Interpreting the Imus Firestorm

April 17, 2007

The controversy over the ex-radio host's comments is an opportunity to consider racism and sexism in our society. Two student readings with suggestions for discussion, writing & further inquiry.

The firestorm over radio talk show host Don Imus began with his remark about "nappy-headed hos." Soon people were questioning whether his punishment should be two weeks' suspension or firing. A deluge of other questions followed: Should corporate media executives have criticized him and/or fired him long ago? Aren't those same executives being hypocritical now by retaining reality shows, "South Park," and others? Aren't advertisers, rappers, record and other media companies equally hypocritical? Is our society "profoundly racist and sexist," as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert contends, as well as homophobic, as actor Harvey Fierstein maintains in a recent op-ed? And, as Times columnist Frank Rich asks, "Do we really want to have this conversation, or just talk about having it?"

In this eminently teachable moment, the two student readings below aim to provide teacher and students with some materials to help answer Rich's question in the affirmative: "We are going to have this conversation." Having the conversation requires an environment in which students feel free to say what is really on their minds. In such an environment students can listen respectfully to what others have to say, speak in a manner that does not insult, offer evidence for their views, and feel they can make mistakes without being ridiculed. But this environment cannot and should not be risk free. In introducing the Imus issue, establish guidelines with students for discussing controversial issues (if the class has not already done so). Revisiting and perhaps revising the guidelines periodically can help to promote a safe and productive classroom.

The first reading covers what Imus said, his background, and his record of remarks like the one that ignited the firestorm. The second quotes a sampling of the many comments that followed. Discussion questions, a writing assignment, and suggestions for inquiry follow.

 


Student Reading 1:

Three words and a lot more

April 4, 2007: On "Imus in the Morning" Don Imus was talking about the championship basketball game the night before between the women's teams of Rutgers University and the University of Tennessee.

"That's some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos and..."

Bernard McGuirk, the producer, cut in, "Some hard-core hos."

Imus said, "That's some nappy-headed hos there, I'm going to tell you that."

This brief exchange went out over the radio station, WFAN, a CBS affiliate, and MSNBC, an NBC channel that simulcasts the radio show. It didn't take long for tapes of the exchange between Imus and McGuirk to appear on cable and network TV. The story ran on the front pages of newspapers across the country and was all over the internet.

Two days later, Imus said on his show: "Want to take a moment to apologize for an insensitive and ill-conceived remark we made the other morning about the Rutgers women's basketball team. It was completely inappropriate, and we can understand why people were offended. Our characterization was thoughtless and stupid, and we are sorry."

On April 10 advertisers of the program, led by Proctor & Gamble and Staples and followed the next day by Nissan, General Motors, Sprint Nextel, TD Ameritrade and Ditech.com, announced they would no longer advertise on the program. GlaxoSmithKline went even further, suspending its ads from all MSNBC programs and MSNBC's website.

MSNBC and CBS suspended the show for two weeks. But on April 11, MSNBC cancelled it. The following day CBS announced it was following suit. After more than 30 years of broadcasting the program, "Imus in the Morning" was gone from national radio and TV.

Again and again Imus had repeated his apology on radio and TV programs and in person at the New Jersey governor's mansion to the entire Rutgers team, which accepted it. But by that time he had already been fired.

Don Imus was born in Riverside, California in 1940 and brought up on his father's cattle ranch. As a teenager he joined the Marines for a few years and then worked briefly as a window dresser, a rock-n-roll musician with his brother, a copper and uranium mine worker in Arizona and a brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

He got his start in the radio business on a small station in Palmdale, California but in a relatively short time made it to the big time on WNBC in 1971. "Imus in the Morning" had its first broadcast in 1979. Until his firing, Imus made a salary estimated at $10 million.

He is also known for his charitable work, which has raised some $50 million. He runs the Imus Ranch for children with cancer, and supports a cancer research facility in Hackensack, New Jersey, as well as Tomorrows Children Fund.

"Imus in the Morning" included an unusual combination of serious, detailed interviews with major politicians and journalists dispersed among skits and chatter with McGuirk and others, which have drawn criticism. Over the years Imus's remarks have included the following.

