Bloggers, Don Imus and free speech

Our treasured right to self-expression will survive even if blog operators delete nasty comments and a clueless radio host loses his over job racist remarks.

Published April 9, 2007 11:26PM (EDT)

It was hard to miss the irony: As bloggers debate how to encourage civility and curtail misogyny online, a discussion so controversial it makes the front page of the New York Times, the captains of mainstream media can't quite figure out how to deal with CBS radio and MSNBC host Don Imus, who called the Rutgers women's basketball teams "nappy-headed hos" last week.

Let me first deal with the blogosphere. I applaud efforts by bloggers and other online publishers to raise the quality of discussion on the Web, as well as to discourage sexism and abuse of women. At Salon, we struggle with these issues daily, and as you know, we recently made some changes to our posting policy, requiring people to register before they post comments or letters. Where some bloggers ban anonymous comments, at Salon we're going to continue allowing people to choose to post anonymously (for the reasons laid out well by posters in this comments thread). If we find that people are abusing the anonymous option to post abusive attacks on our writers or one another, we'll reconsider our policy. Right now, I don't anticipate that will be necessary. But I certainly consider it within our rights as a publishing company -- and I think any individual blogger has the same right. We also reserve the right -- and we use it -- to delete posts we consider abusive and/or off-topic.

What I don't understand is how anyone can believe that banning anonymous posts or deleting abusive ones curtails their "freedom of speech." Salon and individual bloggers aren't agents of the government; if you don't like our posting policies, you're free to stop visiting, or even to start your own blog criticizing us. In the New York Times piece tech publisher Tim O'Reilly and Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales talked about developing a tiered code of standards that would let readers know what they could anticipate on a given blog -- my tier might allow anonymous comments; yours might not, and there could be some kind of logo that helps visitors understand the realm they've entered. The whole thing seems a little impractical to me, given the breadth of the blogosphere, but it doesn't seem sinister. But's Robert Scoble, who stopped blogging for a week in solidarity with Kathy Sierra, told the New York Times the proposed rules "make me feel uncomfortable" and added, "As a writer, it makes me feel like I live in Iran." Scoble is smarter than that.

Of course the Imus situation is very different. We're not talking about a blog post, or even a nasty caller or guest on his show; we're talking about offensive comments made by the well-paid host of a mainstream media show. He and producer Bernard McGuirk apparently had a back and forth about the differences between the Rutgers and Tennessee women's team, which began with Imus noting the Rutgers women's tattoos, escalated when McGuirk called the women "hos," and went off the rails when Imus called them "nappy-headed hos." (They also compared the two predominantly black teams to the "Jigaboos" and "Wannabes" spoofed in Spike Lee's satire of racial tension at historically black colleges, "School Daze.")

I have a soft spot for media personalities who aren't bland, standard-issue microphone holders. I don't think Rosie O'Donnell should be fired for not believing the official line on why the World Trade Center Building 7 collapsed, for instance (even though I disagree with her, and I think she may be self-destructing with her increasingly over-the-top political rants). But I think Imus has to go. (As I'm writing, NBC has suspended him for two weeks; CBS merely said it will "monitor" his show's content.) I think it even more strongly after watching his apology Monday morning, and his exchange with Rev. Al Sharpton on Sharpton's radio show this afternoon. The man is clueless about race. On his own show, he rambled endlessly about the sick kids he hosts at the Imus Ranch, many of them black, some with sickle cell anemia, and patted himself on the back for caring about sickle cell anemia even when, he claimed bizarrely, many black journalists didn't. He bragged about his friendship with former Rep. Harold Ford, and his hosting the Blind Boys of Alabama. He was possibly even worse with Sharpton. More than once he defended his tasteless "nappy-headed hos" riff by saying he was just "rappin'" with his staff. Later, apparently frustrated, he referred to Sharpton and Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick as "you people," the dumb white-guy term of non-endearment made famous by Ross Perot, and when Sharpton took offense, he retorted, "Don't try to hang that on me, that's jive." It was as though a black prankster had dressed up in whiteface to spoof a clueless racist.

"You people" and "rappin'" and "jive" don't amount to a firing offense. "Nappy headed hos" by itself is pretty close. Especially because, as David Carr pointed out in the Times today, it's not Imus' first racially offensive crack -- he called Gwen Ifill a "cleaning lady" and said the Times' William C. Rhoden was a "quota hire." Taken all together, the "nappy-headed hos" crack plus today's performance -- Imus as well-meaning, misunderstood, increasingly self-pitying white guy subject to "jive" from his critics -- should send Imus searching for a new job. But Carr captured why Imus has so far kept his show and also avoided becoming a media pariah (Newsweek's Evan Thomas was on the show today). It's because he's provided a fun place for stuffy white journalists and politicians to get down, so to speak, and pretend they're just one of the guys -- from NBC's Tim Russert and Brian Williams to MSNBC's Chris Matthews (with whom he shared an infamous gross gay slur, calling "Brokeback Mountain" "Fudgepack Mountain"), to Sens. John Kerry and John McCain.

On some MSNBC message boards, Imus fans are defending their hero and insisting his critics want to curtail his "freedom" to be a rambunctious radio host. "I'm a good person who said a bad thing," Imus kept saying Monday in his own defense. I don't know if Imus is a good person, but it really doesn't matter. Being a "good person" isn't part of his job description, but finding a way not to say "bad things" is, for a radio and television host. By his own telling, Imus failed at his job, and all of his efforts to do damage control made the situation worse.

By Joan Walsh

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