The spectacle of Don Imus prostrating himself before the Rev. Al Sharpton, as if he were the Holy Roman Emperor on bent knee to the pope, should have pleased me. A few years back, Imus hazed me on his program for weeks after I objected during an interview to a segment he’d just aired burlesquing Catholic priests. But I cannot enjoy his firing by CBS because there is so much hypocrisy among all the participants in this tacky media affair. The host of “Ego in the Morning” is the least of them.
Of course, Imus deserved some form of punishment for calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team a bunch of "nappy-headed hos." But booting him off the air goes too far. I believe Imus when he says he was trying to be funny. His offense lay in using lingo created by black street culture and magnified by the entertainment industry that exploits that culture for profit. His (mostly white) listeners could not even understand Imus’ remark unless they had first been introduced to "hos" (‘hood jargon for "whores") through hip-hop lyrics and the fiercely misogynist rap dished out nightly by black stand-up comics in downtown clubs and concerts and in venues supplied by Comedy Central and Black Entertainment Television.
To his credit, Sharpton has repeatedly condemned violent and misogynist rap lyrics and called¯futilely¯for a boycott of record labels that produce them. He knows that black street culture is rife with this kind of talk from young women as well as from men. Sharpton could have upbraided Imus for sanctioning this fetid language in his on-air slur and accepted his repeated mea culpas. But for Sharpton, who has yet to apologize for his racist exploitation of Tawana Brawley, abject apology from Imus was not enough. Nor, as Imus himself noted on his last program, was it enough for the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who still owes an apology to the innocent white lacrosse players from Duke, whom he condemned long before the facts were in. Instead, these reverends demanded and got Imus’ cowboy-hatted head. Seeing no need for their own redemption, they are unable to extend redemption to others.
But there’s another double standard operating in this tasteless episode. Had Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, or some other wild-mouthed conservative committed Imus’ sin, the celebrity journalists and pundits who regularly talked shop with Imus¯and made his program worth listening to in the first place¯would have jumped on them like the Inquisition. Yet none of the voices from the journalistic and political establishments dared criticize Imus because he sells their books big time. Indeed, the sound of mutual massaging heard on his program was often louder than his incessant country music.
Imus’ problem is that he is no Don Rickles, the old "equal-opportunity offender" who made the targets of his ethnic humor laugh at themselves. Had Imus survived, I doubt whether a two-week suspension would have been long enough for him to hone a new on-air persona. But it was worth a try. Now that he is out for good, his favored scribes and politicians are spared a searching of their own souls. Would they have rejoined Imus after his penitential retreat, or would they have shunned him as the reverends hoped? Now we’ll never know which of them would have cast the first stone.
CBS does not come off this episode with clean hands. The suits in charge knew what they had in Imus and allowed him his leash for decades. CBS coveted the revenue he produced. That the network’s brass suddenly woke up to his routine makes them complicit in what they now condemn. Obviously, pressure from advertisers and their own employees, not principle, made them cave. They should reap no rewards in this life or the next for suddenly seeing the light.
But the important issue here is not the crudities or career of one white shock jock. The operative question is whether the African-American entrepreneurs who perform, produce, distribute, and display the "music" that has the made the trashing of "bitches" and "hos" tolerable will clean up their own collective act.
That, in effect, was the question David Gregory put to Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television , on Hardball last Wednesday night . Johnson said he has told the record industry, "If you guys want to stop making these kinds of video, believe me, I have no problems in not showing them." In short, he defended himself by passing the buck. Worse, he insisted that "a comedy show" and "a video" are vastly different from the Imus program because the latter gathers "white intellectuals" who embrace the host.
Johnson’s neat distinction between white and black is congruent with the outlook of rappers themselves. Here, from an interview with MTV , is the take on Imus from Snoop Dogg, the day before he pleaded no contest to felony weapons and drug charges in a Los Angeles court:
It’s a completely different scenario. [We rappers] are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We’re talking about hos that’s in the ‘hood that ain’t doing shit, that’s trying to get a nigga for his money. These are two separate things. First of all, we ain’t no old-ass white men that sit up on MSNBC going hard on black girls. We are rappers that have these songs coming from our minds and our souls that are relevant to what we feel. I will not let them muthaf¯as say we in the same league as him.
No, they aren’t.
Clearly, Imus crossed a line. But it’s a fault line that cuts right through black¯and white¯culture, dividing the civil from the degrading. Black music used to mean the blues and jazz; now it is more often identified with the staccato verbal violence of trash-talking rapper plutocrats like Snoop Dogg.
The head of one white shock jock will be nothing but a trophy for Sharpton, Jackson, and their Amen Corner unless the entire entertainment industry faces up to the disorder in their own house. There’s more to this than three little words. Know what I’m say’n?
Kenneth L. Woodward is a contributing editor for Newsweek and has also written for First Things .