Imus offends

Should the addlepated radio host lose his job because he called the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos"?

Published April 9, 2007 11:33PM (EDT)

Oy vey. In the last week, loose-cannon radio host Don Imus has been learning something he really should have known already: That it's not OK to refer to a group of female basketball players as "nappy-headed hos."

For anyone who hasn't been following the recent fracas over his doing just that: Last Wednesday, on "Imus in the Morning," Imus and show producer Bernard McGuirk were talking about the previous night's NCAA women's championship game between Tennessee and Rutgers, and had the following exchange (Media Matters has the full transcript):

"IMUS: That's some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos and --
McGUIRK: Some hard-core hos.
IMUS: That's some nappy-headed hos there. I'm gonna tell you that now, man, that's some -- woo. And the girls from Tennessee, they all look cute, you know, so, like -- kinda like -- I don't know.
McGUIRK: A Spike Lee thing.
IMUS: Yeah.
McGUIRK: The Jigaboos vs. the Wannabes -- that movie that he had." (A little oversimplified background on that reference: In Spike Lee's 1988 film "School Daze," the Jigaboos and the Wannabees are rival cliques in conflict over racial identity; the Wannabees are lighter-skinned, and are criticized for having weaves.)

Not surprisingly, some listeners objected. Digging himself a little deeper on Thursday's show, Imus "wondered aloud on his show what the big deal was, saying people should not be offended by 'some idiot comment meant to be amusing,'" according to the New York Times. The radio host finally got around to backpedaling on Friday, saying the Rutgers remark "was completely inappropriate, and we can understand why people were offended. Our characterization was thoughtless and stupid, and we are sorry."

In further attempts at damage control, Imus spoke in his own defense during today's broadcast, trotting out a variant of the "some of my best friends are black" defense: "I'm not a white man who doesn't know any African-Americans." (Reporting on the show, the New York Times offered this snarky headline: "Imus Tries to Explain His Remarks Again.") Imus also went on the Rev. Al Sharpton's radio show this afternoon, to address the fact that Sharpton wants Imus fired. But I'm not sure the mea culpa tour, as Newsday called it, is going to do much good, because even as he apologizes Imus seems flustered and annoyed that the hullabaloo hasn't blown over yet. "I didn't come here to get slapped around," he protested on Sharpton's show, later complaining, "I can't get anywhere with you people." He doesn't really seem to see what the big deal is.

Here's how Sharpton explained it to him: "This is about setting a precedent that allows racist language to be used in mainstream, federally regulated television and radio. What you said was racist ... This is not about whether you're a good man. It's about how you devalue how my daughter and the daughters of a lot of people listening are going to be looked at in this world." He told Imus, "It can't just be glossed over. If you walk away from this unscathed, the next guy can."

And, especially considering the epidemic of foot-in-mouth disease lately afflicting the entertainment industry, that's a fair point. Giving offense is the bread and butter of shock-jock radio, and Imus is a bit of a dinosaur. But the more I consider Imus' and McGuirk's comments, the worse they seem. Reducing the top women's college basketball teams to their perceived attractiveness is bad; implicitly equating attractiveness with a culturally loaded attribute like straight hair is disgusting. Referring to the hardworking Rutgers players as "hos" denigrates the players' professionalism and athleticism, and is particularly troubling considering the widespread sexual objectification of black women. Plus, it's not as if Imus has a marginal, podunk radio show; he has more than 3 million listeners, and, as Sharpton noted, network news anchors, senators and presidential candidates are frequently guests on his program. I don't always agree with Sharpton, but on this one I think he's right; Imus and Co. should face tangible consequences.

On that front: MSNBC has just announced it's suspending its "Imus in the Morning" simulcasts for two weeks. We'll keep you posted as the story develops.

Update: Following the MSNBC bulletin, CBS radio announced that it will also suspend Imus' show for two weeks. NBC has further announced that it has "served notice that it will not tolerate another insensitive remark from the host. It said that Mr. Imus had promised to change the tenor of the program, and that he agreed the suspension was an appropriate action," according to the New York Times.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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