Spiraling Toward Irrelevancy

Never has a blog title spoken quicker to the absolute truth than "Spiraling Toward Irrelevancy" ...


"Imus, in Passing (An Essay of Some Length)"

Tuesday, 17 April 2007
2,921 words

[Author’s note: Final additions and corrections were being made to this essay when the shootings at Virginia Tech occurred, and even though “Imus, in Passing” now seems hopelessly outdated in the face of that tragedy, in the end, I hated to see a nearly 3,000 word piece go to waste. Partial source notes can be found at the conclusion of this essay.]

The reader will please forgive the selfishness of this, but when I first heard about Don Imus’ “nappy-headed ho’s” routine, my first reaction was: Thank God no one ever listened to my Internet radio show. Not because the show was racist or bigoted, but because it was positively overflowing with off-color jokes, and clearly not enough people know the difference between what is vitriol and what is merely silly.

When criticizing Don Imus, what exactly are we criticizing? Other than the racial component (which we’ll get to shortly), not many people have a worthwhile answer to that question. Senator Obama wanted Imus fired, but also wanted it known that his daughters ought not go through life believing female athletes are somehow unfeminine, which is interesting because it proves Obama is the only man of position in the United States familiar with the other half of Imus’ career killing joke. (Something about how the appearance of the Rutgers team reminded him of the Memphis Grizzlies.) Of course, Don Imus has nothing to do with how anyone’s daughter view femininity, and of course Obama’s was a classic dodge designed as a clear play toward female voters, but at least he knew the material.

The byproduct of this incident should be that black Americans feel compelled to finally decide just what should be offensive to black Americans, and why. We know now that “nappy-headed ho’s” is out, but if taken as an honest intellectual exercise, then whoever next refers to Condoleeza Rice as a “house slave” should also be drummed out of respectable business; because if one is racist, so is the other. Same for whoever next refers to Clarence Thomas as an “Uncle Tom.” Same with whoever next alters a picture of Michael Steele to make him look like Sambo.

Ah, but there’s the rub. A preponderance of black Americans aren’t interested in racist and slanderous remarks directed against prominent black Republicans, the belief being that if push comes to shove, prominent black Republicans can defend themselves. Only young black girls can be aggrieved – and only then by crusty old white men, evidenced by the fact that both Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have fallen all over themselves to explain how the Imus Standard doesn’t apply to black rappers. (Sharpton may have spoken against rap lyrics in the past, but in regards to throwing Imus under a bus, Sharpton has thus far remained unwilling to throw any rapper under there with him.) In other words, “ho” (or worse) only hurts when uttered on talk radio. Understood.

One Rutgers player said she was “scarred for life” by this controversy. Really? Scarred for life? Even while acknowledging that Imus should have known better, it pays to wonder how the same group of young women who possessed the intestinal fortitude to march through the NCAA tournament (including a stunning win over a heavily favored Duke powerhouse along the way) and reach the national championship game could not simply muster the strength to shrug off “nappy-headed ho’s.” Which is it: Are the Rutgers players paragons of strength and power, or are they meek, defenseless little girls?

* * *

Certainly I have no special regard for Don Imus; he’s a mouthpiece for the Democratic party, and as mouthpieces go he’s reckless, reactionary, and before “nappy-headed ho’s” was better known for the caliber of his guests than for the substance of his act. Give me Alan Colmes any day. But what should give pause is the potential chilling effect this could have on any thread of speech deemed improper by an irritated liberal faction. While needlessly bowing at the alter of Reverend Jackson last week, Keith Olbermann brought Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Michael Savage into the discussion, basically asking that if Imus can be driven off the air, why can’t they?

This is a preamble for crusades to come. Last Friday’s Wall Street Journal explained how this ball got rolling. In essence, this is how Media Matters runs its day-to-day operations, how it has attempted to rid the airwaves of conservatives in the past, and how it will try again in the near future. Someone assigned to monitor the Imus show was keeping careful notes as the host sputtered along, and at the fateful moment, the minion “clipped the video, alerted his bosses and started working on a blog posting for the organization’s Web site.”

Thus began a cascading effect. “On the morning of the original broadcast, there was little response to Mr. Imus’s slur. Media Matters posted the video and transcript on its Web site and sent an email blast to several hundred reporters, as it does nearly every day…. On Thursday [05 April], at about 3 p.m., NBC News President Steve Capus was conducting a routine planning meeting in his third-floor offices at Rockefeller Center when an assistant interrupted him to take an urgent phone call, according to a person at the meeting. On the other line: MSNBC General Manager Dan Abrams. Mr. Abrams said MSNBC executives were fielding complaints from viewers and employees who had seen a video clip of Mr. Imus’s remark on the Media Matters site, this person says.”

