TOMPAINE.COM SPOTLIGHT ON HOWARD KURTZ: Missing in Action on Imus?
Condoning, Excusing and Pardoning Imus
Philip Nobile is the editor of Judgment at the Smithsonian, which
printed the banned Smithsonian script on the 50th anniversary
of the Bombs of August in 1995.
Editor's Note: Click here to read our earlier coverage of radio host Don Imus.
For many moons I have urged Howard Kurtz to cover the recurring media scandal known as "Imus in the Morning" in his Washington Post column. Yet Kurtz has resisted every tip, scarcely hiding his contempt in icy telephone exchanges. The frost continued when we met on an Imus remote at the World Trade Center in Manhattan a few days before the New York GOP primary last March. He was following John McCain, who was appearing once again on the show. I was tracking McCain, too, intending to inquire into his affinity with a man who ridiculed people like his adopted Bangladeshi daughter as "dothead," "Gunga Din," "Sambo," and "Punjab."
Kurtz was standing in a restricted press section when I introduced myself across the rope. He seemed less than thrilled. I extended my hand. He shook it with the same enthusiasm that Israeli prime ministers display in photo opportunities with Arab heads of state. In a quick parting gesture, I gave him a photocopy of my Newsday op ed (February 22) ripping David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, for slumming with the man who lampooned Tina Brown's Talk as "a magazine for liberal homosexuals." More than a glorified guest, Remnick was in Imus's pocket to the tune of $50,000 as winner of the now defunct Imus Book Award. Though an ardent race writer and friend of Ralph Ellison, Remnick was oddly silent about Imus's racist repertoire.
"If you don't start covering this stuff," I said to Kurtz, referring to my Newsday essay, "people will start thinking conflict of interest." (According to Newsweek, Imus turned Kurtz's Spin Cycle into a bestseller in 1997.) But my jab neither affected Kurtz's composure, nor his column.
Subsequently, he ignored five weekly "Imus Watches" posted on TomPaine.com between March 24 and April 28.
Senator McCain was not happy to hear from me either. As he exited the World Trade Center signing autographs, I ambushed him with a question about Imus's broadcast bigotry. Without looking up from a copy my Newsday column, which he robotically autographed, he said, "I don't listen to the show." Before I could hone in on Imus's abuse of Asians, he was gone.
If I do say so myself, "Imus Watch" was a simple solution to a vexing media puzzle. "Imus routinely has to protest that he is not a racist," noted Evan Thomas in a 1999 Newsweek cover piece. "I get accused of being a racist all the time, but I'm not," claimed Imus a few weeks later on the air. Well, was he or was he not? When Imus told Jeff Greenfield on "Larry King Live!" last February that he broadcast "racially offensive stuff," but did not "make a practice of it," I got the idea for a watch. The implication was that slurring African Americans occasionally was okay, but only a racist would do it regularly. Testing Imus's bigotry quotient was a cinch, though no reporter ever done it before. It required taping the six to ten a.m. program -- Imus does not provide transcripts -- and typing the incriminating dialogue.
I found that prejudice was a daily, even hourly, occurrence on "Imus in the Morning." Although renowned for their anti-black material, Imus and his crew were equally homophobic with a noxious dose of xenophobia and creepy disdain for the disabled. When commercials, traffic reports, celebrity interviews, musical interludes, and frequent odes to Imus's charitable works by Imus himself are subtracted, the ratio of defamatory remarks to available airtime rises dramatically. Smearing blacks and other minorities with vile epithets, depraved bits, and shameful parodies (e.g., calling Shaquille O'Neal "a carjacker in shorts," suggesting that Marisleysis Gonzales had pedophiliac sex with Elian, joking about the deaths of 400 Haitians in a ferry boat tragedy, winking at Andrew Cunanan's serial murders because he was merely "whacking off freaks," and labeling Paul McCartney's amputee girlfriend a "pogo stick") is the soul of the show.
From the beginning, Jim Romenesko's MediaNews jumped on the website-bites-Imus angle. In the past two months, Romenesko has hooked up more than a half-dozen links to the watch and related press. After TomPaine.com attacked Imus in a New York Times op ad on May 10, media coverage intensified. The New York Post, the New York Daily News, the Washington Post, Time magazine, C-SPAN, the "O'Reilly Factor," and WABC radio in New York explored the growing controversy. But not Kurtz. The nation's most influential media critic and bona fide Imus expert was invisible. Why? He will not say. Though a journalist who lives by asking other journalists questions, he will not take mine.
Nevertheless, Kurtz's feelings about Imus are not secret. He has already published fan notes in Columbia Journalism Review (1995) and in his book Hot Air (1996). "He made politics fun without the pretentiousness of public television or the staged combat of 'McLaughlin,'" Kurtz observed in the book. As for Imus's shock content, he was willing to tout pardonner. "Imus's sexist homophobic, and politically incorrect routines echo what many journalists joke about in private," he said, perhaps too candidly.