About African-Americans:

Gwen Ifill, who had become a White House correspondent for the New York Times : "Isn't the Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House."

Venus and Serena Williams, tennis stars: "Two coom-a-chucka, big-butted women."

Sammy Davis, Jr.: "A one-eyed lawn jockey."

Barack Obama: "That colored fellow."

William Rhoden, sports columnist for the New York Times : "Quota hire."

On the CBS program "60 Minutes," in July 1998, Mike Wallace charged that the Imus program was "dirty and sometimes racist." Don Imus protested, and asked for an example. Wallace said, "You told Tom Anderson [then producer of 'Imus in the Morning'] in your car coming home that Bernard McGuirk is there to 'do nigger jokes.'" Imus said, "I never use that word." Wallace turned to Anderson, who confirmed the accuracy of what he had said. "Well," said Imus, "then I used that word. But I mean of course, that was an off-the-record conversation. But—." "The hell it was," Wallace interjected. "If people are offended, don't listen," Imus said. (Bob Herbert, New York Times , 4/12/07)

About Jews:

Howard Kurtz, writer for the Washington Post : "Beanie-wearing Jew boy."

Len Berman, sports announcer, WB 11: "Lenny the Jew."

About supposed Gays and Lesbians:

Janet Reno, attorney-general in the Clinton administration: "That big lesbian."

 

Additional sources of Imus quotes: The Houston Chronicle, www.chron.com, 4/13 Associated Press and on www.tompaine.com, which ran a series on Imus called "Bigot in the Morning."

 

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Another way to begin might be with an open-ended question: What do you think of the Don Imus uproar? Why? Student questions and responses might lead to a study of a number of possible areas—e.g., sexism, racism, and homophobia in the media and/or in American society; media and corporate responsibility for sexism, racism and homophobia.

3. Have students listened to or watched the Imus show? If so, why and what did they think of it?

4. Why do you think that advertisers suspended their commercials on the Imus show?
Why do you think it took them almost a week to do so?

5. Why do you think MSNBC and CBS at first suspended the Imus show for two weeks? Why do you think they then fired him?

6. Why do you suppose that Rutgers team members accepted Imus' apology? Since they did, do you think Imus deserved another chance?

7. Consider the Imus quotes, especially the one discussed on "60 Minutes." What is your view of his language and behavior?

 


Student Reading 2:

Comments about the Imus Controversy

Top executives of NBC and CBS

In announcing his decision to fire Don Imus, Steve Capus, the president of NBC News, said he made the decision after reading thousands of e-mails and having discussions with NBC workers and the public, but he denied the potential loss of advertising dollars had anything to do with it. "It's not a particularly happy moment, but it needed to happen. I can't ignore the fact that there is a very long list of inappropriate comments, of inappropriate banter, and it has to stop." (4/11/07)

Leslie Moonves, the CBS chief executive, said: "Those who have spoken with us the last few days represent people of good will from all segments of our society—all races, economic groups, men and women alike. In our meeting with concerned groups, there has been much discussion of the effect language like this has on our young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this society. That consideration weighed most heavily on our minds as we made our decision, as have the many e-mails, phone calls and personal discussions we have had with our colleagues across the CBS Corporation an our many other constituencies."

For discussion

1. If, as Capus said, there had been "a very long list of inappropriate comments" on the Imus show, why hadn't he consulted with his staff and others about it sooner—and perhaps given Imus a warning?
2. Moonves emphasizes that he talked with many people about their reactions. Why do you suppose he felt the need to do this?

 

African-Americans

Ron Allen, an NBC correspondent, speaking after an NBC meeting: "We all expressed very strong and deep feelings about the comments and what this says about decency in broadcasting. The [Imus] comments were so beyond any line we could draw—I just couldn't believe I could hear something like that and hear it in a place where I work. (www.washingtonpost.com, 4/13/07)

Reverend Al Sharpton: He [Imus] says he wants to be forgiven. I hope he continues in that process. But we cannot afford a precedent established that the airways can commercialize and mainstream sexism and racism." (www.washingtonpost.com, 4/13)

Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State: "This disgusting comment doesn't belong on any radio show that I would listen to. I just thought it was an attack on women's sports, first of all, and secondly an attack on very accomplished black women in a way that was really offensive." (AP, 4/13/07)

