Crossing the line one time too many

Part of what strikes you about Don Imus and the racial, sexist insult that ended his career is that he has been known as a “good” shock jock whose verbal barbarities stand in line behind his charitable fund-raising and serious political interviews.

Go back a bit, and there’s Time magazine proclaiming him one of the 25 most influential people in America. The publication quotes Maureen Dowd of The New York Times as saying he has “read everything, and he gets to the heart of everything.” He was someone, said Time, who translated “stodgy politics into vital popular culture.”

It is no small thing that Imus has raised millions of dollars for causes such as his New Mexico ranch for children with cancer. If you want to keep up with Washington, I was advised while living there, you have to tune into his “Imus in the Morning” drive-time broadcasts out of New York. His guests have included the likes of Cokie Roberts, Tim Russert, Al Gore, John McCain and, when he was running for president, Bill Clinton.

But Clinton was later to get an in-your-face look at the Imus crudity recently put on center stage by his remark that the players on the Rutgers women’s basketball squad were “nappy-headed hos.” At the 1996 Radio and Television Correspondents dinner in Washington, while Bill and Hillary sat nearby, Imus used his role as the evening’s speaker to joke about the president’s rumored extramarital adventures and the first lady’s alleged illegalities. He also got laughs at the expense of Newt Gingrich’s lesbian half-sister and then-Sen. Bob Kerrey’s artificial leg.

As rowdiness goes, this was just a hint of what usually comes with Imus. When Christine Todd Whitman was governor of New Jersey, Imus asked her to reveal her bra size. He spoke of the PBS journalist Gwen Ifill as “a cleaning lady.” He pokes unfriendly fun at gays. He has called Arabs “ragheads.”

Reports note that his anti-Semitic mouthings have included calling the Simon & Schuster book publishers “thieving Jews.” He once called Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post’s media columnist, a “beanie-wearing little Jew boy.” By one account, Kurtz was nonchalant. “While Imus sometimes goes over the line, most listeners understand that he is in the satire game, and that makes all the difference,” he said.

Sorry, but satire is defined as using mockery and other devices to reveal and censure hypocrisy, vice and vacuousness, and here is the question: Does anyone honestly think that these Imus slurs are meant to make us spot and condemn bigotry? Don’t we all know they are actually instances of offensiveness meant to attract and titillate large audiences, and that a consequence may be to encourage bigotry, or at least make it seem OK?

Outrageousness that must constantly outdo itself is the speciality of shock jocks, and Howard Stern, the unruliest shock jock of them all, said no apologies were necessary for Imus’ latest racial insult. Imus, he said, should tell critics, “(Expletive) you, it’s a joke.” Imus himself once told a TV interviewer that people disturbed by his style should “get over it.” This time out, things were different: A seeming army came at him, his future was at stake and this ex-Marine tough guy apologized at length, emotionally and even to the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Sharpton, whose own anti-Semitic yelping is well-known, had no moral standing in urging that Imus be fired. But Sharpton was not the issue, and neither was political correctness of the indefensible kind that caused CBS to boot the late Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder for innocently theorizing about blacks being exceptional athletes. Given his record, Imus was well aware of what he was doing, and simply didn’t give a hoot as long as his 10 million listeners stayed on board this multimillion-dollar enterprise with 90 radio stations and a TV simulcast.

This 1989 inductee of the Radio Hall of Fame had crawled back from crisis before — from alcoholism and drug addiction — but not this time. MSNBC dropped the simulcast and CBS has canceled the radio show. What once worked for Imus ultimately worked against him, the sponsors and CBS, and no matter what anyone makes of his virtues, he learned the hard way that the only good shock jock is one who sheds the shock.


(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)