Imus Coverage, Part II

I said yesterday that I haven’t heard Imus traffic in overtly racist stuff over the past few years, but Imus’ history is clear, as Dwil points out today in his Whitlock takedown (more below) and as is clear from the damning transcript from Sixty Minutes about which Bob Herbert wrote this morning. Furthermore, as Bryan Burwell, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch told Jim Rome on Tuesday, Imus’ producer Bernie McGuirk, who is unashamedly racist, has gotten off scott-free in all this. And, Imus is, of course, responsible for whatever McGuirk, or Sid Rosenberg or anyone else on the show has said in this vein over the years – it’s Imus’ show.

I mention this because it makes the body-of-work vs. single-bad-act defense non-sensical.

As I am sure most of you know, NBC has pulled the plug on Imus’ MSNBC simulcasts. And, so no one misses the point – this was the market at work. Sponsors started pulling ads, and next thing you know…The government didn’t force this decision, and unless a relevant group in the market-place had raised enough of a stink about the content of a show, this wouldn’t have happened. I am emphasizing this point because there’s been so much effort to characterize as pernicious the “interference” of the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (about which I will have LOTS to say below). But, they have no power to shut down a show other than their ability to persuade and signal to relevant actors in the market place that supporting a particular product, in this case, Imus, might no longer be worth their while. I don’t personally believe that the market should be the arbiter of all values in our society, but that’s a premise that most people in the world of sports commentary take for granted and never question. So, I think it’s fair to ask – why is such an exercise of marketplace power out of bounds now?

OK. A few folks to hit today, starting with Jim Rome. There was a time when I couldn’t stand Romey. I thought he brought nothing to the table but a loud-mouthed attitude. I didn’t see the insight, the intelligence, or even the passion for the games themselves. Instead, I saw a guy who seemed to have two goals:

1) sell his brashness
2) demonstrate to everybody that he was always in possession of the most current slang.

Without getting into a whole history of my changing feelings about Rome, I can say that I like him now. He’s matured, he is smart, and he often brings a perspective to sports radio that I think is refreshing. And, he does good interviews.

On Tuesday, Jim Rome spoke insightfully to the Imus issue (I can only paraphrase since I was driving when he was on the radio). He made two key points:

1) Imus has to know that times have changed. During the segment I heard, Rome wasn’t saying that in the “life-is-so-unfair-that-my-racist-statements-have-been-selectively-singled-out” vein that we’ve heard so much of these past few days. Instead, Rome was stating, in very matter-of-fact terms, a reality. There is heightened sensitivity to and awareness of the use of derogatory language and more people are listening and able to convey those things in real time. Does it put radio hosts with big (and sometimes not so big) audiences under a microscope? Yes, it does. But, Rome essentially argued, that the price of doing business nowadays and if Imus didn’t realize that, that was his bad.

2) Rome also addressed the body-of-work issue. Rome pointed out that he himself has done thousands of interviews and that he’s worked really hard every day for years to bring his audience a good show. But, Rome said, when many people think of him, they still think of one interview: the one he did 15 or so years ago with quarterback Jim Everett, whom Rome kept baiting by calling him “Chris” as in Chris Evert (because, if you’re a female, you’re less of a person, of course). Rome said that, of course, he wishes that that’s not how people remembered him, that he regrets that interview and is embarrassed by it. But, he noted, that’s the way these things work sometimes, and you have to live with that.

On the other side of the galaxy in a land, far, far, away, the WEEI guys really outdid themselves in their discussion of Imus. This is all courtesy of Big Chown Dog, who gave the following account of their take (since I can’t say it better than he did, here’s what BCD wrote to me):

“heard some interesting stuff on EEI this morning. John Dennis read Jason Whitlock’s
column on Imus
. They used this as a starting point to go off on the Rutgers women. Saying they were guilty of ‘extortion’
and are anything but victims. Where it got interesting is that they said that they
couldn’t possibly be victims because they certainly had acts like 50 Cent on their
iPods. And that sort of ‘vile crap’ was far more damaging to them than what Imus said.
This is funny because on Monday (as any Monday following an episode of the Sopranos)
they talked about the Sopranos. What Dennis and Callahan like about the Sopranos is
all of the killing. What they hate about it is stuff like Tony talking to Dr. Melfi, or
Tony doing anything that basically doesn’t involve killing. Go to their webpage and
look at their “favorite television shows” – You find 24, The Shield and The Sopranos. Apparently the culture of violence espoused in these shows is fine for young and old, but hip hop culture is ‘vile crap.’ Hmmm.”

