A PLEDGE BROKEN: Part 1
The Racist, Sexist, Homophobic Schtick Is Back On Imus In The Morning.
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.
The performance will live in radio and television history. On May 17, 2000, talk show host Don Imus raised his right hand and solemnly swore before an audience of millions to retire the racist, sexist and homophobic routines that had accompanied him to the media mountaintop. It was just a week after TomPaine.com published an ad on the op-ed page of the New York Times summarizing my "Imus Watch" series that documented the repulsive content of Imus's hugely popular program.
Here was one of Time magazine's "twenty-five most influential Americans," a darling of the mostly straight, mostly white, mostly male, A-list of pols and pundits, and he was eating crow, live on national TV and radio.
Reciting a pledge read by columnist Clarence Page, who had flirted with a boycott of the program (joined by Gwen Ifill, Ed Bradley, Stanley Crouch, and Al Sharpton), Imus promised to end all references on his show to blacks as "gorillas," "pimps," "knuckle-dragging morons" and Colt '45 swizzlers; to quit playing minstrel-show, black-voice parodies and demeaning "Amos 'n' Andy" cuts; to cease wielding epithets like "homo," "lesbo," "load-swallower" and "carpet-muncher" aimed at public figures like Hillary Clinton, Jodie Foster, Kevin Spacey and Bill Bradley; and to squelch anti-ethnic comments such as "Gunga Din" and "Sambo" for Indians and "eating dirt sandwiches" for Zimbabweans. "Mogadishu" metaphors for New York City were also set aside.
Don Imus's turn-around was all the more amazing because he had spent the preceding five shows, simulcast on weekday mornings by CBS Radio and MSNBC, raging against TomPaine.com and a follow-up piece in Time by columnist Jack E. White, Jr., headlined "Imus 'n' Andy."
"I'm not going to change this program because some punk runs an ad," Imus insisted. "... I'm as opposed to racism and bigotry and homophobia as anybody, believe me."
"I'll do the best I can with your pledge
and rein in these renegades, okay?"
Nevertheless, the 60-year-old shockjock, who puts a high premium on personal honor, gave Page his word: no more nightsoil from his crew or himself. "I'll do the best I can with your pledge and rein in these renegades, okay?"
So how is Imus doing in 2001?
TomPaine.com recomissioned its original "Imus Watch" to find out. Repeating the monitoring exercise of spring 2000, I tuned into "Imus in the Morning" between February and June, listening for and cataloguing the maledicta.
The result, in brief: Imus broke his pledge. His stone-cold bigotry is back, as creepy as ever. And his bodyguard of big-name media and political guests, strategically deaf to the show's lower frequencies, have hung in as well.
"I love Imus and stand by him," said Bill O'Reilly, Fox News Channel's star bully.
Regulars on "Imus in the Morning" show include: Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Jeff Greenfield, Cokie Roberts, Howard Fineman, Anna Quindlen, Bob Schieffer, Frank Rich, Jonathan Alter, Senator Joe Lieberman, Senator John McCain, and Senator John Kerry, and Bob Kerrey, among many others.
By their association, these guests have provided cover for the program's routine garbage. Consider the anti-black and anti-gay material from the February 1 show.
Imus scorned Black History Month with an "Andy Rooney" commentary ridiculing ex-congressman Mel Reynolds, freshly pardoned by Bill Clinton, and other prominent blacks in hot water:
Voice of "Andy Rooney": Mel's the guy who's most famously reported for -- oh, how to put this delicately? -- whackin' off during a phone conversation with a 17-year-old paramour trying to get her to set up a threesome for him with her 15-year-old girl chum. What's his Black History Month speech going to be? "I have a hard-on?"
Piling on Black History Month, Imus followed with a black-voice parody of poet Maya Angelou by his executive producer, Bernard McGuirk, whom Imus declared on "60 Minutes" (July 19, 1998) was tasked to "do nigger jokes":
Imus: Here now, Bernard McGuirk as Maya Angelou.
"Angelou": How you doin'? (extended laughter) The Yankees freed you from chains/They gave the South a lickin'/Not so you could smoke crack, get bitches and eat lots of chicken. (extended laughter)
Imus : (seeming amused) No, no, no, no, no, Maya.
"Angelou": Show some pride/Stop you're whinin' and sayin' oh po' me/And shaking you booty to "Me So Horny."
Imus: (faking exasperation) That'll be fine, Maya.
"Angelou": Got a cigarette? (laughter)
In a third straight shot at Black History Month, Imus then ran an "Amos 'n' Andy" bit, which he'd supposedly forsaken when taking the pledge.
After these smears of one minority came one ugly fusillade against another. Bo Dietl, the show's movie and restaurant critic, used Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to slam gays:
Imus: Did you watch "Meet the Press" Sunday, Bo?
Bo Dietl: Yeah, "Meet the Press," yeah ...
Imus: Do you know who Terry McAuliffe is?
Dietl: That's the Democratic, pantie-wearin' faggot. (laughter)
Imus: I would rather ...
Dietl: [interrupting] Fundraising ...
Dietl: Swallower, load-swallower.
Dietl: Chumpface, sore loser faggot. Now, you're getting it out of me, okay?
Imus: We could do without that.
Dietl: How about my president, George Bush? How good is he?
Imus: Couldn't we do without faggot?
Dietl: Homo sapiens fudge-packer, fudge-packer liberal, fudge-packer liberal.
(In the wake of the original "Imus Watch," Imus secretly banned Dietl for two months, as he acknowledged on "Larry King Live" last August.)
From February 1 on, Imus and his "rengades" systematically betrayed every clause in the clean-air pledge to Clarence Page.
