Imus in the Hornet's Nest
April 11, 2007, 5:42 pm
Don Imus must feel as if he has been run over by a cement truck, which then reversed and backed over him.
It’s probably true that the women on the Rutgers basketball team are not Imus fans and, as he says, they probably didn’t know who he is. It would be interesting to know exactly how the ladies got the bad news. Did someone say, for example, “A broadcaster announced on the air that you have undesirable ethnic hairdos and that you are prostitutes”?
Imus claims he doesn’t know how this happened and brought the ceiling down on him. As one who has had many opportunities to misspeak and to offend — and has taken them — I know how he feels. Much of the show’s appeal has to do with the entertaining danger in watching Imus and his colleagues dance on “the line” and sometimes on either side of it. This time he stepped off the starboard side onto a hornets’ nest, to mix metaphors.
Is there not a sort of a conundrum in everyone’s agreeing that the words are horrible, and not fit to be broadcast or heard — and then hearing them re-aired every 20 minutes on most TV channels? Not even euphemizing the H-word. Some of the seeming astonishment expressed about how well-spoken, attractive, articulate and self-possessed the basketball players are — all true — at times bordered a bit uncomfortably on Obama’s being called (surprisingly?) “articulate” and “clean.”
Would a white team be surprisingly articulate?
I don’t know all the questions to be asked about this. Some of them would be: Who said the words? What was the context? How damaging were the words meant to be, and how damaging were they in fact? What is known of the speaker? Is he a racist? Does he discriminate against black people? Has he ever done anything good for them?
It has reminded me of a hilarious old black comic I saw once at the Apollo Theater — the best house for comedy. In style, he affected lack of education and worked in dialect. “White folks sometimes seem amazed to see us folks can stand up on our hind legs.” (Audience giggles.) “And SPEAK.” (Big laugh.) “Sometimes I think they gonna offer me a dog biscuit.” (Pandemonium.)
At such times as this, the camera-shy reverend Al Sharpton can be counted on to pop up, this time in Draconian mode. He wants Imus out, gone, the show canceled and Imus dead, professionally at least.
Hold on a minute, Your Amplitude.
Millions like this show. All kinds of people, from college professors to firemen to actors, writers and — I’m told even G.I.’s in beds who have survived both Iraq and Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Nobody in his right mind defends what Imus said. Certainly not Imus. For decades, he has been an equal-opportunity offender. For many the combination of this style plus his contrasting high-quality guest list add up to the program’s quirky appeal. But it was inevitable that one day, as just happened, a land mine was stepped on by the risk-taking host. It shouldn’t be confused with Hiroshima.
Imus retooled his show and himself from an earlier persona, making it a program that welcomes a who’s who of guests. This very upgrading makes the blunder stand out in starker contrast than it would if his show were solely goofball, escapist entertainment.
I’ve noticed over the years that the hate-mail, get-’em-off-the-air crowd always tries to constitute itself as a pressure group that will “write to all your sponsors.” They want to not just get you off the air but — to savor the full enjoyment — bring you to your knees financially. In rare cases where they have succeeded, the health of their target has been destroyed. This is what that old bag Lillian Hellmann did to Mary McCarthy.
But Imus, I’m sure, has a shekel or two stashed away in case he were bounced or just decided to chuck it. He is a reader and would not be at a loss to fill his new free hours.
What is Donald Imus really like? I appear on his show sometimes, but I don’t pretend to know what all is concealed by the mask he works behind as an entertainer. He appears to be white, gentile and a family man. He’s a skilled conversationalist, an experienced broadcaster, a wry humorist and, lest we forget, an authentic philanthropist.
In addition, he belongs to a few minorities himself. He is a blonde, a genuine cowboy, a recognized bugler and one of three people in the media who pronounces both C’s in arctic.
The final irony of all this is that when the suffering is past, good is likely to come of it. But if you change, Donald, don’t throw away all of the old Imus. We don’t want you to come back as Pat Boone.