Hmm, indeed. Do I hear Dennis and Callahan right? That anyone who has ever consumed a cultural product that has violent and offensive content is, presumably, heretofore fair game for any insult whatsoever. By that standard, Dennis and Callahan would have to agree that they themselves are fair game, about their backgrounds, their families, or whatever, since they obviously consume offensive cultural products. Am I missing something?

A couple of points here about Whitlock. It’s worth pointing out that the “50 Cent” line comes from Whitlock’s column (he actually speculated that “at least one” of the Rutgers women likely had 50-cent in her Ipod. And, why find out when you can merely speculate?) The Big Sexy must be heartened to know that he is feeding talking points to two guys like Dennis and Callahan determined to don their own mantle of victimhood because, God forbid, it’s become harder to make racist, sexist or homophobic comments without repercussions.

But, more importantly, like many other commentators over the past few days, Whitlock attacked both Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. They’re an easy target in the sports commentary universe, a world of easy living where the only acceptable kind of shrill is that which emanates from the mouths of the commentators themselves. Decry racism – you’re a shrill attention-getter. Whine all day about the evils of rap music – then you’re a stand up guy “telling it like it is.”

Whitlock first complained that he was pissed at Imus (whom he clearly dislikes, by the way) for allowing Blacks to allow themselves to be conned:
“You’ve given Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson another opportunity to pretend that the old fight, which is now the safe and lucrative fight, is still the most important fight in our push for true economic and social equality.

You’ve given Vivian Stringer and Rutgers the chance to hold a nationally televised recruiting celebration expertly disguised as a news conference to respond to your poor attempt at humor.

Thank you, Don Imus. You extended Black History Month to April, and we can once again wallow in victimhood, protest like it’s 1965 and delude ourselves into believing that fixing your hatred is more necessary than eradicating our self-hatred.”

Whitlock backed off from the “lucrative” comment for a moment:

“I ain’t saying Jesse, Al and Vivian are gold-diggas, but they don’t have the heart to mount a legitimate campaign against the real black-folk killas.”

But, it turns out, this was a disingenuous disclaimer, since Whitlock views l’affaire Imus thusly:

“It’s an opportunity for Stringer, Jackson and Sharpton to step on victim platforms and elevate themselves and their agenda$.”

And, in case you missed the point that Whitlock claimed he wasn’t making:

“No. We all know where the real battleground is. We know that the gangsta rappers and their followers in the athletic world have far bigger platforms to negatively define us than some old white man with a bad radio show. There’s no money and lots of danger in that battle, so Jesse and Al are going to sit it out.”

And speaking of wallowing in victimhood, this last paragraph is a classic. Other than child pornography and Bin Laden, I can scarcely think of a phenomenon in American life that is more easily (and frequently) vilified than rap music from across the political spectrum. Whitlock may be right to criticize some of its content, but the idea that doing so is a courageous stand, one that Jackson and Sharpton are too cowardly to make, is just so absurd that I can’t believe that Whitlock could really believe it. You can say what you want about Jackson, but Jason Whitlock could live to be five hundred years old and he won’t have taken a fraction of the “dangerous” stances that Jackson has in his life. Whitlock is preaching the evils of rap music and gangsta/prison culture to an overwhelmingly white audience that hates it all and, incredibly, he thinks, by implication, that his stance is “dangerous.”

It’s taken many remarkable inversions for the groups with the most economic and political power in America to reframe themselves as beleaguered victims, as many white radio talk show hosts have done, for example. But, it’s quite a spectacle to see Whitlock donning the same mantel of martyrdom that he decries in others.

In addition to Whitlock’s implicit self-pitying, there are, in fact, multiple ironies in his condemnation of either or both Jackson and Sharpton (a condemnation, as I’ve noted, widely voiced in recent days, including by Mike and the Mad Dog and Dan Patrick and Charles Barkley):

1) many of the people doing the accusing (and Imus himself) all make their living by writing or saying things that will get them a public platform, attention that they parlay into a very nice living. The commodity they sell is their ability to get attention. That already puts them uncomfortably close to doing what they accuse Sharpton and Jesse Jackson of doing. This leaves aside the question of what the actual financial benefit is to Jackson, for example, in this case. If someone can explain that to me, I’ll be impressed.

2) related to point one, none of the folks I’ve heard complain about Jackson and Sharpton in this context has, to my knowledge, ever articulated a sustained critique of a society organized around market principles – where the first, unmistakable principle is – whatever sells has value. We might like to tell ourselves otherwise – but surveying the cultural and political landscape, does anyone really want to argue that our most famous, powerful and rich public figures are really our best and brightest? Now, there is a complication here: the sports world probably comes closer to being a real meritocracy than any other realm of American life, and it is a premise of sports discourse that the best athletes are the ones who rise highest in their chosen field of endeavor. No one could as confidently make the same arguments about pop culture, for example, unless someone really believes that Brittany Spears or Sanjaya is truly a great musical talent.

