Media

Imus Silenced

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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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