Imus Coverage, Part I
There’s tons and tons of Imus stuff, so I’ll do this in a couple of installments. I heard him briefly on his radio show this morning while driving into work, and he was again apologizing for what he did. (His two-week suspension begins Monday). In a somewhat odd tangent, he noted that his regular sports correspondent, the FAN’s Chris Carlin, is the play-by-play voice for Rutgers football. This, Imus suggested, was another “irony” in this story, because “it’s not as if we don’t have a rooting interest in Rutgers.” But, whether the Imus gang roots for Rutgers football strikes me as having little to nothing to do with whether they would root for women’s basketball, a sport I have never heard them discuss prior to the fateful conversation of a week ago. (And, I do listen fairly regularly, though usually only in 10-15 minutes chunks after I’ve dropped my daughter off at school in the morning).
There are few perspectives worth noting here. First, is William Rhoden’s Monday piece in the New York Times. Imus’ remarks have mostly been framed as a racial issue, and for understandable reasons. But, of course, they weren’t merely racist. They were also sexist. Rhoden’s focus, atypical in the coverage I’ve seen and heard is on the racist AND sexist dimensions of the remarks.
After noting that he happened to be in Chapel Hill last Wednesday talking to a law school class about Title IX and about the gains women have made in collegiate athletics, Rhoden wrote:
“On the day I was speaking in Chapel Hill, Don Imus, the national radio host, referred to the women on the Rutgers basketball team as “nappy-headed ho’s.” The remarks were part of off-handed comments about the N.C.A.A. championship game the night before between Rutgers and Tennessee.
For all the ugliness of the remarks, I’m encouraged by the controversy they’ve unleashed. So many of our young people, especially women, especially African-American women, have been raised in cocoons, led to believe that sexism and racism have significantly subsided. This naïveté is so entrenched that the threshold to insult has become higher.
There have been calls for Imus to be fired. (Full disclosure: After I wrote a column critical of Imus in 1999, I was told that he referred to me as a “quota hire.” Since then, he has apparently praised my work, even if he has declined to review my books.) But there are larger issues, and chief among them is how to close the historic and deeply rooted gap of consciousness and compassion between black and white women.
Historically, white feminists, and black men, have drawn a counterproductive line in respect to African-American women — a line that has compromised the war on sexism and racism. The author Paula Giddings wrote, “We have been perceived as token women in black texts and token blacks in feminist texts.”
Imus’s comments highlighted age-old, deep-rooted stereotypes that seem to surface whenever African-American women excel in sport.
Beginning in the mid-1930s, when African-American women began to excel in track and field, their success was seen through a mainstream prism of success in a “mannish” sport and reinforced disparaging stereotypes.
Rhoden also notes the overtly sexist dimensions of the remarks:
On the surface, Imus’s remarks were aimed at African-American women. But as Greene points out: “No woman who participates in sport, and no mother or father who encourages and supports that participation, can escape their animus. Beyond his bold and overt racism lie assumptions about the proper bounds of femininity, assumptions that Title IX and other civil rights legislation sought to shatter.”
As first reported yesterday, Imus will meet with the Rutgers women, following a request he made Monday to do so in a lengthy mea culpa on his own show (which I’ll get to shortly). Rutgers’ coach, Vivian Stringer, appearing with Mike and Mike this morning, described Imus’ remarks as racist and sexist, but was careful to distinguish between characterizing his remarks as such and characterizing the man himself as a racist or a sexist and said the team would withhold judgment until after they met with him. This distinction goes to the heart of Imus’ defense of himself and his allies defense of him: that a good man said something really bad. I’ll note here that while I have not really heard Imus traffic in racist remarks over the past few years (prior to last Wednesday) when I have listened to the show, I can say unequivocally that he has trafficked in sexist remarks (people can dislike Hilary Clinton for any number of reasons, but the bile that Imus spews when he speaks of her is, in my view, indisputably informed by an underlying misogyny). That’s neither here or nor there, but I mention this partly to reinforce Rhoden’s point above – it’s clear that Imus has an “issue” with women who don’t fit within certain acceptable “bounds of feminity.” And, while Imus himself has only “tip-toed up to the line” on race (as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Claire Smith put it to Mike and Chris yesterday on the FAN), prior to last week (again, at least in more recent years) other members of his crew, especially his obviously racist producer Bernie McGuirk, have clear walked all over that line.
Last Friday, Imus issued a formal apology. But, the issue was just starting to blow up, and Imus clearly felt compelled to do much more significant damage control by Monday morning. (The FAN material I reference here is all available in audio clips on the station’s website). He began by explaining why he was explaining himself:
“I am not inclined to weasel out of what I said…but the context for this show is that we make fun of everybody…we make fun of me, sometimes to a vicious degree…Does that make it OK to make fun of these women? Of course not. But that’s the context.” That phrase, “that’s the context” is one that Imus used over and over again in the twenty minutes or so that I heard.
“But, that’s got to change, because some people don’t deserve to be made fun of, like these young women…These women – they played for the national championship. They beat Duke, then they played Tennessee, they don’t need me to try to be funny about them.
