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The Imus incident is not about black or female but about green.
The issue here is money, ratings, controversy and fame. When money is involved, corporate media rarely deliver proper responses. Why should anyone expect that it in this case?
I’ll leave it to greater (and lesser) minds to decide whether radio shock jock Don Imus should be fired for referring to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy headed hos” on his show last week because they lost the national championship game to Tennessee. He has since called his comments a “stupid, idiotic mistake.”
When it comes down to it, as long as his ratings are strong (and we’ll see whether they just peak as a result of this week’s massive publicity, or wither over the long haul) firing won’t even be seriously discussed by network brass. Yes, several major sponsors of his cable show, Staples Inc., Procter & Gamble Co. and Bigelow Tea, have pulled their ads due to Imus’ comments. How long will it take them to return? Or will they never return? That’s a highly dubious proposition.
The sad truth is hypocrisy abounds on both sides when the question is whether to ban sexist and racial slurs on mainstream media. On the pro side, I’d love to see a self-imposed code of conduct for media denizens that banished use of derogatory terms against women, minorities, men, the disabled and so on. Maybe Imus’ firing would involuntarily shove such a code into effect.
But then again, who believes Howard Stern is going to neuter his offensive “shtick” just because Don Imus gets fired? And would it matter to either of these guys or to their voluminous progeny on local talk radio if they were fired, given the size of their personal fortunes? And wouldn’t either of them end up with an even more successful syndicated TV show (or am I getting just a bit too cynical here?)
Advertisers who put any money behind such programs, whether they pull support during tough times or not, are encouraging unacceptable behavior. But unacceptable behavior sparks controversy and controversy sparks ratings. Look at archconservative Ann Coulter. She’d be a no-name except for voicing outrageous, unacceptable sentiments. Doing so sells books and TV appearances and highly paid speaking engagements. So if advertisers really wanted to help ban unacceptable behavior from the airwaves, they would pull all ads from BET (for showing sexist, racist hip hop music videos), all cable networks that show sexually and racially degrading dating and reality shows. The problem is, those shows are where the ratings are.
On the con side, there’s the “everybody’s doing it” excuse. And it’s true. There is all-too-much infotainment on radio, TV and the Internet disguised as quasi-news (Imus does, after all, talk politics and interview politicians regularly) that debases women and contains racist content. But some of that content is participated in by members of the groups being denigrated. Why should Imus have to stop using the term “ho” if black female artists appear in hip hop music videos in scanty outfits with hips rotating to the point of frenzy?
Let’s hope this incident serves as a turning point that at minimum turns down the volume on abusive, degrading content in mainstream media. A person can always hope. But up against the forces of money, mass marketing and ratings, hope isn’t much of a weapon or a shield.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)