Imus on the rocks
Don Imus has never been on the radio in Lubbock, but I've been watching him on cable since his first broadcast on C-Span. Don has always played close to the line, but now he has apparently stepped over it. After watching Imus denigrate Jews, blacks, Catholics, and women for years, I didn't think last week's comments were that unusual — I think the line moved.
Imus has been spewing stuff like this since the 70s, but it wasn't worth a suspension until Al Sharpton noticed.
My first memory of Imus is from an awkward pre-show broadcast on C-Span — Imus with his infamous jean jacket and bushy hair, arranging bottles of salsa for the camera. That's the truth of him, I think. Imus is the ultimate pitchman, the ultimate promoter. Imus may not have the ratings that Howard Stern has, but he speaks to an audience of alpha consumers.
Anonymous sources say he brings in $50 million for CBS and MSNBC. For years, he's been safe as long as he brings the money in, but now he's bleeding advertisers, and his critics are starting to pile on.
Imus has weathered publicity storms before, but when the nicest guy in network weather starts taking shots at you, you've probably gone too far.
Imus has gone to extraordinary lengths to apologize and save his brand — taking his medicine, first on Sharpton's radio show, and later in a private meeting with Rutgers players. These apologies sound desperate and out of character to me. Howard Stern put his finger on it. “He's apologizing like a guy who got his first broadcasting job,” Stern said. “He should have said, (expletive) you, it's a joke.' “
That's the crux of the matter to me. These comments are blowing up in his face because Imus can't decide what he is. Is he a foul-mouthed shock jock, enjoying the same leeway that we give to Howard Stern? Or is he a serious commentator, playing host to news anchors and presidential candidates?
I watched Imus because I loved his guests. I love Tom Brokaw. I love David Gregory. I love Tim Russert and Jeff Greenfield. I loved watching him put the screws to George Bush and John Kerry. I loved watching him interview academics and clergy and a hundred other people who were too smart for TV. And let's face it, the Imus program is about the last place on Earth where you can sell a book. Oprah is there to pitch self-help and melodrama to housewives, but where will the rest of us go?
The shock jock bits were filler — light-hearted time-wasters, designed to fill the gaps until he could introduce the next superstar guest. Now the filler has taken center stage, and the show's contradictions have finally caught up with it. Even if he survives this controversy, the Imus program will never be the same.
Maybe it'll be better. Maybe he'll diversify the guest list and make Bernard keep his mouth shut. Maybe he'll finally give up the shock jock routine and focus on news. Or maybe the whole thing will be too much for him, and MSNBC will replace him with a generic talking head.
The show needs to change, but I hope Imus keeps his job. He may be a foul-mouthed jerk, but the alternative is Glenn Beck.
UPDATE 7:40 p.m.: Well, that was quick. MSNBC will no longer simulcast Imus. He still has his radio show (for now) but MSNBC lost some major advertising dollars over this, and money talks.
Imus waited too long to redefine his show, so now his corporate masters have done it for him. If you'd asked me this morning I would have bet on the I-Man surviving this. But now, the pendulum has swung. If CBS suffers the same kind of financial loss that MSNBC just endured, the radio show is toast.
A victory for the forces of decency and tact, and sadly, another victory for bland, sanitized news programming. But hey, look on the bright side. MSNBC now has three extra hours to talk about Anna Nicole Smith.
UPDATE 4-12: CBS just fired Imus.