Anyone that has ever listened to Don Imus, who was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1989, knows the so-called “original shock jock” is not exactly Doctor Phil when it comes to the sensitivity department. For better or worse, it’s part of his appeal. But his recent comment that the Rutgers women’s basketball team was full of “nappy-headed hos” has put the politically correct posse into overdrive and suddenly this has become the Perfect Media Storm, making headlines from CNN to ESPN.com. The latter had nine different links to related content Tuesday morning.
To me, the hullabaloo seemed overblown at first. After all, this was just one slam among a litany of past put downs. So what makes these ill-conceived words such a big deal?
For starters, sensitivity awareness was a vogue topic long before Imus’s latest contraction of “foot in mouth” disease. During and interview on the “Charlie Rose Show,” in response to Rose’s offer to work the men’s Final Four with CBS analyst Billy Packer, Packer exclaimed “You always fag out on that one for me, you know.” Go back a few more news cycles and you’ll find former NBA player Tim Hardaway’s infamous “I hate gay people” comment to Dan Le Batard. Then there’s the outburst by comedian Michael Richards, who hadn’t been at all relevant since the final “Seinfeld” episode in 1998, when he shouted a racial epithet at a heckler. Before that we had Mel Gibson bashing the Jews. And somewhere in there, Senator Joseph Biden pretty much doomed his presidential bid by calling Senator Barack Obama “clean.” But none of those previous events have had the legs that have sustained Imus’s trespass for more than a week.
To be honest, at first, I thought it was a non-story. Why? Because we, as a culture, have a very blurry line when it comes to remarks of this nature. Just look at the other personalities in Imus’s field. Sirius Radio’s Howard Stern — who apparently told his listeners Imus should have responded by saying: “F— you, it’s a joke.” — debases women as an integral part of his shtick. Even apart from Stern, women serve as the butt of many a morning radio joke. What was so out of the norm?
Maybe it was the combination of the racial element? But again, racial remarks of a comedic nature aren’t new for comics of any race. In his book “Git-R-Done,” Larry the Cable Guy referred to inmates of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison as “commie rag head carpet flying wicker basket on the head balancing scumbags.” And Mr. Cable Guy is a very successful comedian, so apparently we have tolerance for this in some capacity.
So again, I’m thinking, what’s the big deal? What’s out of the norm here? But in approaching the issue of insensitivity from the angle of “what is accepted,” as Stern, and Larry the Cable Guy seem to be, then I’m wondering if the issue at hand isn’t even bigger than it already is.
Part of the reason this story has mushroomed is because of influence. “Imus in the Morning” isn’t strictly a comedy show. Imus welcomes presidential nominees like John McCain and John Kerry, political pundits like James Carville and media figures like Tim Russert. He even has a bit of the “Oprah” touch, when it comes to touting books, landing more than a few titles on best seller lists. The show’s telecast on MSNBC only narrowly trails CNN’s morning show broadcast in total viewers. But if people are worried about influence, why is this conversation not concerned with those most likely to be influenced … namely this country’s youth.
In my mind, simply firing Don Imus does nothing to help what is actually at issue here, that being, trying to foster a society that is accepting of all people of all backgrounds. Most adults, those that actually care about this specific story, have views that aren’t going to be changed by its outcome. If we want to use this trespass — and let’s be clear, what Imus said was idiotic, mean, needless and flat out wrong — as an opportunity for progress, then we need to expand the focus to where it might make a difference.
We have in-school programs to educate our kids about sex, diseases, drugs and acceptance of alternative lifestyles … then they go home and listen to music that demeans women, play video games glamorizing violence or watch music videos glamorizing scanty clothing on girls barely into middle school. Heck, that epithet-dropping Larry the Cable Guy even voiced a character in the animated kids’ movie “Cars.”
We’re shaking our fingers with one hand but then covering our eyes to another set of similar problems confronting the most impressionable part of our society. Regarding Stern and the morning misogynists, artistic value of modern music and fashion and just what’s plain funny, we have some serious re-evaluating to do. While burning the “shock jock” at the stake isn’t undeserved, if those crying for Imus’s head really want to address the issue of insensitivity, then this latest debate is simply scratching the surface of a much, much larger problem.