Last week, dubious radio personality Don Imus made a nasty comment about the players on the Rutgers (NJ) women's basketball team. He's spent the time since then apologizing for it and fending off demands to his employers that he be fired. Now, no one should be surprised at what Mr Imus said. He's said things like it before, and, in fact, it's arguable that he's specifically expected to say such inflammatory things. On the other hand, it's entirely appropriate that his employer be held to account for it, and demands that he be replaced by a radio host that does not offend the public are reasonable.
Let's make no mistake here: this is not a question of Mr Imus's free speech. If I had heard him say what he said as he stood on a street corner, I would think him an empty-headed bozo (to use a somewhat like-structured phrase), and I'd wonder why he felt the need to behave that way... but I wouldn't have him silenced. Only, he's not standing on a street corner, speaking for himself. His commentary is being broadcast on public airwaves, as a representative of his employers (CBS Radio, and MSNBC for the TV syndication) and with public licenses from the FCC.
If I said such a thing within the closed offices of my company, I would likely be fired if someone who heard it reported it to management or HR. That's because my company deplores such characterizations, and believes that its employees and visitors should not be subjected to the hostile environment that such talk creates. Similarly, CBS and NBC must decide whether the public should, in their names, be subjected to that hostile environment, disguised as “entertainment”.
I accept that Mr Imus is sincere in his statement that he is a non-racist who makes racist (and other offensive) comments in a misguided attempt to be funny. I do not ackowledge that it's acceptable to try to be funny in that way; quite the contrary: it's a weak wit that has to stoop to insults and ethnic characterizations for humour. With a nod to my friends who actually do like his show, I will be happy to see him fired for habitual bad taste in his public commentary.
“I was just trying to be funny,” is not an excuse for being offensive, and we have to stop accepting that sort of thing from public figures. Either find another way to make people laugh, or find another vocation.
Update, 8 a.m.: Imus has been suspended for two weeks by both NBC and CBS.
NBC also served notice yesterday that it would not tolerate insensitive remarks in the future. Mr. Imus had promised to change the tenor of the show, NBC said in a statement, and had agreed that the suspension was appropriate.We'll see... if it sticks, then I think it's a fine solution.
Update, 12 Apr: And now MSNBC and CBS have cancelled Imus's shows. I have to say that I'm agreeing more and more with Ray and Scouter, when they say that there's not enough outrage about some of the rest of what's going on in the country (and the media).