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Some claim the firing of Don Imus by MSNBC is a free speech issue.
It’s not. Free speech has nothing to do with whether or not Imus lost his job with the cable news channel and it will have nothing to with the final CBS Radio decision on his future.
Free speech is a right that a government can or cannot grant.
Free speech is not about the right of a highly-paid shock jock can go on the air on someone else’s dime and say whatever he pleases without having to worry about risks.
Don Imus is an employee of a broadcast network – a commercial property that expects its on-air personalities to make money for his employer. When that employee’s actions threaten the income or the reputation of his employer he should expect to be disciplined and perhaps fired.
The white haired man who looks like your grandfather and greets people at the local Wal-Mart isn’t there to tell people they should shop at Target. If he did, he’d be out of a job.
Likewise, the sales clerk at Macys wouldn’t stay in her job for long if she called customers “idiots” or “fat slobs.”
Imus knew the limits. He ignored them on more than one occasion. When MSNBC told him of their decision to take him off the air immediately he said he expected the decision. His friends say he expects CBS to fire him as well.
Whether you agree with the decision to take Imus off the air or not it is a decision that his employers have every right to make. In 24 hours, his show lost a half-dozen major advertisers. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann went to his boss and said Imus had to go. At NBC, the Today Show’s Al Roker said the same thing. So, apparently, did dozens of other employees of the networks.
When employees get into trouble, their fellow employees can either go to bat for them or help them out the door. Some of Imus’s fellow employees at MSNBC lost respect for him long before his racial and sexist slurs of the Rutger’s woman’s basketball team. This latest incident just gave them more ammunition.
Employees have the right to complain to their bosses about a problem in their midst. Listeners and viewers have the right to not only complain but also to boycott the advertisers who support someone they believe crosses the line. The right to protest is an exercise of free speech.
The government did not order MSNBC to take Imus off their air. The Federal Communications Commission did not threaten the network with sanctions if they didn’t get rid of him. If they had, that might have qualified as censorship.
On the flip side, had MSNBC decided it was worth the risk to ratings, reputation and ad revenue to keep Imus on the air, they had the right to do so as well. To employ or not to employ Imus is an exercise the network’s right of free speech.
As Americans, we have the right to watch or not watch MSNBC based on their choices in programming and the news personalities they employ. That’s our choice in a free society.
I wasn’t a regular listener or viewer of Don Imus. I wrote earlier this week that he might deserve a second chance because he appeared contrite and seemed to recognize the gravity of his mistakes. But as I watched his broadcasts for the first three days of the week, I found his groveling contrived, his multiple apologies increasingly unconvincing and his rationalizations arrogantly shrill.
As others documented his past use of racist, sexist and homophobic terms, I realized he has had one chance too many to repent. When the MSNBC came down Wednesday, I felt the network had taken the right step.
Had MSNBC decided to keep Imus, it would have been my right to stop watching the network because I didn’t care for its choice in on-air personalities.
That’s called freedom of choice. Like freedom of speech, it’s a right we enjoy in this country.