Unless you’ve been busy catching up on your Kierkegaard, you know that radio shock jock Don Imus, whose syndicated morning CBS radio talk show is simulcast on MSNBC, is in a heap of trouble.
In a moment of what passes for witty banter on Planet Imus, he called the women who play basketball for Rutgers University “nappy-haired hos.” Racist? Yes. Misogynist? Yes. Insensitive? Yes. Deplorable? Of course. In other words, it was classic Imus.
The I-man, as his fans know him, has made himself a wealthy cowboy and, along the way, has developed lucrative commercial franchises for his multi-media employers by being a deplorable and insensitive racist misogynist who, for good measure, is by turns anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and — lest no group go unoffended — scornful of Christian fundamentalists. Oh, and he’s not too cool with gay men and lesbians.
The secret of Don Imus’s success is that he has commodified his own insecurities and re-enacted his own self-loathing for the amusement of his audience. He has been doing it five days a week for almost 40 years. So what’s the big deal?
This time Imus violated two of the delicate membranes that separate the merely deplorable from the totally unacceptable: he joked about a racial group other than his own. And, unlike the big shots who are his usual marks, the young women of Rutgers are innocents without the means to fire back. In truth, Imus probably could have gotten away with breaking one of these taboos. He has, after all, done so for years. But violated in tandem, he has brought the outrage of the wrathful upon himself.
It is not just because Imus is a national voice. Nearly every smaller media market seems to have its own cheaper, less talented purveyors of the Imus ethic. Boston has Dennis and Callahan, as well as Howie Carr — although for those to whom this distinction might mean something, Carr is more of a Rush Limbaugh wannabe than a disciple of Imus.
As national media scandals go, the Imus outrage is far more free-flowing than the relatively contained incidents of on-air racial insensitivity that cost the late Jimmy the Greek and the all-too-with-us Limbaugh their sports-announcing gigs.
This is more on a par with Howard Stern’s mockery of the first deaf Miss America for being, well, unable to hear and therefore speech-impaired. On the morning after her victory, Stern proceeded to mock and degrade the young woman and her manner of speech. At that time, it seemed almost inconceivable that public discourse could get any lower. But Stern, of course, survived to prosper; the deaf are not a powerful constituency.
Stern not only survived this, and countless other degrading comments that came out of his maw, but was later rewarded with a contract worth more than $500 million from Mel Karmazin, his old boss at CBS-owned Infinity radio and now head of the Sirius satellite radio company. Karmazin had intimate knowledge of Stern’s commercial value. And commercial value is what this is all about.
Stern’s essentially masturbatory appeal is considered an adolescent vice, as are the rap lyrics that informed Imus’s latest racial insult. But like rap and Stern, Imus is big business. His commercial success has insulated him in the past. Although it is not clear that money will be his salvation this time, don’t bet against it.