On April 4, 2007, signing off his CBS morning radio program, popular “shock jock” Don Imus apparently had no idea that he had just incited a firestorm of controversy. A cross between radio/TV shock jock Howard Stern and a bright, hard-driving investigative reporter, Imus often stated that he took special pride in offending everyone. But one typically derogatory remark made on that April day ultimately resulted in his downfall. In an on-air conversation with producer Bernard McGuirk, Imus described the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, which consisted mostly of African American women, as “nappy-headed hos.’
Like other radio talk-show hosts such as Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh, Imus had made a name for himself by being outrageous and making cruel, crude jokes. Audiences apparently loved him, driving his ratings up, which attracted generous sponsors. They could tune in weekdays for a blistering diatribe against politicians, celebrities, athletes, religious groups, and ethnic minorities—no one was safe. Frequent targets were New York Roman Catholic Cardinal John O’Connor (“a vulgar Irishman”) and football players (“knuckle-dragging morons”). A Washington Post reporter and frequent guest was called a “beanie-wearing Jew boy,” and Gwen Ifill, correspondent with the Public Broadcasting Company was the “cleaning lady.” He and his sidekick had shticks playing off one another. (Impersonating poet Maya Angelou, an eloquent and dignified African-American writer, poet, and playwright, producer and sidekick McGuirk spoke in a lazy southern drawl, saying they should “kiss my big black ass.”)
But “Imus in the Morning” was a major draw for guests as well as listeners. Guests were alternately flattered and ridiculed, but they were willing to put up with this trash talk because Imus gave them an opportunity to talk about political and global issues important to them. Journalists, authors, and politicians earned a kind of cachet for visiting the show, and every appearance boosted their celebrity status and helped put their books on best-seller lists.
No one might have noticed the remark about the Rutgers team if it had not been for a media-watch group called Media Matters for America. The group posted a recording of the remark on its Web site and on You Tube and notified civil rights and women’s groups via e-mail. After the story was e-mailed to the National Association of Black Journalists, the association demanded an apology, then demanded that Imus be fired. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) denounced him. National Organization for Women (NOW) encouraged its members to e-mail CBS, MSNBC, and individual radio stations with the message, “Dump Don.’
At first, the network only suspended the media giant— essentially a slap on the wrist for bad-boy behavior—and Imus dutifully apologized. But when the public outcry continued, NBC executives met with their African American employees via satellite conference to hear their concerns. Al Roker, weatherman on the Today television show, was particularly outspoken: “That could have been my daughter Imus was joking about” (Kosova 2007, p. 24). The last straw for network executives was the withdrawal of support for the show from advertisers. Eight days after Imus made the racial/sexist remarks, he was fired.
Weeks were spent debating the issues in the media. Imus was criticized for using racially and sexually demeaning language—for criticizing decent, hard-working young scholar-athletes who had done nothing wrong. Some claimed a white male had no right to use those racial terms. Others countered that those words were standard fare for hip-hop rappers and black comedians, and they decried the double standard. Noted black journalist Bill Maxwell wrote that, with their acceptance of a gangsta rap music that insults black people, African Americans “have only ourselves to blame for the mainstreaming of “nappyheaded hos.’” (Maxwell 2007, p. 3P). There was debate over whether the comments were primarily racial or gender slurs. Many defended Imus by calling up the tenets of freedom of speech, stirring up fears of media censorship.
Up to that point, criticism of the black cultural phenomenon, hip-hop, had been largely ignored. The Reverend Al Sharpton was one early critic, but most considered such trash talk in black music to be simply part of the act. TV talk-show host Oprah Winfrey dedicated two hours to the issue. Black women professionals began to speak out against rappers” derogatory behavior toward women, and a few rap executives and rappers seemed ready to change. Months after the incident, it seemed as though the Imus affair would blow over with time. Imus and his supporters insisted he will be brought back to radio. Imus was still popular and had brought in millions of advertising dollars to the networks. As Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said pointedly, the affair was not about the color black or the color white—it was about the color green.
Hate talk over the airways and racial slurs by celebrities are nothing new. In the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin, the so-called father of talk radio, routinely made anti-Semitic remarks in his American broad-casts—this in a climate of growing Nazism in Europe— often inciting violence against Jews. With the 1960s civil rights movement, the era of “political correctness” toned down bigoted comments, at least in public. The Fairness Doctrine of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission mandated that stations give airtime to opposing political views, effectively cutting off much divisive talk. But when that law was abolished in 1987, trash talk began to take off.