Senator Barack Obama: "He didn't just cross the line. He fed into some of the worst stereotypes that my two young daughters are having to deal with today in America.
( New York Times , 4/12/07)

Bruce Gordon, former head of NAACP and CBS board member: "He didn't just cross the line. He's violated our community." (www.pbs.org)

Essence Carson, Rutgers women's basketball team captain: Don Imus "has stolen a moment of pure grace from us. I would like to express our team's great hurt, anger and disgust toward the words of Mr. Don Imus. We are highly angered at his remarks but deeply saddened with the racial characterization they entailed. (www.cnn.com, 4/13)

Vivian Stringer, coach of the Rutgers women's basketball team: "It's all women athletes. It is all women. Have we lost the sense of our own moral fiber? Has society decayed to the point that we forgive and forget because, you know what, it was a slip of the tongue." ( New York Times , 4/11)

Bob Herbert, op-ed columnist for the New York Times : "The crucial issue goes well beyond Don Imus's pathetically infantile behavior. The real question is whether this controversy is loud enough to shock Americans at long last into the realization of just how profoundly racist and sexist the culture is." (4/13/)

Gwen Ifill, senior correspondent on PBS' "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer": "This country will only flourish once we consistently learn to applaud—encouraging young people who have to work harder just to achieve balance on the unequal playing field. Let's see if we can manage to build them up and reward them, rather than opting for the cheapest, easiest, most despicable shots." ( New York Times , 4/10)

Clarence Page, columnist for the Chicago Tribune : "The Imus controversy was not a big surprise to me, although the punishment was. Back in 2001, I led Imus in an on-air pledge in which he promised to avoid humor that relied on inflammatory racial or gender stereotypes.  He took the pledge [and] interestingly I haven't been invited back since." (4/11)

Snoop Dogg: "It's a completely different scenario [from rap].  We are rappers who have these songs coming from our minds and souls that are relevant to what we feel. I will not let them [those claiming rappers are as guilty as Imus] say we are in the same league." (www.mtv.com)

Al Roker, NBC weatherman: "I, for me, am really tired of the diatribes, the 'humor' at others' expense, the cruelty that passes for 'funny'.  What he [Imus] said was vile and disgusting. It denigrated an entire team and, by extension, a community and its pride in a group that had excelled." He urged that Imus be fired. (4/10)

Salikoko Mufwene, professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago: Imus's mistake was "claiming membership in a linguistic community that he doesn't belong to."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about any of the quotes in this section? How might they be answered?

2. Reverend Al Sharpton emphasized that we should not "commercialize and mainstream sexism and racism." To what extent, if any, has that already happened? Can you provide examples?

3. What is your reaction to Bob Herbert's calling our culture "profoundly racist and sexist"? If you agree with him, what examples can you provide? If you don't, why not?

4. Do you agree with Snoop Dogg's distinction between what rappers do and what Imus did? Why or why not?

5. What do you understand Salikoko Mufwene to mean by what he called "Imus's mistake"?

Others

Don Imus: "I don't think it was a racial insult. I thought it was in the process of us rapping and trying to be funny." (on Al Sharpton's radio show, 4/9)

Frank Rich, op-ed columnist for the New York Times : The biggest clich of the debate so far is the constant reiteration that this will be moment for a national 'conversation' about race and sex and culture. Do people really want to have this conversation, or just talk about having it? If they really want to, it means. we have to have a nonposturing talk about hip-hop lyrics, 'Borat,' 'South Park' and maybe Larry David, too. Listening to Les Moonves of CBS speak, I couldn't help but remember that one of CBS's own cultural gifts to America has been 'Big Brother,' the reality game show that cloisters a dozen or so strangers in a house for weeks to see how they get along. Maybe Mr. Moonves could put his prime-time schedule where his mouth is and stop milking that format merely for the fun of humiliation, voyeurism and sexual high jinks."

