TOMPAINE.COM INTERVIEW: Imus Responds
Imus to Tp.c: I'm Not a Bigot
David Case is the executive editor of TomPaine.com.
Editor's note: Philip Nobile, a former media columnist for New York magazine, has been monitoring the radio show Imus in the Morning, and has found that it regularly features offensive cracks about blacks, gays, and foreigners (Click here to read Mr. Nobile's articles). The show, produced at WFAN in New York, is syndicated nationwide by Infinity Broadcasting. In this interview with TomPaine.com, host Don Imus defends himself.
Don Imus, how do you respond to allegations that your radio show is laced with racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and other bigotry?
"It's just preposterous," he says, in a friendly yet slightly defensive tone of voice. "Some people get offended, some don't. It's insane-do we make fun of people and is it sometimes in poor taste? Well yeah."
"We're aware of Mr. Nobile's campaign and he obviously has a right to do that, but he's wrong. Mr. Nobile is on a crusade and he has been for years, and that's all fine. But, you know, he should try to get a job, and stop attacking us when there's so many people who are disgraceful and who do mean and vicious and malicious awful things to gay people and African Americans and Hispanics, and those are the people he should be attacking and not a bunch of goofballs who are simply reveling in the agony of everyone -- including ourselves, by the way."
No doubt, there's no shortage of below-the-belt remarks on the show. The slurs are so inflammatory that the New York Times advertising standards prevented TomPaine.com from publishing them in our advertisement on Wednesday, May 10, 2000 (read the text of the ad the Times rejected). Imus, however, insists all his show features is "goofy people poking fun," not hatred-driven bigotry.
He points out that he has argued on the air in favor of gay marriage. "If two people love each other they should have the right to get married, it doesn't matter what sex they are," he says.
He distances himself from radio hosts like Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who he says sow bigotry. The show is "not Bob Grant, it's not Howard Stern, believe me, it's not someone attacking black people."
Then what about calling the New York Knicks "chest bumping pimps ... the New York Crips?"
"Oh well, this is silly," he says, somewhat flustered that anyone might take offense at stereotyping the predominantly black members of the team as ghetto hoodlums. This is "people making fun of people, people kidding around. You need to talk to someone who really thinks that [African Americans or gays] are inferior, and who is attacking people and who is really racist. I'm not nor this program isn't."
"I hope I would be honest enough to say to you 'well yeah, I'm an asshole and I'm a racist and we think these people are full of shit or that they're inferior.'"
"We're trying to be funny," he says. "If you don't think we're funny, I respect that."
Imus argues that people are hypersensitive about jokes targeted at some groups. But "believe me," he says the show is not "someone attacking black people or gay people. Nobody ever says anything to me when we make fun of rednecks or we make fun of white people or yuppies, and we say vicious things -- I mean viciously funny things about them."
"Nobody ever says anything about making fun of Jews or making fun of Mormons."
Then what about calling Howard Kurtz from the Washington Post a "boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jew boy?"
"It wasn't a malicious attack, there's a huge difference. Does it sound offensive out of context? Absolutely! Was it at the time? I didn't think so and I don't think he thought so. Now [Kurtz] may say differently. But I mean he's been on the show since then."
Despite the slur, Kurtz sides with Imus. "I wasn't particularly offended because everyone knows Imus specializes in rough edged satire. While I think this is one of the cases where he went over the line, he was, in his own way, trying to be funny and certainly not bigoted," Kurtz told TomPaine.com
"I simply don't believe Imus is a racist or a homophobe and most of his listeners, who get the show, don't think that either," Kurtz concludes.
"Anybody has the right to disagree with me," Imus says, "I have great respect for that, and I appreciate it and I'm sensitive to that."
One African American who does disagree with Imus is the distinguished black syndicated columnist, Clarence Page. He says that he's reluctant to appear on the show, and took offense at Imus calling journalist Gwen Ifill "the cleaning lady," because she is black.
"Isn't the Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House," Imus said of Ifill when she was a Washington correspondent for the New York Times.
Page told TomPaine.com that Imus should apologize.
But Imus isn't repentant. "Oh, well, I mean that, that's just so, so ridiculous. And Mr. Page doesn't mind appearing on the program when he has his books to sell and he's welcome on the program any time."
When Jim Lehrer from PBS's News Hour, was on Imus in the Morning recently promoting his new book, he asked Imus off the air about the cleaning lady comment. (Ms. Ifill now hosts PBS's "Washington Week in Review.")
"I [told Mr. Lehrer] that there's no defense other than to deny it, and if we were kiddin' around about her that's a whole different issue [Imus's emphasis] than attacking her. You can probably hear the frustration in my voice because it's very frustrating and I mean I hope I would be honest enough to say to you 'well yeah, I'm an asshole and I'm a racist and we think these people are full of shit or that they're inferior.' But I mean that's not -- in my heart, that's not what I believe and that's not what I've ever said."
"It's a humor based show and you're always going to offend somebody and I've been doing it for thirty years. It's just not the case," he says, that he is a bigot.
Published: May 16 2000