Broadcasters reacted in different ways to public complaints as talk-show hosts grew bolder. Howard Stern’s career took off in the mid-1980s, although he was once fired from NBC radio for a “Bestiality Dial-A-Date” sketch. In the early 1990s in New York, a black-owned radio station was told to stop letting callers and guests make anti-Semitic and other racist remarks. For years, noted talk-show personality Bob Grant regularly targeted liberals, civil rights workers, and African Americans. He called then-president Bill Clinton a “sleazebag,” Martin Luther King Jr., a “scumbag,” a NOW president an “ugly dyke,” and black mayor David Dinkins a “wash-room attendant.” In 1996, Grant went too far: He was fired for his tasteless sarcasm regarding the air-crash death of black U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown. But in the press Grant was considered a “consummate show-man,” “a man of wit and erudition.” He had a million listeners every week and, at that time, generated around $7 million annually for his radio station. Within weeks of Grant’s firing, he was hired at another New York radio station where he was treated as a superstar.
Celebrities caught making racial comments on- or off-air became a regular news item with their public apologies. White actor Ted Danson, known for the TV show Cheers, made racial jokes in blackface at a 1993 banquet and had to apologize, even though his then girlfriend, black comedian Whoopi Goldberg, claimed she had written the skit. In 2007, Michael Richards, from the TV show Seinfeld, shouted the word “nigger” and other epithets to a surly audience during a comedy routine. That same year, actor/director Mel Gibson, known for his academy-award winning movie Braveheart and the critically acclaimed The Passion of the Christ, railed against the “f—-ing Jews” when pulled over for drunk driving.
In the immediate wake of the Imus affair, a few other “shock jocks” were suspended or fired for racist or sexist jokes, including JV and Elvis in New York for their slurs against Asian Americans, and Gregg Hughes and Anthony Cumia for “jokes” about raping black Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Disc jockey Luis Jiménez of Univision Radio sparked controversy for reportedly making homophobic comments on his radio talk show. But “shock jocks” are, as the term indicates, supposed to be shocking and outrageous. In his own defense, Imus claims that controversy—tasteless humor and all—was what he was hired to promote, and he hired a lawyer to sue the networks for breach of contract.
In the twenty-first century, North American societies tend to be multicultural and diverse, and once-taboo subjects can be discussed frankly. Despite freedom of speech, most people believe that there is a line between talk that is acceptable and talk that is not. Society tends to accept profanity when it is used for socially redeeming purposes. Social critics such as the late black comic Dick Gregory used language that was intended to make people uncomfortable and make them think. Lenny Bruce, a white comic and satirist repeatedly arrested in the 1950s and 1960s for using profanity in his performances, wanted to repeat the “N word” over and over until it had no meaning. The difference between acceptable and unacceptable use of language is defined by some as a matter of hostility—whether given with a smile or not, the difference is between social critique and cruelty.
The issue is complex. Fear of censorship and loss of free speech are real concerns of U.S. citizens. But in an increasingly uncivil society where name-calling, racism, homophobia, and misogyny are the norm, there are increasing calls for government intervention, such as a return of the Fairness Doctrine—a real fear of radio executives supervising talk shows.
In the case of restraining the trash talk and bigotry of talk-show hosts, it appears that corporate profits make the difference. Tasteless humor, it seems, is lucrative. The media caved in to criticism of Imus, but his firing came only after advertisers such as General Motors and American Express pulled their ads from the show. Adweek magazine claimed that advertisers never intended to kill Imus’s show and they are amenable to sponsoring him again. With an annual sum of $11 million taken by Imus’s radio station owners, $33 million for MSNBC on which the show was simulcast, and $15–$20 million for CBS Radio, the name Imus meant high profits. Perhaps Don Imus will be able to put this episode behind him and follow the path of the once-fired Bob Grant, the talk host who made a quick comeback and still regularly appears on New York radio. Ranked as one of the greatest talk-show hosts of all time, Grant proved to be a major influence on the careers of many current high-profile shock jocks.
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Fish, Stanley. 1994. There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 1994. Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex: Hate Speech, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. New York: New York University Press.
Kennedy, Randall. 2002. Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. New York: Pantheon.
Kosova, Weston. 2007. “The Power That Was.” Newsweek April 23: 24ff.
Kurtz, Howard. 1996. Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time. New York: Times Books.
Maxwell, Bill. 2007. “Black Critics of Imus are Hypocrites.’ St. Petersburg Times: 3P.