Firing Imus was the right thing

Years of racist, sexist and anti-Semitic jokes took their toll, and MSNBC finally saw the light.

Published April 11, 2007 11:21PM (EDT)

MSNBC just announced it will no longer simulcast Don Imus' morning radio show, and I'll be on "Scarborough Country" tonight to talk about it. Just a few quick thoughts here.

In my comments thread the last time I wrote about this, people continued to insist Imus' right to free speech was threatened by those -- like me -- who said he should be fired. I continue to think that's ridiculous. The First Amendment protects your right to be free from government restrictions on your expression. It doesn't protect your high-salary job at a major network radio or cable television show. If the government came in and shut down Imus for his "nappy headed hos" comment, I'd be the first to protest. But for MSNBC to fire Imus for his years of making sexist, racist and anti-Semitic "jokes," that's its right. He can go shout those same "jokes" from the nearest mountaintop or in the public square. He can start a blog or a newsletter or a magazine. He can see if Fox News will give him a show. He can turn himself into Dr. Phil, and try to get Oprah to forgive and hire him. But network managers are well within their rights to say, "We just don't want this guy representing us on our airwaves anymore." They do that, for lesser reasons, every day.

And on the specifics of Imus' offense: Let's be clear. He didn't slip one day, for instance, and use the n-word, and then immediately apologize. This was an ongoing shtick. In the segment that got him in hot water, he and McGuirk really enjoyed themselves, one-upping one another with sexist cracks the way sexist losers do: The Rutgers women went from Imus' "rough girls" to McGuirk's "hardcore hos" to Imus' "nappy-headed hos!" Then they reprised Spike Lee's "School Daze," casting the Rutgers vs. Tennessee teams as "the Jigaboos vs. the Wannabes," with the Rutgers women, of course, in the role of the dark-skinned Jigaboos. That wasn't enough, though. The Rutgers women, they said, really looked like an NBA team -- the Raptors, no, the Grizzlies. Big, scary, ugly black men -- got it? Or was it big, scary, ugly black animals? Hard to say. The following day, as Jonathan Miller revealed on Salon, he refused to apologize. "Calm down," he told listeners.

And it wasn't his first trip into the realm of creepy, racist humor: Just a few weeks ago McGuirk ridiculed Sen. Hillary Clinton for African-American inflections that crept into her speech in Selma, Ala., and suggested the "bitch is gonna be wearing cornrows" and that she "will have cornrows and gold teeth before this fight with [Sen. Barack] Obama is over." That time Imus tried to stop him, noting that McGuirk had gotten the pair in trouble with racist ridicule of poet Maya Angelou. I could go on and on -- about the guy Imus used to call "Lenny the Jew," about former staffer Sid Rosenberg calling Venus and Serena Williams "animals" on the show, and laughing about how ugly one actress was going to be after breast cancer treatment "with one titty" -- and I intended to go on, but midway through this post I got the news Imus was fired, so it seems like piling on. Still no word from CBS about his radio show.

One way Imus and conservative commentators tried to deflect criticism was to point to the misogyny of rap music. That's ridiculous, too. I hate some rap music, I like some. I'm in a running dialogue with my daughter about the message of many of these rappers and their songs; I turn the radio off in the car a lot. But to be fair, there's a lot of debate in the black community over these issues as well. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton haven't merely attacked Imus; they've criticized misogynistic rappers as well. Besides, as I said in my Imus comments thread on Tuesday: "When 50 Cent has a drive-time radio show and the morning slot at MSNBC, let's debate this. Imus is a mainstream media figure who gets his ring kissed by other men of the MSM and countless politicians. There's really no comparison."

More later.

By Joan Walsh

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