroying every lying piece of shit written by Ann Coulter. I’m sure you could make up your own list (which may vary widely from mine). Obnoxious speech is one of the prices we pay for a free society.

And the other point is: people make mistakes and say unfortunate things. John McCain (a frequent Imus guest), when asked if he would appear again on the program, replied “I’m a big believer in redemption.” One always needs to consider intent as well as content. Was Don Imus intending to cause distress to the members of the Scarlet Knights (who were previously known as the Lady Knights when I was working at the Rutgers radio station, WRSU. So much for “complimentary” terms)? Nearly everyone agrees that it was a stupid attempt at making a joke. It was hardly the worst “racist comment” made in the meida, and far less than the contents of many rap records regularly heard on the radio. And, remember, he didn’t say these girls were whores; he commented on their appearance (which is where the stupidness of the comment comes in, since these young women are quite the opposite, in every respect.)

Don Imus seems to be making an effort to figure out how to atone for his admitted sin. He has asked to meet with the Rutgers players and coaches to personally apologize and ask for their help in trying to salavage something positive from the situation, while readily acknowledging that he doesn’t necessarily deserve their forgiveness.

Al Sharpton, you may recall, rose to fame on the basis of a case involving a girl named Tawana Brawley, the “victim” of a supposedly vile, racist attack. Sharpton was her advisor and biggest mouthpiece, regularly taking to task all manner of public officials who, he felt, were not taking proper action. The only problem was that she made the whole thing up. She turned out to be a confused teenager who had run away from home. I don’t recall Sharpton ever apologizing for having said all manner of bad things about a lot of people for their handling of the case. Just recently, Sharpton was leading the charge in the shooting of Sean Bell in New York, promising to oppose the decision of the courts if that decision isn’t what he deems “justice.”

If I were the Program Director of WFAN, I would probably have suspended Imus, as CBS did, for a period of time. I think I’d give him a chance to “make ammends” for his sins. I might look at some of the people he surrounds himself with, because much of what is offensive on his show is attributable to them. But you know, ultimately, Imus’ job is to bring in listeners and “sell soap.” “Shock Radio” attacts audiences all over the country, and Imus is doing what he was hired to do. If you don’t like his show, don’t listen (and I’m among those who do not listen for just that reason). Try to convince others not to listen as well. In the radio business, you live and die by ratings. When the I-Man is no longer the ratings powerhouse he is, he’ll be gone soon enough (as has happened to him before).

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (the foremost defender of the First Amendment) was fond of saying that the antidote to “too much free speech” is more speech, not less. One thing you have to say for Imus: he sure has gotten a lot of people talking. Now if only the discourse would focus on the real issues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.