In February 1999 Washington shock jock Doug Tracht brought his radio career crashing down when he commented about a song by black singer Lauryn Hill by saying “no wonder they drag them behind trucks,” a reference to the brutal murder of James Byrd by two white supremacists who killed the black man by dragging him behind a pickup.
Within 48 hours, Tracht – known as The Greaseman – found himself off the air, fired from endorsement gigs and an relieved of his duties as a voluntary deputy sheriff in Falls Church, VA.
It took years for Tracht to find another radio gig. He finally resurfaced on AM radio in Washington – a far cry from the days when Infinity radio broadcast him nationwide and paid him more than a million dollars a year.
Tracht went on what cynics called “an apology tour,” appearing with black leaders and ministers.” The apologies didn’t work.
It wasn’t the first time Tracht got into trouble for letting his mouth outrun his brain. On Martin Luther King’s birthday a few years earlier he wondered on air about “how many black civil rights leaders do we have to kill to get the whole week off.” That “slip of the tongue” cost him a suspension.
Tracht’s fast-talking repartee is part of his on air persona. Out of the studio the soft-spoken Tracht is nothing like The Greaseman. Close friends say he isn’t racist but does have a tendency to go over the top and says things for shock value – the modus operandi for a “shock jock.”
I don’t care for shock jocks and don’t waste my time listening to them. But I felt Tracht’s punishment went over the top just like his radio style.
I thought about Doug Tracht this weekend while reading and watching the uproar over another shock-jock — Don Imus (right) – and his poorly-chosen comments that the girls’ Rutgers basketball team was a collection of “nappy haired hos.”
The comments brought quick condemnations from black leaders and calls for his firing from the morning talk show he has hosted for 30 years.
“We were kidding around, but that doesn’t change it. That doesn’t make it any less repugnant,” Imus said Monday on his radio program, which is also simulcast on MSNBC. “I’m not a bad person. I’m a good person, but I said a bad thing. But these young women deserve to know it was not said with malice.”
Imus planned to appear later today on The Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio program today even though Sharpton is not backing down from his demand that CBS, which owns the radio station that hosts Imus’s program, and MSNBC fire him.
“Somewhere we must draw the line in what is tolerable in mainstream media,” Sharpton said Sunday. “We cannot keep going through offending us and then apologizing and then acting like it never happened. Somewhere we’ve got to stop this.”
Other black leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, have joined the chorus of calls for Imus’s ouster.
Imus has also asked to meet with the Rutgers players, their parents and the coaches.
“This is not going to be easy,” he said on his show Monday. “I’m not looking for it to be easy.”
When Doug Tracht was fired in 1999, some of his defenders wanted to know why he lost his job when other shock jocks like Howard Stern and Imus also have a history of uttering racist comments.
Stern has been suspended and fined for his comments, mostly those along sexual lines, but he left commercial radio for the censor-free haven of satellite broadcasting.
Imus has faced criticism before but escaped punishment. Some say it is because of his ratings and his powerful friends in political and broadcast circles – most of whom are regular guests.
But it is more than that. Imus can be crude and rude but he is that way with everybody. His gig is insulting people. He calls guests “idiots” and makes fun of religion, minorities and pompous politicians. No one escapes his wrath when he’s on a roll.
Like Tracht, Imus’s on air persona is just that – a persona. Off the air he devotes countless hours to helping raise money for children battling cancer, research in Sudden Death Infant Syndrome and other causes. His ranch in New Mexico, built largely through contributions from major corporations and promoted constantly on his radio show, provides a recreational environment for children with cancer.
This doesn’t excuse what he said and he admits that his comments were “stupid, disgusting and wrong.” He pledged Monday to make changes in his show’s format to reduce the level of insults.
He made a mistake, but so did Jesse Jackson when he called a area where Jews lived “hymietown.” Al Sharpton has called whites “honkies” and once said that most Southerners are “just a bunch of red-neck crackers who get drunk and kill black people.”
Racism is not limited to whites. Bigotry crosses ethnic boundaries.
Stupidity is universal. Forgiveness should be as well.
Let’s hope Don Imus learns from his mistakes and those who want his head on a platter give him a chance to prove he does.