Likewise, when it comes to prominent sports commentators, like their professional cousins, the political punditocracy, the prominence of many in the field has no necessary relation to their intellectual abilities, the seriousness of their analysis or their dedication to ferreting out the truth. Some possess those qualities and rise on the basis of real talents. Others have gotten where they are by being obnoxious and loud-mouthed and, in the process, have managed to cultivate a following (see, for example, the typical guest on Around the Horn).

If you don’t have a problem with that inescapable reality, what exactly is the basis of the
condemnation of Jackson and Sharpton for knowing how to bring attention to their causes?

3) It’s absolutely remarkable that Jason Whitlock has assumed for himself the true servant of the social and economic interests of the Black community, in contrast to Jackson and Sharpton.

I have heard Jesse Jackson speak in person and through the media many times and I am willing to venture a guess that he has spoken about the pernicious ills of economic racism as often as any public figure in American life over the past forty years. Jackson has fought against and decried the structural roots of poverty countless throughout his entire public life. He has called for an overhaul of the spending priorities of our government endlessly, campaigned repeatedly for universal health care, greater commitment to education and social services and talked often about the scourge of violence in African American communities. That Whitlock could write as if he doesn’t know this is a nothing less than a shocking display of ignorance, especially from a man who has now assumed for himself the role of courageous spokesman for the real interests of Black America.

That Whitlock thinks rap music is the primary cause of the violence, poverty, deprivation and poor health of Black America is shallow and ill thought out. That he thinks he’s worked harder or should be taken more seriously on those issues than Jackson (or Sharpton, about whom I could say many of the same things) is a disgrace.

By the way, I am Jewish and, I’ll be honest, I still remember the Hymietown remark that Jackson uttered 23 years ago. I have plenty of critical things to say about him and I’m no Jackson apologist. But, Whitlock’s attack here is gutless and more of a distraction from the real problems facing the underprivileged in America than anything that Jackson has done in this episode (and frankly, though I know Sharpton’s been a player in this, I have seen and heard little from Jesse, so I am not sure why he’s even being lumped in here).

4) That the mainstream simply ignores the countless speeches and campaigns that Jackson (and Sharpton) have launched on the structural causes of poverty and social decay in America is the real issue here. If the media only pays attention to Jesse Jackson during one of these frenzied moments when, as my buddy Pete C. calls – we have a “gotcha” moment with a major personality – what does that say about Jesse Jackson? My answer: nothing. Jackson and Sharpton have each spent years trying to bring attention to a raft of issues that are at the core of the impoverishment and violence that plagues Black America. That Mike Francesa and Chris Russo, for example, never give Al Sharpton’s work in those areas a second thought, and only become aware of him because the media spotlight shines on him in certain moments has nothing of significance to do with Al Sharpton. It has to do with what the media calls “newsworthy” and it only illuminates how Mike and Chris, and Patrick, and Barkley and whomever, see the world.

Alright, I am looking forward to returning to complaining about media coverage concerning something more mundane, like whether Yankee radio announcers John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman have a clue as to who is regarded as a good prospect and who isn’t. (Answer: not so much).


15 Responses to “Imus Coverage, Part II”

  1. I like your analysis. You do an excellent job being specific in your critiques, as opposed to the many out there who make wide, general claims without clearly citing evidence.

  2. “It’s taken many remarkable inversions for the groups with the most economic and political power in America to reframe themselves as beleaguered victims, as many white radio talk show hosts have done, for example. But, it’s quite a spectacle to see Whitlock donning the same mantel of martyrdom that he decries in others.”

    That’s just good writing. Thought I’d point that out. Well done.

  3. The inversion of victimization in America has its roots practically in the founding of the country. See Richard Drinnon’s “Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building.” The European “settlers” consistently justified victimizing Native Americans by casting themselves in the roles of victims of Native American violence and threat.

  4. JW,
    Another quality post. I have a few comments:

    In re: Whitlock – I certainly can’t get behind everything he says, because, as you point out, he basically cast aside Jesse and Al to take that role himself. BUT…there are some things worth discussing from the piece. He’s wrong to think rap music is a root cause for ails African-Americans. I’d argue that hip hop might be a symptom. In many ways, hip hops lays out for all to see the disillusioned reality that all too many black youths have to deal with. And, sadly, there are some deep issues highlighted by hip hop that the community has to face up to: homophobia, high rates of incarceration, high unemployment, misogyny, absentee parents, an anti-intellectual bent. Now, of course, those factors don’t affect all black people equally, but the sub-section of African-Americans that I assume Whitlock was trying to speak to, African-Americans in depressed urban areas, are really going to have to grapple these issues (much more so than the people of Al and Jesse’s generation will).