Imus was also adamant when he said the following:“It’s a repugnant suggestion that because we make fun of everybody, it’s OK to make fun of them. Because I call my wife a green ‘ho, that doesn’t make it OK to [say what I said]? Of course not.”
Imus clearly spent much of the weekend keeping counsel with several prominent African American leaders (including the politician Harold Ford, who has long been an I-Fave) out of which came his decision both to reach out to the Rutgers women, and to go on Al Sharpton’s show, which he also did on Monday.
Imus described his conversation with one of those leaders, the preacher DeForest Soaries (who is, apparently, Vivian Stringer’s minister):
“I talked to Deforest Sawyer last night for forty five minutes. He’s calling for me to be fired, but he’s a good man, a brilliant man and a great evangelist and he said the tragedy of this is that, he said, ‘I know you’re a good man, and you said this, you said this, what are they saying. What are the people on the right saying?”
It’s often (though not always) hard to judge what’s in other people’s hearts and minds and listening to Imus on Monday, I am inclined to think that he was, as he said, genuinely embarrassed and humiliated. Was this so for a mix of reasons? Probably. My own view is that Imus’ awakening this week came after it became clear that he might be in jeopardy of losing his show, a possibility that, as recently as last Friday, I don’t think he considered. But, he did seem especially heartfelt when he recounted the following observation from Sawyer:
‘And, you have to understand that [Black] people believe that White people don’t like them, that no matter how good the person is, at some point it comes out, like it did with you and that just confirms what they [Black folks] think.”
But, Imus insisted: “these women need to know that I am a good person that said a bad thing. There’s a big difference.”
What followed was a long recitation of the work that Imus and his wife do at the Imus ranch where, for ten years, they have been taking in very sick and often terminally ill children for ten days of activities, enrichment, etc. Imus was at pains to point out that many of these children are minorities, including a significant number of African Americans, all of whom Don and his wife love equally. While Imus was also at pains to point out that this absolutely did not make what he said OK, it should provide a context for people to judge whether he’s really a racist.
Imus’ own take on his remarks, however self-serving they might also at been, compared favorably to those of Joe Ovious, local radio host on 620 The Bull here in the Triangle. While Imus was delivering his remarks, Ovious was arguing that he didn’t really see what the big deal was, since Imus says stuff like this all the time on his show. Ovious repeated that he found it “interesting” how “all of a sudden” things get picked up and did, properly, note previous racist remarks that emanated from Imus’ show. When Ovious uses the word “interesting” he means “suspicious” as in – everybody’s got an angle. So, from Ovious’ point of view, this is good publicity for Rutgers and the story is being pushed by ESPN because ESPN owns women’s college basketball so they’re invested in this. I am not sure that women’s college basketball will gain a single extra viewer from this story, but it’s clear from their own statements that what was supposed to have been the highlight of their athletic careers – their triumphant return back to Rutgers after their unexpected run to the championship game – was hijacked within 24 hours by this story. And, it’s equally clear from their statements that none of them has found this whole incident to be anything but disruptive and unfortunate.
But, beyond getting the motives wrong, Ovious is frankly being a weasel here, falling back on the cynic’s easy dodge – nobody’s motives are pure – in order to be able to avoid actually having to make a judgment.
Mike and the Dog, both of whom are friends with I-Man and periodically appear on his show, were critical of Imus’ remarks and felt that he deserved some punishment. They also agreed that the story took too long to get off the ground.
But, they seemed as agitated as anything by the presence of Al Sharpton in this affair. MB tells me they made much of the way Sharpton has insinuated himself into the controversy in their initial remarks on Monday (they were off Friday and say they didn’t hear about the comments until Thursday). Among their claims was that Sharpton was grandstanding to promote his own agenda (though in subsequent conversations, they never spelled out what that agenda was) and that he was really just trying to promote his fledgling radio show (which Francesa noted, does not have a New York affiliate).
In an interview with Rutgers AD Bob Mulcahy yesterday, Francesa went off on Sharpton:
“to me, they (the players) get lost in the shuffle here, and it’s about people on TV, people like Al Sharpton making noise, and I think that’s wrong… it shouldn’t be about people furthering their own cause…people will say you have to take care of society, but before you can take care of society, you have to take care of this one issue. Because no one can change society in one day and if Al Sharpton thinks he can do that he should go and take all the rap records out of the record stores…If he wants to talk about civility, we can start right there.”
Francesa’s diatribe followed a pointed question from Russo, asking whether Mulcahy contacted any Black leaders, “whether a preacher in New Jersey or Al Sharpton” to ask one of them to represent the university. Mulcahy responded that Soaries was the only person “of that sort” that he spoke to.
