Imus Silenced

I miss Imus already.

For one thing, there's the voice. It's one of the great instruments to grace the radio waves, a resonant baritone that rolls and ripples like a saxophone solo. It was a pleasure to listen to even when he was whining, or at his most half-baked and juvenile, which was often. Then there was the music. One consolation for the show's endless ads was that Imus sandwiched them between great riffs of country and western and rhythm and blues, bits virtually unheard elsewhere on the dial.

There were also the conversations with his doltish brother Fred from his auto parts store in Santa Fe. How do you not like a guy who regularly tells his blockhead brother he loves him on national air time?

And even if he often failed to exercise it, you knew that Imus was in possession of a finely-tuned bullshit detector, one capable of spotting hypocrisy whether it was being spouted by Ted Kennedy or Tom DeLay. There was also the sense, even if it suffered regular setbacks, that he was always listening and learning. It wasn't just the books he hawked to his audience, or the steady stream of erudite guests. It was Imus himself, who gave every indication that he cared a lot and paid close attention to the world around him. In the past year, along with a good chunk of his audience, Imus had finally decided he'd been hoodwinked by the Iraq invasion. In typical Imus fashion, he quickly took to referring to occasional guest Dick Cheney as "the war criminal."

Those were some of the things that made the Imus show interesting and fun. What didn't was the inevitable backsliding into bigotry. This would begin whenever the show was slowing down. Most of the time the toxic stew was dished up by Imus sidekick Bernard McGurk or the willfully moronic private detective Bo Dietl (and, until he went one step too far, the execrable Sid Rosenberg whose sports reports could've been scripted by David Duke).

Occasionally, Imus would plunge into this racist frat- boy act himself, as he fatally did when he took McGurk's bait and chimed in with his "nappy-headed ho's" reference to the Rutgers women's basketball team. But more often than not the host would sit back, chortle along with the appalling lines, then voice a verbal "tut-tut" to indicate he knew that a line was being crossed, but that he wasn't about to spoil anyone's fun.

It's hardly surprising that Imus never repented from encouraging this ear-grating nonsense. You knew there had to be listener surveys out there someplace confirming that at least part of his audience was tuning in just for those moments when someone called the Knicks a team of "chest- pumping pimps." Likewise, you knew that Imus woke up every morning seeing Howard Stern in his cornflakes; that the steady ratings pounding he took from his chief rival drove him wild, nuts enough to decide to play a wiseass race card to counter Stern's sex antics.

No, what's really astonishing, particularly now that the topic is being hashed over on every blog, newspaper and talk show, is that none of Imus' eminent guests, who included many of the nation's most prominent journalists and politicians, apparently ever thought the show's racist hijinks were worthy of mention.

You'd want to think that the likes of Tim Russert, Maureen Dowd, Tom Brokaw, Jeff Greenfield, David Brooks, Mike Barnicle or Doris Kearns Goodwin – Imus regulars all - might have somewhere mustered up the courage to call him on it. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but the thought lingers that these people could have saved Imus from himself. That had they made their appearances contingent on an agreement that Imus knock off the racial rhetoric he might have done so. That forced to choose between sophomoric bigotry and lively and witty raps with media stars he would've easily opted for the latter. But no one ever made him choose.

As far as we can tell, Washington Post reporter and Imus regular Howard Kurtz -- the nation's most prominent media critic and one who is ever ready to level his lance at those who falter in the news business – never asked his pal to knock it off. Nor was Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, another Imus favorite and minder of the country's media manners, ever heard complaining about his host's bad taste.

And no wonder. Having Imus tout your columns or your books on his nationally syndicated show was good for at least a few thousand extra sales, as New York Times Book Review editor and occasional Imus guest Sam Tanenhaus admits in a confessional column in Sunday's paper.

Also on Sunday morning, on NBC's Meet the Press, there was an exquisite moment when Gwen Ifill, the former Times reporter who now works for PBS and who was once referred to as a "cleaning lady" by Imus, looked Russert and Brooks in the eye and noted that they'd been notably silent on these matters while appearing regularly on his program.

Earlier in the week, Ifill wrote that she didn't even hear Imus's nasty reference to her – first uttered in 1993 - until she read it in a 1998 column by Lars-Erik Nelson, the late Washington columnist for the Daily News. Nelson would have been a great Imus guest. He was a brilliant and passionate writer who knew how to speak in sound bites, was expert on foreign and domestic policies, and knew who did what and why inside the Beltway. But unlike Alter, Kurtz, Russert and the rest, Nelson had the bad manners to frequently confront Imus about his tastelessness. He had the effrontery to ask Senator Joe Lieberman, another Imus intimate, why he'd railed about anti-Semitism on the Senate floor and then ignored it when he heard it on Imus's program. Nelson called Imus up and asked him to account for his behavior. Imus apologized, privately. But he never asked Nelson on the show. He didn't have to. He had everyone else.

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