    There’s a kind of related point, and I admit up front this might ramble a bit, so follow me around the room if you like…

    You mentioned that Jim Rome alluded to the fact that Imus’ remarks aren’t accepted because times have changed. They certainly have and a major reason that a guy like Whitlock can sit around and write his columns now is because of the struggles that Jesse Jackson and many others went through back in the 50’s and 60’s. Now, I am assuming that Whitlock is not an age contemporary of either Jesse or Al, so, to a certain extent, he hasn’t had to deal with the things they did (which is why, in my mind, it’s kind of bogus to say that Whitlock isn’t taking a “dangerous” stand…what are the contemporary stances that Whitlock could take that would be in any way akin to what those other men had to go through?). But another well known black person who saw those things first hand was derided for basically making the same statements that Whitlock made. Bill Cosby uttered virtually identical statements in 2004 and got a lot of flack for it (but, oddly enough, he also got praise from, among other people,Jesse Jackson). The fights that Whitlock and black people of his generation and mine are going to have to face are different from the civil rights struggles that Al, and Bill, and Jesse fought; I’m not worried about Bull Connor and his goons, but the racism that we have to fight is generally much more subtle, which, again, points to just why Imus is in so much trouble…he wasn’t subtle. He wasn’t discrete. He made a very public gaffe (which got magnified because he went after some relatively defenseless college kids) and he got scalped for it.

    Ok, the above probably made no sense, but thanks again for the good work you guys are doing here. Great site and keep up the good work.

  5. len cleavenger Says:

    i wish all mankind could see and understand things the way you do i saw you on tv and for the sake of all black americans they would see things the way you do and all races white black n any other color could know that what comes aroubd goes around you brought up the black americans being the originator of hip hop n degrading womenwhy dont someone sue the hip hoopers orwhoever is benefitting from this obscene language i never liked imus dont know why but should he be busted for saying something that other people are getting rich over im 70 and a poor little ole white man but i think u are right

  6. len cleavenger Says:

    nice going

  7. I still can’t understand the knee-jerk response among so many people whenever Jackson or Sharpton get involved with a cause, that it means the original complaint is completely unmerited, as if the comments Imus made were trumped up, and it always hinges on the “Hymietown” remark and Tawana Brawley.

    While neither of the two are ideal for the above incidents, that doesn’t revoke any good they’ve done in pointing out institutionalized racism and trying to improve on it.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Ken — that paragraph cuts to the heart of the matter. There is a lot of perceived insecurity among the majority, despite their hold on power — and that manifests itself in a backlash against people who dare to say, “well, this is wrong and ignorant.” You see it with Jackson and Sharpton, and to another extent, the whole debate over illegal immigration as well.

  8. RE: is rap music the root cause of misogyny within the black community or just a symptom?

    Well, according to Patricia Hill Collins (whom I agree with, but she’s got more clout…), rap music is just a symptom. And here’s why:

    Racism affects all people of color, but if affects them differently according to their gender. In a situation where black men are oppressed by white men, they may seek to maintain their own sense of self worth by positioning themselves as superior to the women around them. Now, they can’t call out white women for fear of reprisal from white men, so they find the next most vulnerable population: black women. Where this gets complicated is that black women may fear calling out black men on their bad behavior because they don’t want to air “dirty laundry” and tarnish the reputation of the entire black community (which is already under siege). So, they stay quiet. In fact, they may even privilege black men no matter what those black men say or do because (in a heteronormative society) they are dependent upon black men to be successful if they want an available pool of “good men” with whom they can develop positive relationships.

    So, misogynistic rap lyrics aren’t a product of some innate flaw among black men, but rather a distant consequence of white oppression. The sad thing about this cycle is that it is self perpetuating. This is because white folks can then cite misogyny within the black community as yet another piece of evidence that black culture is dysfunctional and, therefore, the low rates of sucess within the black community are their just desserts (i.e. you reap what you sow).

    Disagree with PHC if you like, but she’s probably the leading figure in intersectionalist social theory today (and yes, I know that appealing to an authoritative figure to support your argument is a logical fallacy).

