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).