Randy Kennedy, writer for the New York Times : "More than anything, it seems, his [Imus's] downfall has pointed to a double standard. Mr. Sharpton, for example, has not campaigned for the cancellation of other shows that tread up to and sometimes cross the line, like 'South Park,' the slash-and-burn cartoon satire on Comedy Central, created by two white men, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, where racial epithets are about as plentiful as pronouns and ugly stereotypes are strip-mined down to the last laugh." (4/15/07)

Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City and presidential candidate, before Imus was fired: "I would appear on his program again, sure. I believe he understands he made a very, very big mistake." (www.cnn.com, 4/11)

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New American Foundation: "Is America's machinery for stigmatizing bigotry really working coherently?....In a speech last year before the Conservative Political Action Conference, Ms. [Ann] Coulter used the word 'raghead.' This is a dual-use slur, applied to both Arabs and Muslims. The difference [between her and Imus] is that Ms. Coulter didn't apologize. Ms. Coulter continued to be interviewed respectfully on CNN and on Fox News—treatment that presumably wouldn't be accorded a pundit who used the 'n-word' without apology." ( New York Times , 4/14/)

Harvey Fierstein, an actor and playwright: "America is watching Don Imus's self-immolation in a state of shock and awe. And I'm watching America with wry amusement. Since I'm a second-class citizen—a gay man—my seats for the ball-game of American discourse are way back in the bleachers. I don't have to wait long for a shock jock or stand-up comedian to slip up with hateful epithets aimed at me and mine. What surprises me, I guess, is how choosy the anti-P.C. crowd is about which hate speech it will not tolerate. Sure, there were voices of protest when the TV actor Isaiah Washington called a gay colleague a 'faggot.' But corporate American didn't pull its advertising from 'Grey's Anatomy,' as it did with Mr. Imus, did it?....Face it, if a Pentagon general, his salary paid for with my tax dollars, can label homosexual acts as 'immoral' without a call for his dismissal, who are the high and mighty kidding?" ( New York Times , 4/13)

Jeffrey Dvorkin, Executive Director, Committee of Concerned Journalists: "Imus's hateful statements were bad enough but any cursory listening to talk radio would reveal much worse, [for example], accusations against elected officials that poorly disguise racism, sexism and xenophobia. The failure of corporate owners and government to denounce these excesses of free speech have deeply coarsened and damaged all journalism and our national life along with it." (www.concernedjournalists.org, 4/13)

Roger Cohen, writer for the New York Times : "Some people never get it. Imus contended he'd made 'a stupid idiotic mistake in a comedy context.' But race is still at the explosive dividing line of American society. Slavery and segregation did not happen somewhere else. They happened here. Their legacy, refracted down the years despite every effort to right wrongs, is still apparent in statistics that illustrate where black anger comes from and why blacks and whites see different Americas. Close to 25 percent of African-Americans live in poverty compared with 8.6 percent of whites. Blacks go to prison eight times as often as whites. (4/13)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about any of the quotes in this section? How might they be answered?

2. Should Americans have "the conversation" Rich wrote about? Why or why not? If you think they should, what suggestions do you have about what it should focus on? What criticisms, if any, of "South Park," "Borat," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and "Big Brother" do you have?

3. Rudy Giuliani is not the only politician who said before the show was cancelled that Imus made "a big mistake" but that his show should continue. So did John McCain. Some others, like Christopher Dodd, did not want to comment on that issue. Should Imus not have been fired? Why?

4. It was General Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, who recently called homosexuality "immoral"? Should he be fired? Why or why not? Fierstein obviously regards corporate America as hypocritical. Do you agree? Why or why not?

5. Is race "still the explosive dividing line of American society"? Why or why not?
 


For writing

Following discussion of the readings, have students write a reflective essay on one or two of what they view as the most important aspects of the reactions to the Imus firestorm. Perhaps the essay might take off from one of the comments quoted in the readings.
 

For inquiry

Have students frame a carefully worded question to guide an inquiry into one of the following subjects either independently or in a small group.

1. Rap lyrics, "South Park," "Borat" or "The Ali G Show," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Big Brother" or some other reality show

2. Race as "the explosive dividing line of American society"

3. Sexism, homophobia, hatred of Muslims

4. Ann Coulter, Snoopy Doggy Dogg, General Peter Pace, Larry David, Sasha Cohen

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org