Yet Kurtz is not stupid. The mountain of nasties documented on TomPaine.com might have, should have, altered his perspective. No such luck.
Counter to intuition, Kurtz's solidarity with his benefactor has only increased. Consider the apologia delivered in a Washington Post chatroom on May 22:
I don't believe (as a regular listener and very occasional guest on the program) that Imus is in any way racist. He sometimes crosses the line, as he himself would admit, in trying to make people laugh, but it's all shtick. He's no bigot. (Ironically, some people say he's anti-gay but he's in favor of same-sex marriage). There's a writer who's been crusading against Imus, and he got the Web site TomPaine.com to buy a NYT op-ed ad denouncing the I-man, and that's what has set this off and prompted Jack White to write his Time column.
Kurtz's words transcended conflict of interest and indicated a more serious problem -- plain bad faith. In short, his absolute denial of Imus's bigotry was intellectually dishonest. In no way racist?
How about Imus's 1997 "60 Minutes" admission that he hired his producer, Bernard McGuirk, "to do nigger jokes." Surely, this nationally televised Mark Furhman moment was perfect proof of racism -- in some fashion or other.
Sometimes crosses the line? Without examples, this is bad reporting and empty analysis.
All shtick? How does Kurtz know? After "60 Minutes," the presumption must be otherwise. And since when is anti-black, anti-gay, and anti-foreigner shtick acceptable, day after day after day, complaint after complaint? Would Kurtz be so forgiving if Imus slimed him as a "beany-wearing, boner-nosed Jewboy" as often as he compared black athletes to apes?
Imus approves gay marriage? No irony there. Bigotry is a multi-headed beast. One can harbor racist attitudes without approving lynching or segregated churches. As a regular listener, Kurtz may have heard Imus and crew gay-bait Kevin Spacey, Carl Lewis, Bill Bradley, Hillary Clinton, Janet Reno, Rex Reed, Donaldo Dalrymple, Bill Gates, the WNBA and female anchors on CNN, among many, many others. During the pro-gay union discussion, Imus still mocked gay men as "homos" and McGuirk referred to Imus's taking "a ride down that Hershey highway."
A lone writer crusading against Imus? In addition to White, a number of prominent black journalists -- Ed Bradley, Stanley Crouch, Gwen Ifill, Les Payne, Ishmael Reed and Derrick Jackson -- have expressed repulsion for Imus's pre-Jackie Robinson act. If Kurtz searched Lexis for "Imus and racism," he would discover a hundred cites.
On May 17, confronted by Clarence Page, Imus swore off his racist and homophobic past by reciting a detailed anti-bigotry pledge composed by me and dictated in absentia by Page. In short, Imus promised to stop the skinhead shtick. In the same spirit, I wrote a follow-up pledge for Kurtz himself:
I, Howard Kurtz, do solemnly swear, that I will cease fronting for Imus at whatever cost to my reputation, my career and future book royalties. I will shed my straight, elite, white-skin bias to regard Imus as my minority brothers do. As a journalist committed to fairness, I will report both sides of the case in my Washington Post column. I will force my silent peers -- Tim Russert, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Cokie Roberts, Jim Lehrer et al. -- to explain their Imus ties on the record. If there is a Gentleman's Agreement at CBS and NBC to overlook Imus's John Rocker game, I want to be its Laura Z. Hobson.
Kurtz declined to take the offer without comment.
Author's note: I sent the above to Kurtz. Although he had stonewalled previous questions about Imus, I hoped that he would respond to the finished piece and the final tease. Our email exchanges on June 12 suggest that his loyalty to Imus is undying:
Nobile: Any comment, or was my prediction in last line correct?
Kurtz: I'll stand by what I've said. We just plain disagree on this subject. The recent Imus controversy was covered in the Washington Post by our radio columnist, Frank Ahrens.
Nobile: No, we don't just plain disagree. We're beyond Imus and on to journalistic ethics. Not only do you have a real conflict of interest with Imus, you are not honest about his bigotry. After the "60 Minutes" "nigger jokes" line, you cannot credibly say that Imus is in no way racist. The fact that you are dodging my questions shows that you cannot defend Imus out in the open.
Kurtz: You asked for my comment, and I gave it to you.
Nobile: Let us not play games. I asked you a series of questions [click here to read Nobile's earlier letter to Kurtz], which you have refused, most unprofessionally, to answer. And then I asked you to take an Imus-style pledge, which you have also declined in your fashion. If every media critic acted as loftily as you, you would be out of business. So tell me, after Imus admitted on "60 Minutes" that he hired McGuirk to do "nigger jokes," how can you honestly argue that Imus is not a racist IN ANY WAY? How about that way? Answer this question and I pledge to put this follow-up correspondence on hiatus.
Kurtz's answer never came.
Published: Jun 14 2000