May 24, 2008
The firestorm caused by Don Imus and his repugnant remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team has swept across our media, social and political landscape with a velocity and ferocity that is unmatched in recent memory. But as the smoke begins to clear and we see the smoldering terrain that remains, what lessons did the Imus affair really teach us?
In the ensuing debate, Mr. Imus has been afforded a far greater pedestal than he actually deserves. Rather than being a cultural icon (for good or for bad) or a societal arbiter of where “the line” actually falls, Imus is nothing more than a carnival barker, complete with silver hair and tongue, selling that which his willing audience will buy. Just because one has the ability to say hateful and incendiary words in a way that millions will hear (and see) does not make one an important member of our society. Imus is an idiot. We should afford him the status that he deserves and nothing more.
Much of the conversation around town has been about the Imus “incident”. People talk with shock and horror – most real, some mock -- about the words that were spoken and the larger meaning behind the whole matter. Has “the line” finally been defined? Did the lack of support from the political and media establishments – both of which had been prominent pillars of the show - put the final nail in Imus’s coffin? Are we better off that it happened because of the discussion that has followed? What is the real state of race in America? These are just some of the topics that have been discussed and argued in the homes and offices that make up our city.
But the whispers are what are what are as troubling as they are real and substantive: I am going to miss the show. I didn’t think it was so bad. I can’t wait until he is back on satellite. What is nappy headed anyway? On the one hand our society has banded together and collectively rebuked a mean-spirited bully. But on the other hand, the bully is missed. The carnival goers quietly admit that they like the show and wish it would continue no matter how offensive the bearded lady – or the barker - really is.
This lack of clarity is enhanced when the motives of both NBC and CBS in canceling the show are considered. Leslie Moonves spoke eloquently about the harm that Imus had done to both the women of Rutgers basketball and our society as a whole. But the decision to cancel Imus is rooted more deeply in money than in morality. Simply put, Imus had become economically unviable. America’s marketers, the savvy purveyors who advertise their wears on both NBC and CBS, quickly figured out that Imus was toxic and they didn’t want to be seen anywhere near the wreckage. They pulled their advertising and with it the economic rational for keeping Imus in the Morning on the air. Both CBS and NBC made a good business decision. It is less clear that they were making a moral decision as well. If true moral outrage was guiding the networks, Imus would have been fired the day of and not two weeks after he set fire to himself.
The Imus affair is a case study for capitalism. The markets spoke both clearly and quickly. They indicated that they have no place for Don Imus and because of those market forces; Don Imus now has no place on the air. The markets led us to the right place. Society’s response has been far less conclusive. That is what is so troubling about the whole thing to begin with.
Robert Mathias lives with his family in Washington, DC