Imus is steamed. And why not? The shtick he's been doing on radio (and TV) for 35+ years has suddenly gone sour, the whole country is down on him, and his million-a-year paycheck (or maybe more) has gone "poof". Just like that. Two weeks ago Don Imus was riding high, living large, driving his Mercedes, wearing his ten-gallon hat, and saying on the air whatever came to his mind. Today, he's an out-of-work, big-haired New York cowboy wondering what the heck happened. Hasn't he been saying the same outrageous stuff for years? Why now? Why him? (You could almost hear him asking, "Don't these fools know who I am?")
The Imus crash has been chewed over by (2 or 3 million) pundits, reporters, academics, social critics, coaches, politicians and race-hustlers. So what can I add? Good question. My point of view seems unique - so here goes.
First, full disclosure: I have listened to the Imus show on occasion. It's shocking. (I'm shocked by it, myself.) My informal poll this week found few people willing to admit to ever having listened to Imus, and none who said they listened regularly. (Perhaps a poor sample.)
Full disclosure (Part II): my total Imus-listening time - lifetime - probably totals no more than four hours. (He's been on the air since 1971.) As a rule, about five minutes at a time was my limit, on the rare occasions when I tuned in. I found him so smug, so assured of his own hipness, so (evidently) convinced of the idiocy of everyone outside his small circle, that I could swallow only short jolts. Moreover, his language was not evocative of intelligent discourse. Like most people, I sometimes use the true Anglo-Saxon names of things (as my Pop used to say), but Imus's coarse talk was too abundant by half. You got tired of hearing it. (Otherwise, I liked him.)
Imus sometimes said intelligent things about politics and other current issues, although this was the exception, not the rule (in my experience). His interview skills seemed much over-touted to me. On one occasion he asked New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman what her bra size was (so give me a break on the "in-depth interviews" claim). Imus was maybe a crude version of Laugh-In, but he wasn't a serious reporter. Actually, he was a parody of a serious reporter.
Imus was not a stupid man. He simply learned to make a nice living delivering outrageous hyperbole in a gravelly-voiced, poker-faced, comic style that made his listeners laugh - mostly because they couldn't believe anyone could say such stuff on the air and get away with it. In the end, his language and his oft-expressed world-view (i.e., everyone is an ass) undid him. He went to the well once too often. The country had moved on from the 1950s, but Imus had not.
News reports about CBS's cancellation of Imus's radio show made much of network executives "listening to many voices" of concern (outrage, hurt, etc.) over Imus's disrespectful reference to the Rutgers women's basketball team. The firing decision was depicted as a tough, courageous act by the network: Yes, Imus was a star, but enough was enough. "Imus just took it to an unforgivable place," said Dave Pugh, head of Clear Channel Communications, Inc. Many reports emphasized how losing another star personality would hurt CBS in the ratings. (Dan Rather left CBS News after he tried to wreck the Bush 2004 re-election campaign with forged documents.)
But CBS CEO Les Moonves's decision to drop Imus was neither "tough" nor "courageous". It was probably painful, but only to the network's pocketbook. I say this not accusingly or disrespectfully - simply by way of noting that it is always best to speak the truth about motives for decisions (as in the Bush Administration's firing of eight U. S. attorneys - strictly politics, nothing nobler). The network's decision about Imus and the "nappy-headed hos" comment was entirely financial, but reporters and network executives thought it impolitic to say so. Casting it as some kind of blow for "moral decency" is complete Moonves-moonshine.
Before he swallowed not just his foot but his entire leg, Imus was generating $20 million a year in advertising revenue for CBS. He was on the air (and very well paid) because he was bringing in big bucks - not because he was the "voice of truth" or some kind of Gotham prophet. The Money was Imus's raison d'etre. He had an audience for his shtick and he was a hot property. (Advertisers pay to put their messages on shows they think people listen to. It's not complicated.)
When advertisers sniffed the stink blowing from the Imus-flatulence, they started to bail - not out of principle or "racial sensitivity" or "moral outrage". It was all strictly business. Ray Stevens used to ask, "Would Jesus wear a Rolex on his television show?" The more hip question is: would Jesus even have a TV show? The answer would be Yes - provided that advertisers believed people would watch it. It's all about the money. Nothing else.
Imus was a radio "personality". (He probably will be again.) In real life he might be a good guy, a swine, or something between. He's probably no worse than most - maybe better than many. I wouldn't know. Neither would most of us. Imus said a stupid thing on the air - not unlike things he has said many times - and his technicians were not quick enough (or smart enough) to hit "mute". Like a stink-bomb thrown at the senior prom, the remark rolled onto the national dance floor, stank up the joint, and soiled the Queen of the May's gown.
Like Dan Rather, Imus thought he was invulnerable - that he could get away with anything. Once he might have been able to, but not this time. At some level you have to feel sorry for him, since he has undoubtedly heard Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell crudely called "House Niggers on the Bush plantation", etc. - in public, with no adverse repercussions. (Maybe he didn't know you can say such things about Republicans, but not about black female basketball players.)
CBS executives did their usual tap-dance - "Imus's views are not the network's..." - but the public wasn't buying. When advertisers saw that, they decided they weren't buying either. That meant curtains for the Imus show.
Imus wasn't really fired. His network bosses didn't do something courageous. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson didn't "bring him down". What happened was as natural as water flowing downhill: Imus's advertising/show-biz house of cards - built on a scowl, a hat, a head of hair and a mouth - simply collapsed. Imus was fun for a while, but nothing lasts forever. His exit song could be a parody of that old rock-and-roll chestnut (with apologies to the Beatles):
Yes, we used to love him but it's all over now...
Goodbye, Imus. We knew ye too well.