Friday, April 13, 2007

Don Imus - Social Misfit or Harmless Loudmouth?

Don Imus is thought by many to be the original radio "Shock Jock". There have been others since, of course, and one I can think of who became more famous, but Don may have been arguably the first of these obnoxious radio DJ personalities. The idea is that they attract attention by saying outrageous things on the radio. Things which people would never say in polite society. Things that might be heard in a pool hall or among teenagers in a high school, but not among most adults in a normal situation, and certainly not publicly broadcast on radio or television.

So because they stand out, they attract attention. Because they may speak what some people secretly feel, they may attract a following, and that is what some don't like.

Last week, when the Rutgers University Women's Basketball team won their game, Don Imus made the comment that there were some "nappy-headed Ho's" down on the court there. The team contains 8 girls who are black. So this time, he stepped over the line. He normally skirts the edge of what is allowed anyway, but this time, he went over the line and people are upset, and bad things are happening to Don Imus.

This has raised a huge flap in the news for several reasons. He apologized on Friday morning and thought that would be the end of it. Then, the controversy began to pick up momentum, with the girl's team appearing on Oprah, and also being interviewed by the press and giving their rebuttal speech time on national news, etc. It has snowballed into such a large issue that after a couple of days, Imus was apologizing hourly and appeared on Al Sharpton's show making a full deep apology. As of now, several days later, fully 7 of his show's major corporate sponsors have dropped him and two networks have suspended his show for 2 weeks pending further decisions. As of this morning, MSNBC has permanently dropped the simulcast for his show. CBS is looking for a replacement.

There are perhaps two main schools of thought on this and that creates a healthy debate usually (which is why it is interesting to discuss here).

Some people are outraged at the atrocity of a white man calling black girls "nappy headed ho's". Especially since they are not rich and famous and open to public comment of any kind. They feel he can call Britney Spears or Paris Hilton anything he wants because they are famous, but these girls are just normal college girls and so should be beyond any similar comments. In fact, these girls are hard-working sports heroes, who have accomplished a difficult thing and they have done nothing to deserve any sort of derogatory remarks. They feel it shows a huge lack of sensitivity on his part, and is clearly both a racist comment against blacks, and a sexist denigration of women in general. They feel he should be baned from the airwaves forever and his show cancelled and he should be fined and punished to the maximum extent allowed by law and public pressure. They want to make an example of him and teach people a lesson.

Then there is the other opinion that says "ahhh, let it go. Grow up and get over it." that he is a shock jock. As such, he is always testing the limits of what the airwaves and public sensibilities will bear. And are black women so delicate and fragile that they are so deeply threatened by some loudmouth idiot who makes a verbal gaff on a radio show? They say that this became a big issue mainly because it was a slow news weekend and there was nothing else to latch onto and make into an issue. They also point to the concept of free speech, and they point to the fact that he has insulted lots of people on a daily basis over the years. That's what his show is all about in fact. It is abrasive, repugnant and shocking. (Hence the name.) They claim no one takes it seriously, and if someone does then they need to just get over it and switch the channel like everyone else does. As one female friend of mine so colorfully puts it, "They just need to put on their big-girl panties, and get on with it..."

Besides being a Shock Jock for his morning radio comedy show, Imus also has a place called "Imus Ranch" in north east New Mexico where he brings all kinds of sick kids for a real cattle ranch experience for free. He even flies them to New Mexico for free and brings them in from the airport. The ranch is a 4,000 acre spread about 50 miles northeast of Santa Fe. There is a 14,000 ft hacienda where he and the guests and ranch hands all live, plus barns and indoor rodeo and outdoor rodeo, and horses,m steers, and lessons on how to live the ranch life. He also has doctors and medical staff to help out the kids with Cancer and other serious diseases. He has set this up as an 8-day 7 night trip for the kids, all expenses paid. Seems like a decent kind of thing to do.

You know what the real irony of this is? Let's do three little logical thought experiments, shall we?

Thought Experiment #1
Sports is very competitive by it's very nature. And teenage girls are normally very competitive anyway, and so they can be pretty cruel to each other at times.
If any of the girls themselves on the team were having an argument or a falling out in the change room before the game, I'd be willing to bet money that they would call each other far worse names than what Imus said. In fact, I bet what he said is pretty mild by comparison to what they may have called each other from time to time.

So if that's the case, then it wouldn't be what was said that is the real problem - it would just be the fact that a white guy said it. You know what? THAT is racism, right there.

It goes back to that whole idea that blacks can use the n~ word but not whites.

Thought Experiment #2
I bet if Imus had made a slightly racist-based comment that implied that they were very hot/sexy/attractive at the same time - there might not have been a complaint or any hurt feelings. He might be seen as a dirty old man perhaps, but the girls might have felt not too bad about it.

So reasoning our way through this - if a racist-based comment implying that they were hot/attractive/sexy would have been ok, but a racist-based comment that implies that they were ugly/unattractive is what they really find offensive, then, logically, the racism aspect of the comment is not the part that offends them. It's really the fact that he was saying they are ugly.

To a young woman - I can see where that would be especially hurtful. But that would mean then that this is not really about racism. It's really about this silly old fart calling these girls ugly. On that level, that is unkind, and shameful, but probably not worth all the grandstanding and ruckus and dropping his show, firing him despite about 30 or 40 sincere apologizies.

Thought Experiment #3
Why do you suppose CBS and MSNBC, and the 7 sponsor companies dropped Imus right away and made public statements about doing it? Do you think it has to do with genuine outrage at Imus's "nappy-headed ho" comment? Or do you suppose that it might just be because there are 39 million blacks in the country and they didn't want to alienate a huge marketplace like that?
In other words, do you think their response was driven by ethics, or by shrewd marketing-based profit calculations?

Is there any way we could tell? Well, perhaps there is.

If a CEO of a company that was sponsoring the Imus show was just appalled and insulted by Imus's comment, then he could just simply drop the show and say nothing to the press about it, right? After all, that happens all the time. Companies end business relationships all the time without notifying the press corp.

That being the case then, it follows that if these companies wanted to try to use this incident as a way to either avoid losing marketshare by negative association with Imus ~ or ~ even MORE cleverly - use this as a way to make a free statement on national television that SUPPORTS the black community - 39 million customers - then, if that were the case, I guess we would see public statements made by the companies on their websites and in the news talking about how they will not condone this behavior and how this goes against their core beliefs, etc. etc. etc. because then they would be looking to leverage the situation to their advantage.

So go look for yourself. What do you see? which is it? What happened? Therefore what was the motivation?

It's all in the arithmetic. And it's pretty simple arithmetic.

Y'know, the more I think about it, the more I begin to think that there is a whole set of people out there, including some black activists who make their living looking for opportunities like this to stand up and preach their message and sell their soap. And they do seem pretty righteously indignant, so people buy it. And when they do, they lose sight of the real issue - because the issue has been spun so many times people forgot what it was in the first place anymore.


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