Let me pause here to note that Mike can’t possibly be suggesting that Imus’ insult only concerned the Rutgers women. You can think what you want of Sharpton, but the fact is that he gets coverage because he us understood to speak for some non-trivial part of our population. Mike and Chris can whine all day about whom, if anybody, should be the proper spokespeople for various groups in society. But, the phrase “nappy headed hos” obviously doesn’t only concern the Rutgers women, though they were the direct targets of the statement and it’s a shocking display of arrogance by each of them to presume that they and not Rutgers, or African Americans, or women, or whomever, should decide who speaks for those groups.
To her immense credit, the aforementioned Smith of the Inquirer took Mike and Chris on directly about Sharpton when she followed Mulcahy on the air. As soon as they welcomed her on the show and she finished saying what a big fan of theirs she was, Smith suggested they follow their arguments to their logical conclusions, noting that just like Mike and Chris, Sharpton has a radio show, and just as they had Mulcahy on to pursue the story, Sharpton had I-Man on to pursue the story.
Russo responded, pathetically, I might add, that there was no point in having Imus on because he was already on his own radio show for five hours that morning and you could just get the story straight from him. I hope you’re as amazed as I am that a long-time radio host could fail to distinguish between monologue and conversation as forms of communication, or to assume that what Imus would say of his own accord would be exactly what he might say in a contentious dialogue.
But, Smith was unmoved by this rejoinder, noting that the Rutgers AD and women had just been on TV themselves for much of the day, presumably obviating, by Russo’s logic, the need to bring Mulcahy on the radio to repeat what he had already said. Mike said that Mulcahy asked to be on his show (though, of course, Imus asked to be on Sharpton’s show) and pressed the point that Sharpton was really in this to boost his “fledgling” radio program. When Smith responded that this is what everybody did in radio, Francesa said “when [Sharpton] makes his statements as a spokesman for the Black community, that should not be economic…” But, Smith was ready for that one, too, noting that you can’t easily distinguish the two and pointing out that coach Stringer had said that the relevant color here is “green” – that someone like Imus has gotten away with what he has for so long because he generates the revenue that he does. (I would note here too that, while I agree with Dwil’s comments about a double standard at work that gets someone like Michael Ray Richardson fired while Imus got two weeks, the financial dimension is important. FOX didn’t think twice about canning white broadcaster Steve Lyons last Fall, for example, because Lyons means nothing to them financially. That few African Americans have the kind of leverage that Don Imus has is itself a noteworthy point and an important way of understanding how race works indirectly in this country, even when it’s not overtly on display, as it is in the present Imus case).
To their credit, Mike and Chris did recognize when they were being overmatched, as they were by Smith, and the tone of the conversation changed. Near the end of their conversation Francesa did ask, pushing a familiar line, whether the “body of work” should override one comment in the case of Imus. Smith said that her own response to Imus’ remarks would be that she would no longer listen to the show and argued pointedly that: “I think denigrating anyone for the purpose of making money is disgusting” and, in the process, threw the hip-hop issue back in Mike’s face, by arguing that whether it was Imus, or Howard Stern or hip-hop, ALL of which denigrate people to make money, she found it repugnant.
I mention this point in part because hip-hop/prison culture, as Jason Whitlock puts it, has been very much under the micro-scope recently as a central source of the ills facing our incivil society. And, in the next installment, I’ll discuss the WEEI boys’ distinctive take on the controversy, I’ll note how selective is the concern of sports commentators, Black and White, with violent forms of cultural production. But, as a hint, I’ll say here that Mike and Chris love The Sopranos, probably the single show in television history that has most normalized vicious violence, if not glorified it. ( I am, for the record, a big fan of the show myself. I am less of a fan, however, of locating in hip-hop the primary source of violence in America).
OK, before I wrap this installment (with Jim Rome, WEEI and others coming in the next one), three points:
1) about Sharpton, Mike and Chris have it backwards. Al Sharpton can’t (and didn’t) force anyone to come on his show. Imus came on because Sharpton now has leverage that makes his show worth coming on. This is every bit the marketplace at work as Imus’ own success. No one is holding a gun to Imus’ head. The economic and market realities are that he needs to talk to Sharpton to save himself, and Sharpton’s gave him an opportunity to do so. That an Al Sharpton is in a position to have that kind of leverage is noteworthy, in my view. But, Al Sharpton does not have his leverage because he got a hand out. Like it or not, he’s cultivated and earned his audience and his influence. Welcome to 2007, Mike and Chris.
2) I am ambivalent about Imus’ suspension. On the one hand, two weeks is obviously a slap on the wrist, no more than a vacation that a suspension, if one were to be given, should be longer – at least a month. And, a part of me thinks that firing Imus would have sent a worthwhile message – that part of the new marketplace reality, with all the attendant concerns about adverse publicity, is that you just can’t say shit like that anymore. On the other hand, as I have said countless times before, I am uncomfortable with people being fired for such remarks. Not because they necessarily deserve better, but because to do so feels like a way of sweeping a problem under a rug, rather than leaving it out there for people to have to chew on, debate, come to terms with.
3) The “body of work” argument, so easily offered to the Dom Imuses and Bob Ryans of the world, somehow never seems to apply to guys like Stephon Marbury. Hmm.