For example, they slurred basketball star Patrick Ewing as "a knuckle-dragging moron" (2/26); Harlemites as "molignans" (Italian for eggplant) (2/26); Africans as "cannibals" (3/19), and tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams as "animals" more likely to be seen in the National Geographic than Playboy (6/5).
Hillary Clinton was reviled as a "lesbo" (2/12); piano bar patrons as "homo" and "queer" (3/16); Chinese as "chinks" (4/6) and "gooks" (2/25); and Japanese as "slanty-eyed bastards" (6/6). A black woman maimed in the Puff Daddy shooting incident was sullied as "a one-eyed ho'" (2/23). Malcolm X was degraded by a riff on "Malcolm Triple-X condoms -- so you can get booty by any means necessary" (2/16).
Gratuitously rubbing in the homophobia during a taped best-of program (3/23), Imus replayed Jack Nicholson's anti-gay rant from As Good As It Gets:
"... if it's election night and you're excited and you want to celebrate because some fudgepacker that you date has been elected to be the first queer president of the United States and he's going to have you down to Camp David, and you want someone to share the moment with, even then, don't knock, not on this door, not for any reason. Do you get me, sweetheart?"
And in the cruelest bit of the year, with vile allusions to lesbian love, bestiality, and the tremors caused by Parkinson's disease, Janet Reno and Donna Shalala were mocked via an Imus and McGuirk dialogue
, a "Cardinal Egan" parody
, and a "Rush Limbaugh" song parody
in three separate shows (6/12-15-18).
You May Be Wondering
By now you may be wondering: How does Imus get away with it, in broad daylight, with awards galore, and kissed by the corporate, media and political elites?
The most obvious answer is the existence of a Gentlemen's Agreement, some kind of vast, heterosexual-Caucasian-male conspiracy whereby Imus provides primo airtime and in return gets a pass denied to similar trespassers such as Dr. Laura, Jimmy-the-Greek, Al Campanis, Fuzzy Zoeller, John Rocker, Bob Grant, and Doug "The Greaseman" Tracht, all of whom suffered more for crimes of the same variety. Imus hasn't suffered at all.
Not after Imus disclosed to Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes" his casual use of "nigger." And not after Howard Stern told the New York Post recently that "Imus used to walk through the halls [at WNBC in the 80's] screaming out 'nigger' at some of the secretaries, reducing one to tears." Imus confirmed Stern's assertion on "Larry King Live" on June 15. "I was probably drunk," he said, but tendered no apology. In both cases, there was no follow up by the press.
Money and power, of course, are the main props behind Imus's survival. If he were a single-market phenomenon of limited clout and revenue stream, he might not be protected. But he is a huge cash cow for New York's WFAN-AM, his home station, as well as for CBS Radio, which syndicates him in some 100 large and small cities with a claimed weekly audience of some 10 million listeners. MSNBC must turn a tidy profit, too, because its TV simulcast of the show is tops in its ratings.
Advertisers stick with him, no doubt, because they want access to his audience. Prestigious brands like Jeep, Fuji, Nasdaq, Mercedes Benz, Barnes & Noble, the Washington Post Company and Reader's Digest take advantage of the exposure. Would Merrill Lynch Chairman David Komansky and New York Stock Exchange President Dick Grasso, mega-donors to Imus's children's ranch, continue to lend him their reputations if they had to explain to their boards why they support a man who said of Janet Reno, a victim of Parkinson's disease, "I don't know how she gets her lipstick on (laughter) looking like a rodeo clown"? Cushioned by the kindness of billion-dollar corporations and lionized by The New Yorker, Newsweek, and the now-defunct George magazine -- which lauded him as a "New Patriot" -- Imus has zero incentive to go cold-turkey on the "nigger jokes."
Seeking Joe Welch
Despite his establishmentarian armor, Imus lives on the edge of humiliation. It would only take one well-placed and well-publicized Joe Welch charge to explode his legend.
Welch was the intrepid Boston lawyer who put the dagger in Senator Joe McCarthy in 1954 by asking him at the Army-McCarthy hearings, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?"
Unfortunately, there is no one in Imus's glittering orbit who cares enough to force the decency issue. His A-list guests would rather advance their agendas and flog their books than confront Imus's bigotry on the program. In turn, he grants them what he calls a "zone of purity" (e.g., no bigoted cracks when the guests are on) and lavishes them with fawning praise ("I adore Michael Bechloss."). For one lucky guest, New Yorker editor David Reminick, there was a $50,000 cash bonus under the guise of an Imus Book Award.
When I recommended the Welch role to Mike Wallace and Andy Rooney, they declined. So did Father Tom Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman, who go under the showbiz name of "The God Squad." In April 2000, these longtime Imus allies quietly walked off the program in reaction to a viciously racist parody of former New Jersey Nets star Jason Williams. But neither man of the cloth wished to break publicly with their benefactor.
"Imus is good for business."
On Valentine's Day, I bumped into another prospect, David Rosenthal. We used to work together at New York
magazine in the 1970s. I remember David as a man of the Left without a whiff of prejudice. But now he happens to be Imus's editor at Simon & Schuster, where he is also publisher.
When David sat down at a nearby table in a Brooklyn restaurant, I seized the moment to mention my search for someone to call Imus to task, à la Joe Welch. At the end of my one-minute pitch I said, "Why would you want to do business with a someone who uses 'nigger'?"
David listened politely, registering no dissonance. But his terse response was as truthful as it was chilling. "Imus is good for business," he said.
"And the nigger jokes?"
"I'm a very tolerant man," he replied, grinning.
CLICK HERE to read Part Two.
Published: Jun 28 2001