Letter from the Editor

Monday, April 16, 2007

Why we should apologize to Imus

A steaming case of Imusgate hit the fan this week, and every desperate newcast latched onto it like a life preserver in an ocean of mundane politics.

Unless you have been vacationing in a rathole in Iraq of late, you know all about aging radio shock jock Don Imus' mean-spirited comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team. Let me be the first commentator to not repeat that garbage for you.

To try to save his bacon, Imus is out on an Apologyfest '07 tour as we speak, muttering his "so sorries" to anyone who will listen (or will air him in drive time.)

So this may shock you - I think we should apologize to Imus.

We've allowed an atmosphere of disrespect for others to emerge, one in which humiliation is seen as a synonym of humor. We can only laugh at someone else's expense.

Imus' racist and abusive comments are a symptom of that scoiety; he isn't the disease.

But why should we apologize to Imus?

Because, every once in a while, we need someone like him to remind us of just how incredibly foolish and out of touch it sounds to hear name calling at the expense of a race or gender of people.

You don't have to be black to be offended by bigoted words, or a woman to be offended by sexist remarks. Just a human being.

It isn't just radio - it's heard every day somewhere in most every community. Perhaps, before we use such terms to make hurtful fun of others, we will now think of how lame Don Imus looks today.

In a way, he did us a favor.

And if you think about it, in a strange way, he did the Rutgers team a backhanded favor too.

Not so many people watch women's college ball on TV - at least not as many as will watch the men's tournament.

But right now, the whole country knows a little something about the Rutgers team. They stood strong, and answered the abuse rather maturely. And coach C. Vivian Stringer, who I learned great respect for in her days at Iowa, did not disappoint. Instead of returning name-calling with name-calling, she said, "When there is not equality for all, or when there has been denied equality for one, there has been denied equality for all."

Nice. If not for someone like Imus, we wouldn't have a chance to hear that, from someone like Coach Stringer.

And perhaps I owe Imus an apology. To be honest, I wasn't aware he was still alive. I don't think I've heard his name mentioned or run into a station carrying his show in probably better a dozen years. Sorry, but who cares what this guy thinks? He, and those like him, are not our spokespersons.

Those like Imus serve a function. They afflict the famous and powerful, and make the news that is so often dismal seem a bit entertaining. Imus was an original, a father of the talk radio tidal wave and the over-the-line types like Howard Stern (would anyone have batted an eyelash if Stern made a typical sexually-related comment about college women players, I wonder?)

You might even say Imus is a grandfather of the quasi-news political humor shows that are all the rage today - the same shows that made fun of him this week.

He forgot the cardinal rule of such dark humor:

Don't attack the innocent. The players did absolutely nothing to deserve humiliation and abuse. It was a rotten things to do.

Call me jaded, but it occurs to me that if Imus' act truly was not intentional, it is at least damn convenient.

Long since faded out of the limelight, a quick bit of racial and sexual abuse buzz gets him on every national news show in the country, gets his picture in every major news magazine, gets him a lengthy examination even on ESPN, for goodness sake. Can the book deal be far behind?

So he gets a vacation. Will he not then return to the airwaves, no doubt with many times the listeners he had before? So how sorry is he, really?

Is suspending, and apparently now canceling his show the proper response to an incident like this, or just the company's way of deflecting its share of blame?

They shouldn't have, I think.

After all, it is a free country. A person has a right to say what they wish. Instead of shutting off his mic for a while (censorship) they should have let him answer for what he chose to say.

Because in a free country, advertisers can also pull their money from his show if they don't want to be associated with such a thing. People can decide they are sick of it and turn the dial. And his employer can decide to find another show to air that isn't so insulting. That's how a free country handles its problems. We were robbed of that opportunity.

By the way, radio stations, are you also going to pull the rap songs that use the same kind of terms? Have you the guts?

The real problem is not Imus, and it's not so simply solved.

People used to be raised to respect other people. Now, our society treats its own president as laughing stock, makes cartoons of others' religious beliefs, distrusts its own neighbors if they are at all different, and gets its jollies in the humiliation of others - listen to any stand-up comedy show.

We can't possibly be that surprised at Imus' ugly comments. They aren't new. We created the environment of disrespect where such lines are going to get crossed. We should be sorry for it.

Yet somehow, this one offhand comment by old Uncle Imus seems to have stunned us out of our collective apathetic funk just a bit, to utter a national, "Hey, that isn't right."

And it's a good thing that we are still capable of recognizing it.

So, thanks Don Imus.

And goodbye... we hope