  9. Thanks to all of you for the comments. It’s really satisfying to know that your readers are so sharp. PV, thanks for the citation. That sounds fascinating. Mike P., you raise a good question: what could Whitlock say that would be as dangerous? I agree – it’s hard to answer the question, which is one reason why I think Whitlock is so out of line when he accuses Jesse Jackson, for example, of avoiding the dangerous stances. I don’t want to tell Jason Whitlock how good he has it, because I don’t think a middle class white guy needs to be lecturing other people about that. But, I maintain that it’s absurd for Whitlock, now sitting on a very comfortable perch to be casting stones the way he is.

    It’s also an irony of the attack on Jackson that, as you point out, he came to Cosby’s defense when Cosby said some similar things a couple of years ago. But, I am not surprised that Jackson defended Cosby because Jesse himself raised a lot of hackles years ago when he admitted to feeling nervous walking down the street and seeing a young black male behind him. Calling the Imus comments a distraction from the real issues is legitimate. But, somehow twisting that into the pretzel of rap-is-worse-and-Jesse is-just-grandstanding-therefore-he’s-just-a-coward is at best nonsensical, and at worst a way to score easy points with an audience desperate to site a Black writer to validate their own feelings and without really educating anybody.

  10. Mike P-

    Your statement: “The fights that Whitlock and black people of his generation and mine are going to have to face are different from the civil rights struggles that Al, and Bill, and Jesse fought; I’m not worried about Bull Connor and his goons, but the racism that we have to fight is generally much more subtle…”

    This is something I’ve talked and written about for years. Each time I’ve uttered this in a public forum the statement is met with derision, so it’s great to read someone else saying the same thing.

    With that said, I’ll actually go one step further and say that today’s “subtle” racism is actually more dangerous than “yesterday’s” overt racism ever could be.

    and to all – my distaste for Jesse Jackson come from fairly recently uncovered FBI docs that show that Jackson was actually a govt. informant during the 60s which makes him absolutely despicable. And for Jackson’s ability to place himself in places that make him appear heroic, do some hunting around on the Internet and you can probably still find out exactly where Jackson was when MLK was assassinated, but where he told the press and later the general public where he was in realtion to the event; to me the discrepancy and its implications are chilling….


    Jim Rome advocates the double-standard theory relative to Imus and there is no defense for this – or him. “Offensive is offensive, period,” is what Rome is saying as I write this. Rome is talking about the, why is it okay for rappers to… when it’s wrong for Imus argument. Rome, like Imus, has a history of making racist and sexist remarks. Just listen to him talk about any contentious socio-cultural position and his true colors will invariably bleed through.

  11. You can say what you want about Jackson, but Jason Whitlock could live to be five hundred years old and he won’t have taken a fraction of the “dangerous” stances that Jackson has in his life.

    Any number of statements from your outstanding piece could have been used. I chose this one because it puts into stark reality two different men, one who faced rabid, murderous bigots in a time and place where they were more than capable of fierce brutality, another who seems to revel in the safety and comfort provided to black public figures who make white people comfortable by castigating blacks and their culture at every turn. That you still hold grudges from the hymietown incident is completely understandable, that you write what you have here is simply intellectually honest.

  12. Dwil, I’m curious if you have examples of Rome’s racist remarks. I see the sexism (calling male athletes by female names to demean them), and the humor sometimes deals with race and racial stereotypes, so I can see it possible. Do you have any examples?

    As far as the “What about rappers?” arguments: the misogyny of music lyrics is a legitimate topic of conversation. But there are two things that bother me about it now:

    1. The timing. A white man says something racist and sexist…and therefore we should now criticize black people? It seems like a deliberate change of subject.

    2. Many of the people using the argument. It’s the usual suspects of reactionaries looking for a chance to show that black people get too many breaks and white people are oppressed (I just flipped past Joe Scarborough talking about “the double standard” and whether how far you can go “depends on the color of your skin”). On a similar vein, I have a commitment to free speech, even speech I hate, so I don’t believe Imus should have been fired; unfortunately, a lot of the people now making the free speech/censorship argument really don’t have that commitment and are looking for a way to defend Imus.

    I’m all for a debate that focuses on eliminating misogyny, but I’m uncomfortable with the timing and have a distrust of most of the people now making the argument.

  13. vicki nikitin Says:

    A well written and sensible piece. I don’t understand why people don’t turn off these rappers, etc. As long as someone listens, they will rap. I find Howard Stern insulting, so I don’t listen.

    Imus is taking an unfair hit on this. These girls were sold to the media by their coach, and that seems worse.

    One cannot live in a glass bowl insulated from all the knocks of the world, and as it is said, “deal with it”.

  14. You say something stupid and you deserve to also “deal with” the consequences of your actions…period

  15. […] Don Imus in the Spring of 2007 (for in-depth coverage of media reaction at the time, see here and here). In this world of self-pity, facts like the roughly four percent of upper division head football […]

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