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)


  1. Sandy Price

    handle his insults at the time they were being used against Imus. Oh, no! he waiting until Imus was groveling in the dirt before Sharpton and Jackson and then let loose his opinions.

    It worked Mr. Ambrose and the Don Imus that we all knew, is nothing but an evil racist. Take a number and keep striking out against him.

    This will continue until November 2008 when all Americans will be emotionally back to the racism fights. I’m embarrassed to be an American at this time and feel we are beyond help. I am not a racist and both my daughters are married to wonderful Jewish men who are absolutely able to laugh with Imus. The next time you are offended by someone’s comments, strike at them and not wait until they are on their knees.

  2. Ross

    Can I ask you all something? Is there a single decent thing on television? Isn’t it all about hate, anger, humiliation, all the worst things about human beings, magnified, glorified, and packaged and sold to us as though it were life itself?

    TV is scum. The people on TV are scum. The people who watch TV (of which on occasion I am one)soak their brains with the worst forms of discourse and are shown that the worst ways to treat another human being are in fact the most desirable and respectable.

    Someone who devours a penis for money needs psychological help. People who vote for singing contests, but do nothing as real elections are destroyed, are not real Americans. Creativity is killed, and the human spirit diminished, by this evil contraption that has made its way into the corner of every room of every home.

    Turn the damn thing off, for God’s sake!

  3. Steven Horn

    Imus is off the air, his silly looking hair poking out from beneath his cowboy hat doomed to never grace a television screen again. He “stepped over the line” – apparently an arbitrary line, with no real standards or boundaries, that is defined by who screams the loudest or waggles the biggest finger in the wake of an “offense”.

    Perhaps, just perhaps, the time for being sarcastic, for making light of others problems, for insisting on making distinctions between different “cultures” within the United States has come to an end. Perhaps we’ve grown to the point where we can start to respect each other and ignore the racial divide(s) – rather than accept or exploit them.

    Could it be that we, as a people, have outgrown Howard, Rush, Imus, Jesse and Al, those masters of pointing out our differences and exploiting them to their own devices?

  4. Sonorous Pest

    While at times I have watched the Imus show, I have been struck by the insanity of the people on the show including Imus. Benard, the worst offender and some of Imus’s star butt heads who continue to offend almmost every, one did not strike me as funny, but sick individuals who need to be in Bellview.

    Contessa Brewer was the local target one day, and as she sat in front of Imus and was riddled with insults by Benard and some of Imus’s “talant” I screamed at the TV urging Contessa to get the hell out of there. This was not funny, but insulting, and as I listened to this filth I wondered when the Producers were going to stop this insanity.

    The Rutgers incident brought all of this to a head and eventually Imus was TERMINATED, with the help of Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson, two of the biggest hypocrits in our society. While “Hip Hop” is free to disparage the black community, Jessie and Al stand by and say nothing. They did, however, maintain that they had addressed ths subject of Hip Hop. When did they do this? Did they do it by email or snail mail, I don’t think so. I have never seen or heard either make comments about Hip Hop until the Imus incident when Big Al said he had addressed the problem, BullS**t. I did not see or hear of Jessie Jackson or Al Sharpton marching in front of the HIP HOP group demanding they stop the constant insults against black women and women in general. I do recall the Hip Hop group advocating killing cops, where were Jessie and Al then? These two call themselves ministers, but only at tax time.

  5. Judy Bodnar

    There IS far more to Don Imus than his pomposity and the
    outrageous demeaning remarks he has til now, been guilty of. I don’t know if he can ever rally from the latest spew of demeaning stupidity he uttered (and has always allowed his producer to spew) But I am hoping he can somehow get back on his feet and do what he is capable of doing and reverse what has been a deplorable lack of respect and tolerance of others. There is absolutely no one who could contribute more and I would
    bet on it. But with the public airways rife with the pollution of hate filled, disprespectful, and intolerant messages that have been allowed to flow freely from most the of them…It will be more than a little difficult if not impossible.

  6. Donna

    such will thy affections be esteemed; and such will thy deeds be as thy affections; and such thy life as thy deeds” -Socrates

  7. Roger

    Hypocrisy all the way around in this escapade.

    They claim to be the heirs of Martin Luther King, but act like PT Barnums sidekicks.

    They criticize Imus but make no comments on Rap “artists” who make a living off negative comments on black women specifically. .

    Imus was a stupid old man with evidently a good heart.

    Sharpton / Jackson are just evil. And they call themselves ministers. Of course even Satan keeps transforming himself into an angel of light, per the bible, so it’s no surprise these guys do the same thing.

  8. Boots

    Look here all you hypocrites. What should have been done to Imus and others who go into the deep end of the offensive comedy routines on radio and TV is this. If it is bad enough the FCC steps in, it’s their job to do that, not Al Sharpton’s race mob. Of course the FCC does have a dental problem, very little to no teeth. Congress is their dentist, can you dig? Then there is the big boss man. In Imus’s case MSNBC and the people who own the radio station. They have the power to say slack off or else. Then there’s the market, the people with the ads and the people with the dial at their fingertips or the “clicker” in their hand.

    I’d bet big bucks that the girls basketball team never even heard of Don Imus before they lost that game. I’d bet big bucks they still wish that they had never heard of Don Imus. Good old big mouth Al Sharpton, Mr. Cause and Effect should be his handle from now on. I’d bet good money the Gov. of NJ will be cursing him if he wakes up from the automobile accident. Cause and effect Al. All those charities and kids who go to the Imus Ranch will probably miss all that Imus input. Cause and effect Al. Imus had a history of making off color remarks about everyone and everything, including himself. He also did a lot of good for other people. Al Sharpton has a history of starting riots and backing the wrong horse and hurting people. Al Sharpton doesn’t do a lot of good for even a little bit of people.

    Ain’t this New America great? Personally I think it sucks, big time.