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Imus and “I’m Us”

Mark Lloyd asks who exactly will miss “Imus in the Morning.” The answers are as shocking as the shock jock himself.

Does his name say it all? Does Imus really reflect the views of us…or just middle age white men? Does the locker room banter of “I’m us” in the Morning reflect the way women and minorities, and especially minority women, are viewed by awakening white men? Is this, as some of us fear, what is said and thought when the rest of us are out of reach, where important decisions are sometimes made in the U.S.?

The resulting hubbub after the ugly comment by Don Imus and his subsequent firing is so revealing about racism and the media that it is difficult not to add a few words. If advertisers and Imus’ employers proved after this latest transgression that they are finally eager to distance themselves from his enduring racism, a Washington Post poll reveals that the majority of white males were more forgiving. According to that poll, large majorities of African Americans and a slight majority of most women thought “I’m us” should be fired, but most white men disagreed.

Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Jeff Greenfield are not alone.

But Democrats are worried too. As the Los Angeles Times reports, “Imus gave Democrats a pipeline to a crucial voting bloc that was perennially hard for them to reach: politically independent white men.” Or listen to Dan Gerstein, an advisor to one of Imus’ favorite regulars, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who told the LA Times:

This is a real bind for Democrats. Talk radio has become primarily the province of the right, and the blogosphere is largely the province of the left. If Imus loses his microphone, there aren’t many other venues like it around.

One “senior Democratic strategist” (who preferred to remain anonymous) disagreed about the importance of the show, saying it was little more than a “locker room for middle-age politicians.” That’s what the rest of us are worried about.

That “I’m us” could not only stay on the air several years after he and his locker mate Bernard McGuirk insulted black correspondent Gwen Ifill and poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, but serve as the platform where Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT) announced his candidacy for the presidency tells us volumes about the state of political discourse in the United States.  

Many of those who would easily forgive “I’m us” are apparently distracted by Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson offering themselves as character witnesses for the campaign to oust Imus. Al and Jesse certainly don’t belong in the locker room.

Others attempt to pin the blame on “rap” and “hip hop.” These folks only reveal their limited appreciation for a diverse and vibrant new music that has influenced musicians around the globe without inducing them to disparage black scholar athletes. And they reveal a limited understanding of who actually controls what sort of “rap” gets on radio and cable.

The libertarian Adam Thierer is concerned that regulating hate speech would be impossible, ignoring the dozens of other democracies that work to protect their culture by regulating hate speech (Germany’s current anti-Nazi laws, for example). He also ignores the regulation of indecency. Is a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s breast really worse than Imus? Thierer’s main point however is, well, what’s the use:

How much of a difference would it really make in our multi-platform, multi-channel world of media abundance? Seriously, is there any shortage of soapboxes for a jackass like Don Imus to stand on and spew his stupidity?

It is important to point out that “I’m us” in the Morning was not on just any old soapbox. When CBS and NBC fired him, “I’m us” was carried by 61 radio stations and a cable service seen in every major market in the U.S. With roughly 1.6 million radio listeners per week and an average of 361,000 viewers, his was no small voice squeaking away someplace on the Internet.  

“I’m us” will likely find another soapbox, not because he is burning to do another interview, but because he made his patrons some $50 million dollars a year. Because there are so many people who include themselves in the “us” bit of “I’m us.” Because banter from the locker room sells. Because making money is what counts most in our regulation of media in America. Because profit has become the substitute for the public interest.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin reported to distressed congressmen that there really wasn’t anything he could do about Imus. His reason: Congress did not give the FCC the authority to punish hate speech. Martin agreed, of course, that the degradation of the young women from Rutgers was awful, but he suggested the answer is for angry listeners to complain when a broadcast station’s license is up for renewal.

The FCC chairman didn’t mention that most broadcast license terms are eight years and renewals are so routine they are accomplished with postcards.

A vague threat of lost broadcast licenses certainly wasn’t on the mind of CBS boss Leslie Moonves when he released a memo announcing the Don’s dismissal. Instead, Moonves claimed the high ground:

“This is about a lot more than Imus. As has been widely pointed out, Imus has been visited by presidents, senators, important authors and journalists from across the political spectrum. He has flourished in a culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people. In taking him off the air, I believe we take an important and necessary step not just in solving a unique problem, but in changing that culture, which extends far beyond the walls of our company.

Even if Moonves was prompted by the flight of advertisers such as Proctor and Gamble from Imus in the Morning, this is still a noble sentiment. But much more than sentiment is needed if our culture is to become less coarse.

One obvious step is to make the Moonves of America more accountable to the public, which theoretically owns the airways (or, in the case of cable, alleyways) that the media uses by setting clear public interest obligations and limiting license (or cable franchise) terms. Another step is to limit the number of media outlets that Moonves or any other media mogul can control.

Congress and the FCC can do that immediately, before another shock jock (and there is always another) hurls another insult. As long as the only real definition of the public interest is the accumulation of private wealth, the temptation to sacrifice our culture and inflame bigots on the altar of the almighty dollar will be simply too great to resist. 

To read the Center’s recent report on the media and the public interest please see see:

To speak with Mark Lloyd please contact:

For TV, Sean Gibbons, Director of Media Strategy 202.682.1611 or sgibbons@americanprogress.org
For radio, Theo LeCompte, Media Strategy Manager 202.741.6268 or tlecompte@americanprogress.org
For print, Trevor Kincaid, Deputy Press Secretary 202.741.6273 or tkincaid@americanprogress.org
For web, Erin Lindsay, Online Marketing Manager 202.741.6397 or elindsay@americanprogress.org

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