Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Don Imus Case: An Ethical Quandary
(4/12/2007; updated 4/13/2007)

Don Imus lost his job because he offhandedly referred to members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed ‘hos.” The controversy is perplexing. The Scoreboard is torn.

Imus, for those of you who live in a Skinner box, is a radio “shock jock” with a satirical twist. Unlike the more viscerally disgusting Howard Stern, he and his on-air cohorts regularly said the nastiest things imaginable about practically everyone in the context of commenting on politics, entertainment, and sports news. Occasionally the banter was witty or amusing, but often it was just mean. The names of prominent and accomplished men that Imus has referred to as “fat morons,” “bald-headed weasels” or “lying drunks” would fill a fairly large book. So would the names of the women he has designated as “big-mouthed dykes” and “slutty skanks.” Imus’ tasteless and repetitive (and annoyingly self-laudatory) shtick has won him legions of fans and a slate of distinguished guests from the world of politics and journalism, including Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Tim Russert, Chris Matthews, and others.

The Scoreboard is great supporter of no-holds barred satire and humor, which requires free reign. On the other hand, it regards gratuitous meanness and nasty insults based on physical characteristics as pointless verbal assault, and this is unethical. Some people enjoy hearing radio personalities insult individuals they don’t like even when the insults have all the accumulated wit of a knife fight. That doesn’t make it right. Enough people enjoyed it that Imus made millions for himself and CBS, his employer, doing this every day, and that didn’t make it right, either.

Yet Imus, Stern, other shock jocks like “Opie and Anthony” and nasty political performance artists like Ann Coulter perform an underappreciated service by manning the outer reaches of First Amendment speech and public discourse. They make it safe for others who do not come so close to crossing the line, like comics Whoopie Goldberg, Lewis Black, and Chris Rock. If those who were genuinesly offended by Imus’ comments when he barreled over the line of “acceptable outrageous discourse”—whatever it is—can silence him permanently, it is no great loss to the world of entertainment. But Whoopie, Chris and Lewis are next. They will inevitably cross the new, less tolerant indefinable line, and censors will get them too.

The reason this process will not end with Imus is that the social censors don’t really care about what is said on TV or the airwaves. They care about magnifying the perception of their own power. There are aggressive segments in all minority groups who believe their group should be uniquely immune from all barbed humor, satire, and criticism, and that politicians, performers, writers, educators, sociologists and humorists ought to be on notice that to communicate anything but praise or sympathize risks career destruction. It is a strategy of social control through fear and intimidation.

The tactic works extremely well on corporations, politicians and celebrities. Mars pulled its funny Snickers ad in which two auto-mechanics inadvertently kissed, not because the commercial itself was homophobic as gay groups claimed (it wasn’t). but because the company didn’t want the negative publicity. CBS (and MSNBC, which simulcasts Imus’ show on cable television) have been happy to make money out of Imus’ meanness, but once sponsors began dropping, concludede that they could no longer afford the organized protests sparked by the latest outbreak of racist and sexist trash talk that periodically infected his broadcasts. That’s the way corporations are. Anyone who thinks CBS or MSNBC would have dropped Imus without the financial pressure is living in Oz.

The classic argument against pulling the plug on a show like “Imus in the Morning” is that the simple remedy for those offended is not to listen. Indeed, the people offended by Imus didn’t listen, and the people who did, while often recognizing that Imus and his gang often went too far with a particular spontaneous comment, listened because he was offensive. The exception to this dichotomy is the group of people who monitored Imus hoping that he would say something offensive so they could use it to go after him and get publicity for themselves and their causes. Since one cannot be simultaneously offended and glad to be offended, it is not accurate to say that Imus harmed such people. [It is tempting to argue that Imus’ cruel words would have never reached the ears of the basketball players if the “offended” listeners hadn’t made sure that the slur was communicated to them, and that it is the women’s defenders, not Imus, who delivered the harm. Resist the temptation. A public broadcast carries responsibilities. We cannot pretend that a syndicated radio show is like a the gathering of a public club.]

The counter-argument is that Imus’ line-crossing comments are intolerable in a society wrestling with the consequences of bigotry, hate and discrimination, and that shunning by the public, sponsors and the once-eager celebrities who used his show to sell their books, platforms and TV shows is a responsible and appropriate response.

Let us work up to a Scoreboard verdict in the manner of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof…

  • On one hand, it is unfair to shock jocks like Imus to pay them and profit from them precisely because they are spontaneous and outrageous, and then to react with horror when they miscalculate in a spur of the moment exchange. It’s a high wire act, and falling is inevitable.

    On the other hand, Imus’ attack was undeniably a racial slur, and aimed at young college athletes who, unlike his usual celebrity targets, neither did anything to prompt them nor were accustomed to being attacked. It was a mean spirited sucker-punch delivered to innocents. Cruel and unfair…to them.
  • On one hand, stifling speech of any kind is abhorrent to the nation’s values. Censorship is a slippery slope.

    On the other, hateful, racist speech exacerbates the racial divide in America and needs to be discouraged.
  • On one hand, many of those leading the charge against Imus, like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, are rank hypocrites who make their living exploiting white guilt and fear of being called racists. Both Jackson and Sharpton have had their own episodes of racist speech.

    On the other, just because Jackson and Sharpton are race-hustlers doesn’t mean they are always wrong. In this case, they had a point.
  • On one hand, Imus’ inevitable forays into gratuitous abuse of minorities presented an excellent opportunity for public debate and exploration of the complex relationship between free speech, entertainment, unpopular ideas and unacceptable conduct.

    On the other…but there is no other hand!

Imus should not have been fired, though he undoubtedly committed an offense worthy of firing. He should have been, and was, excoriated, suspended, punished and condemned. He was right to the young women he insulted, and he must learn that attacking people who have done nothing wrong and who do not live in the public eye is a miserable thing to do that cannot be justified by the pursuit of cheap laughs. But the loss to freedom of discourse and diversity of ideas that is likely to issue from his firing is too great. Not because we need Don Imus; we certainly don’t. What we do need is a culture that listens before it condemns, and where debate, rather than suppression, is the remedy for bad manners, bad language, bad comedy and bad attitudes. It is far better to have people say the occasional offensive comment than to have them terrified of speaking. The political correctness advocates taking high-fives for Imus’ demise will see Rosie O’Donnell go next, as the culture wars continue. Before it’s all over, if it ever is, nobody more daring than Larry King may be left on the airwaves.

That is far too high a price to pay to avoid an occasional offensive comment from a shock jock.

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