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Imus’s Enablers

April 11, 2007

Let’s have more talk about Don Imus‘s enablers — all those prominent journalists and politicians who go on his show knowing that they will be featured along with degrading and allegedly humorous one-liners about blacks, gays, Jews and women.

The celebs like to talk about the high-minded Imus, who brings a sophisticated knowledge of public affairs to early morning radio. They wish to separate themselves from the low-minded Imus, the one who delivers racist wisecracks and featured “The First Lady is a Tramp,” a song about Hillary Clinton, complete with references to her urinary habits and menstrual cycles. Like the piano player in the brothel, Imus’s notables seem shocked that anyone would associate them with what goes on upstairs.

Back in 1996, Bob Dole and Joe Lieberman were attacking, respectively, Hollywood cultural pollution and trash TV. Both regularly went on Imus, where they were surrounded by material quite similar to the stuff they were complaining about. Besides, almost any pol might earn an Imus endorsement (He came out for Mr. Dole in 1996 and John Kerry in 2004.)

Jeff Greenfield once said that appearing on Imus is like being an important novelist excerpted in Playboy. You wish to be judged by your brilliant writing, not your proximity to the centerfold mammaries. But this raises the question of what the pols and journalists are doing when they go on Imus’s show: Are they elevating our political culture or debasing it by legitimating an unusually low level of public discourse?

Imus taunted one reporter as a “boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jewboy” and referred to the publisher Simon & Schuster as “thieving Jews,” returning later with a mock apology explaining that he misspoke, since the term is redundant. He called the New York Knicks “chest-bumping pimps.” Tucker Carlson, he said, is a “bowtie-wearing pussy.” According to a Mike Wallace report on “60 Minutes,” Imus said he picked a particular producer to do “nigger jokes” on air. Emily Rooney made one anti-Imus comment on CNN and said Imus pummeled her for three weeks as “a cow” and accused her of “getting into the liquor cabinet.” An Imus assistant, reporting on sports, called tennis star Amalie Maurismo ” a big old lesbo” and referred to the Indian men’s doubles team as “Gunga Din and Sambo.”

In 2001, commentator Clarence Page extracted a public pledge from Imus: The broadcaster would “cease all simian references to black athletes” and ban “all references to noncriminal blacks as thugs, pimps, muggers and Colt 45 drinkers.”

Mr. Page is a rare example of a well-known journalist challenging the inflammatory rhetoric. Imus’s prominent guests almost never get around to criticizing his vitriol. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a left-of-center press watchdog group, points out that in 2000 Tim Russert suggested that George W. Bush’s appearance at Bob Jones University was “giving affirmation to that institution.” Mr. Russert asked Mr. Bush, “Why are you associating with them?” Obviously, the same question can be asked about Mr. Russert’s cozy relationship with Imus. New York Times eminence Frank Rich, a regular Imus guest, is ever alert to smears of gays and women and virtually went into a swoon when George Allen used the word “macaca.” Yet a computer search failed to turn up any complaints from Mr. Rich about Imus’s bigoted remarks.

During Imus’s abusive speech at the radio and TV correspondents’ dinner in 1998, there was talk of walking out on the speaker. It didn’t happen. Later there was murmuring of a celeb boycott but the only notable to declare one was Cokie Roberts. (“I really don’t think it would be appropriate for any of us to go back on.”) Imus abused her on air, and Ms. Roberts returned.

What hold does Imus have on these people? Well, he sells a lot of books, and writers don’t want to walk on principle if it’s going to affect sales. Journalists who appear regularly on Imus know that speaking out will earn them days of on-air abuse and decertify them as important in Washington. Better to look the other way and stay in the big-time morning conversation. They can always complain about slurs delivered by folks who lack an important show.

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