Imus show is suspended as furor mounts

Times Staff Writer

CBS Radio and MSNBC are suspending Don Imus’ radio program for two weeks in an effort to staunch the furor after the controversial talk show host called the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.”

CBS Radio, which owns the New York sports station that produces “Imus in the Morning,” and MSNBC, which simulcasts the program, announced the suspension Monday evening after a day in which the calls for Imus’ dismissal grew louder, despite his pledge to curtail offensive remarks on his show.

The move came after high-level discussions at both networks that drew in CBS Corp. President Leslie Moonves and NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker. The suspension will take effect April 16 to allow the program to proceed with a previously scheduled radiothon this week to benefit children’s charities.

Officials at NBC News, which runs MSNBC, decided to suspend the program after “careful consideration,” according to a statement by the network.

“Don Imus has expressed profound regret and embarrassment and has made a commitment to listen to all of those who have raised legitimate expressions of outrage,” read a statement from NBC News.


“In addition, his dedication -- in his words -- to change the discourse on his program moving forward has confirmed for us that this action is appropriate. Our future relationship with Imus is contingent on his ability to live up to his word.”

The morning talk-show host made the remark about the predominantly African American team last week during a free-wheeling discussion about the NCAA women’s basketball championship, triggering sharp condemnation from black leaders and journalism groups.

Imus apologized two days later, but calls from African American leaders for him to be fired have mounted.

On Monday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson led a protest demanding his dismissal in front of the NBC offices in Chicago, one of several he plans to hold around the country. Rutgers University President Richard McCormick denounced Imus’ comments as “extremely hurtful” and said the college expected Imus’ employers to take the matter seriously.

The controversy has created a dicey situation for NBC and CBS Radio, which have garnered sizable audiences for Imus’ show. It airs on 70 radio stations around the country, including KCAA-AM (1050) in Southern California, and draws millions of listeners. Ratings for the MSNBC simulcast are up sharply this year, putting the cable channel in a close race with CNN’s second-place morning show.

The shock jock is known for his biting brand of humor and proudly calls himself an equal opportunity offender.

But this latest incident spotlighted the racially charged language he uses on his show, a frequent stop for NBC journalists such as Tim Russert, as well as politicians from both sides of the aisle. HBO’s Bill Maher and CBS’ Jeff Greenfield were scheduled to appear on the program today.

On Monday, Imus apologized again for the slur he used to describe the Rutgers team, saying he was embarrassed about the episode. He said he spent the weekend reaching out to black leaders, adding that he wants to express his regret in person to the basketball players and their families.

“They need to know that I’m a good person who said a bad thing,” he said.

“This program has been, for 30 or 35 years, a program that makes fun of everybody,” Imus added. “It makes fun of me and it makes fun of everybody on the planet.... That’s got to change -- some of that -- because some people don’t deserve to be made fun of, like these young women.”

During the 13-minute segment, Imus discussed the work he does on his cattle ranch in New Mexico, where he and his wife host children who have cancer and blood disorders; 10% of the children are black.

“I’m not a white man who doesn’t know any African Americans,” he said.

The gravelly voiced radio personality also made an extensive appearance on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s nationally syndicated radio show to make amends.

“Our agenda is to try to be funny, and sometimes we go too far,” he told the civil rights leader. “And sometimes we go way too far. In this case, we went way too far.”

Imus added that when he made the remark, he didn’t think of it as a racial term.

But Sharpton denounced the comment as “racist” and “abominable,” adding: “You should be fired for saying it.”

Sharpton was joined by Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), who called on MSNBC to institute policies to prevent other similar incidents.

“I mean, who says ‘hos’ publicly?” she asked. “What is that? That is probably one of the most derogatory things any woman -- black, brown, yellow -- could even ever experience.”

The program grew contentious at times, with Imus growing testy as he defended the work he’s done on behalf of sick children.

“I will bet you I have slept in a house with more black children who were not related to me than you have,” he said to Bryan Monroe, president of the National Assn. of Black Journalists.

At another point, as he argued with Sharpton and Kilpatrick, Imus declared: “I can’t get anyplace with you people.”