This time, even Don Imus’ loyal listeners couldn’t save him. As the old adage goes, “there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip.” In this case, it was an aging radio shock jock who had probably been around the same block too many times.
Like most national media firestorms, this one started with an inflammatory comment that should have never been made. When Imus said the Rutgers women’s basketball team “had tattoos and was a bunch of nappy-headed hos” the outrage began and continued unabated for more than a week.
Initially, Imus acted out a script right from the crisis communications playbook. He apologized on the air. He made himself available for interviews with major media outlets so he could apologize again. He apologized on the Today Show. He went on Al Sharpton’s radio talk show to confront the racist issue and, what else, apologize again. He then offered to meet with the Rutgers coaches and players in private, which he did on the same day he was fired.
Despite all the mea culpas, there were early signs that, this time, genuflecting before the national altar of public repentance was not going to work. The shouting was just too loud.
Public Image Counts
Sponsors of shows like Imus’ are often careful not to stifle the talent or try to dictate editorial content. After all, if you handcuff the host and take away the entertainment value, the program becomes just like any other talk show. That can actually hurt ratings.
To be fair, Imus has a soft side. He has demonstrated a consistent commitment to raise funds for charity and donate his time to good causes. Each year, more than 100 sick children are brought to his ranch for visits hosted by him and his wife. Ironically, his last day on the air was devoted to a charity radio-a-thon.
Exactly one week after the on-air gaffe, MSNBC announced it was dropping Imus’ morning program after a succession of advertisers suspended sponsorship of his cable TV simulcast.
The pressure on MSNBC was building after seven major advertisers – including top sponsors Sprint Nextel Corp. and GM – dropped their ads for the show. Imus has also lost ad support from American Express, Procter & Gamble, Bigelow Tea, Staples Inc., and drug maker GlaxoSmithKline.
Jeannie Tharrington, a spokesperson for Procter & Gamble seemed to have it right when she told The New York Times: “We have to first think about our consumers. So anyplace where our advertising appears that is offensive to our consumers is not acceptable to us.”
On day eight of the simmering controversy, CBS radio announced it was canceling Imus’ nationally syndicated show, which had been a long-running mix of tasteless rhetoric and political commentary.
Initially, Leslie Moonves, CBS president and CEO, suspended Imus’ show for two weeks. In the end, the rising tide was simply too much even for an industry tough guy like Moonves (his company also owns the MTV and BET cable networks).
Money or Morality
Imus’ program, which drew an estimated two million viewers and listeners each day, had become a cash cow for his bosses. It was reported that his program generated in excess of $20 million in annual revenue for CBS Radio and the flagship New York radio station, WFAN. The press also reported that when ad revenue for affiliates and MSNBC were figured in, the amount exceeded $50 million.
One could argue that, at the beginning, his bosses at CBS actually gave him a break. Why wait to suspend him? Why wasn’t he taken off the air immediately? By allowing him to remain on the air for several days after the derogatory, racist remark, he had a chance to defend himself and seek whatever sympathy he could muster.
In my view, we continue to witness episodes like this because the institutions that enable this type of behavior refuse to take stock of their moral compass.
Look at the major organizations involved in Imus’ show: CBS Radio produced it. WFAN in New York City was the flagship station. Westwood One nationally syndicated the show. MSNBC simulcasted the show on its cable channel, and MSNBC is part of NBC Universal, which is owned by the conglomerate General Electric Co.
Every entity involved here should rethink what type of shows it puts on the air and the quality of the people it hires. By creating the forum, the enablers have allowed Imus and others to become iconoclastic, irreverent symbols of political incorrectness.
Shock jocks, in particular, are bred to be rude, inconsiderate, arrogant, egotistical, crass and bitter. They’ve typically survived by taking cheap shots at politicians, entertainers, athletes and dozens of others in the public eye.
Imus is not alone in this category. Names like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Howard Stern, Ann Coulter, Al Sharpton, Opie and Anthony, Jessie Jackson, and Doug “Greaseman” Tracht come to mind.
While many of the targets have bulls eyes painted on their heads because of who they are, people like the young, high-achieving student female athletes on the Rutgers basketball team did not deserve to be made fun of by an over-the-hill jock who liked to pick the bones of his victims clean.
We can agree that free speech is a fundamental right of all Americans. However, for someone like Imus, who has a national platform, using the public airwaves to impose his outrageous and twisted views on his listeners crossed the lines of fairness, taste, propriety, and common sense.
Maybe this episode will make institutions think twice about creating programming and promoting people who make a living by offending others.