Radio host skated close to the edge, and plenty went along

Times Staff Writers

It was not the first time that Don Imus uttered something racist, homophobic, sexist or anti-Semitic. But the shock jock’s comments last week about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team continues to eclipse any controversy created by all of his previous slurs, sparking soul-searching from past guests and supporters.

One day after CBS Radio and MSNBC announced that they would yank Imus off the air for two weeks, the Rutgers players held a nationally televised news conference to condemn the 66-year-old talk show host for referring to them as “nappy-headed hos.”

At the same time, NBC weatherman Al Roker said the radio host should be fired, and media critics urged Imus’ regular guests to reconsider appearing on his show again. Even President Bush, through a spokeswoman, weighed in on the matter.


“The president believed that the apology was the absolute right thing to do,” spokeswoman Dana Perino said. “And beyond that, I think that his employer is going to have to make a decision about any action that they take based on it.”

The basketball team and coach’s comments were less measured.

“These young ladies before you are valedictorians, future doctors, musical prodigies,” Rutgers basketball Coach C. Vivian Stringer said. She labeled his comments “racist and sexist remarks that are deplorable, despicable and unconscionable.”

The team plans to meet with Imus.

“I am not a racist,” Imus said on his show Tuesday. “What I did was make a stupid, idiotic mistake in a comedy context.”

His two-week suspension begins Monday. A CBS Radio spokeswoman said Imus would probably donate his salary from that period to charity.

One of Imus’ few defenders was Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of the talk radio magazine Talkers. The real issue, Harrison said, is a larger battle over the kind of coarse language popularized by hip-hop and rap culture.

“ ‘Bitch’ and ‘ho’ are so prevalent in music, radio, television and the movies these days that it’s reached the point where white people think it’s OK to say these things,” Harrison said. “It’s like a game of musical chairs where they stopped playing the music and the spotlight happened to be on him.”

Imus’ critics were not swayed by his apology.

“The ‘I’m a good person who said a bad thing’ apology doesn’t cut it,” Roker wrote on the “Today” show blog.

It remains to be seen whether disgust over Imus’ comments will translate into a boycott of his program by NBC correspondents and anchors, such as Tim Russert, Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams, who have frequented “Imus in the Morning,” which is simulcast on MSNBC.

But the subject was a central topic at NBC, and Williams noted the potential conflict on his blog. “Making this especially difficult: the obvious fact that many of us have been on-air guests of his, a relationship both sides have benefited from over the years.”

The anchor of “NBC Nightly News” did not say whether he would return to Imus’ show.

Steve Rendall, a senior analyst at the liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, said Imus had benefited in the past from a “gentleman’s agreement” with top media personalities who refused to criticize Imus for any number of offensive remarks.

“They will appear on his show as folksy and human in exchange for their silence,” Rendall said.

Philip Nobile, the former media critic for New York magazine and a longtime chronicler of Imus’ offensive statements, said that none of the radio host’s media guests had criticized what Imus had previously said, nor had any declined an invitation to appear on his program.

Nobile singled out several of Imus’ regular media guests -- Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter and CBS’ Jeff Greenfield and Bob Schieffer, among others.

“To me, these are moral sellouts,” Nobile said.

Alter did not reply to an e-mail seeking comment. Greenfield appeared on the Imus show Tuesday, saying the Rutgers remarks were “admittedly idiotic and hurtful.”

Later, Greenfield said he wanted to give the radio personality a chance to redeem himself. “I went on the show to say to him what I think had to change,” said the political analyst, who recently rejoined CBS News.

Greenfield said he and other journalists did not object when Imus made offensive comments in the past because they viewed it as part the show’s culture of taking potshots at everyone. In retrospect, he said, he should have spoken up.

“That’s something people like me should have challenged him on,” he said.

Schieffer, the longtime anchor of “Face the Nation,” called Imus’ remarks indefensible. But Schieffer said he would probably go on Imus’ show again, noting that they had been friends for 15 years.

Still, Schieffer said, “there’s probably a good lesson for all of us in this. We all need to refocus and be sensitive to these things. Maybe sometimes he’s gone too far and some of us really haven’t been paying attention.”

In the next couple of days it should become clear whether Imus will keep his job, radio industry observers say. Reuters reported Tuesday that some sponsors were backing away.

“Clients have asked us to pull their advertising because it’s controversial and offensive,” said Dennis McGuire, vice president and regional broadcast director for Carat USA, a leading media-buying agency.


Horn reported from Los Angeles and Gold from New York. Times staff writer Martin Miller contributed to this report.