Pause here only to emphasize what has (for most of us) been obvious since Media Matters gained its depressing, sticky prominence among the American Left: MSNBC employees are perusing the Media Matters website. Why? One should forgive plebeians their biases and curiosities – they’re not in the news business. But until and unless Media Matters begins documenting (what it perceives as) the wacky intellectual misgivings of wayward liberals, MSNBC ought not take pride in having one of its employees fished out by other employees looking for the latest updates on The Discredited Right. (I would bet the remainder of my sad career that Keith Olbermann was one of those readers and complainers. Were that I could ask him, but Olbermann only speaks to likeminded interviewers … and for that matter, only to likeminded guests, as well.)

Continuing from the Journal piece: “In Chicago, Bryan Monroe, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, saw an email sent by one of his executive board members at 5:06p.m. ‘FYI – do we need to address’ read the subject line. It was the Media Matters post. Mr. Monroe picked up the phone and started calling other board members. He had guests over for dinner that night, who were also African-American. They talked about the controversy during dinner. Later that night, he was back on the phone with NABJ members and pulled an all-nighter to draft a statement. It said that the 3,200-member organization was ‘outraged and disgusted’ by he comments, and called for ‘an immediate and sincere apology.’ Mr. Monroe posted the statement to the NABJ Web site at 5:30a.m.”

Don Imus was apologizing bright and early the next morning – “Our characterization was thoughtless and stupid, and we’re sorry,” quoted the Journal – but it was too late. Sentiment in every relevant quarter of American thought had turned, or was in the process of turning, against him. When such tides as race bating, fake outrage, and misguided chivalry are driving you down, it’s almost impossible to get back up again. Imus was unemployed on Good Friday, it’s just that no one bothered to tell him until late the following week.

Steve Capus, the aforementioned president of NBC News, said in an interview with David Gregory on Hardball last Wednesday (11 April) that despite certain important advertisers threatening to pull much-needed dollars from the network, “Imus in the Morning” was not dropped from MSNBC’s air for monetary reasons. And Steve Capus is a liar. If it makes him feel better about himself, Capus can languish over the long history of inappropriate comments by Imus and his on-air staff, and go on about how Imus has for many years exhibited this and that type of antisocial behavior. But if you believe that everyone up and down the NBC executive food chain was aware of Imus’ social ticks, and that everyone was worried sick about those ticks, then it’s not unreasonable to wonder why MSNBC extended its live coverage of “Imus in the Morning” (from 6am to 5.30am) a few months ago. Some social conscience!

* * *

What we know about hatred and the Left is that as far as the Left is concerned, hatred is only ever directed against blacks (preferably downtrodden or liberal blacks, thank you), women, gays, and lately Arabs; and is only ever perpetrated by white males. Everything else is categorized as a matter of one’s opinion, or better yet passionate (and, where applicable, political) discourse. Hatred of George W. Bush is no more rational than hatred of blacks; but only hatred of Bush will get you a slot on Air America, or a choice gig clucking alongside that Communist Joy Behar on The View.

For all the rallying Don Imus did against President Bush in the lead-up to the 2004 election – a very large percentage of which came off in terms no more dignified than “nappy-headed ho’s” – the Left demanded not one apology in the name of civility. After all, they were fighting the same battle against the same incumbent president. That was passionate political discourse. (“But Bush is a public figure!” And a group of women competing for a major championship on national television aren’t? Are we to expect that the ladies of Rutgers basketball would like to be role models without anyone noticing them?)

Even if you believe Imus should have been fired in the name of social justice, the idea of having Jesse “Hymie Town” Jackson and Al “Mr. Hitler” Sharpton fighting the battle to unseat him has got to be somewhat unsettling. (Of course everyone remembers “Hymie Town,” but not everyone remembers that “Mr. Hitler” is how Sharpton – overcome by what must have been feelings of peace and brotherhood toward his fellow Man – referred to Robert Abrams, the special prosecutor assigned to the Tawana Brawley case by Mario Quomo.) And there is good reason for your unease; something about pots and kettles screaming at one another in very close quarters.

In the same way we don’t need Teddy Kennedy lecturing us about drunk driving, we don’t need Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton lecturing us about purity of thought and action between the races. No one in modern history, at least to my memory, has intimidated more people and corporations with the very thought of racial strife than has Jackson. He stood together with the Reverend Doctor King in one of the greatest moral struggles the world has ever known – and followed those grand deeds by shaking down businesses for “contributions” with threats of protests and boycotts muttered under his breath. Jackson is no less a carnival barker than Vince McMahon, except that McMahon has the good taste to let you in on the joke.

Still, in an odd way, we’ve come to terms with Jesse Jackson. He’s ignorant of the world he’s criticizing, a liar, and a dope, but his presence has been fading for years now, and fewer and fewer people take him seriously (besides Keith Olbermann, I mean). Floating about Jackson is something Michael Kelly, the late journalist and brilliant writer, once described as “a strong whiff of Who Cares.” Only at times like these are we even cognizant of the fact Jackson is still out there somewhere, lingering, quietly setting up for the next big payday. Al Sharpton, though, is another matter entirely.

About Sharpton I will admit having a constitutional bias. I dislike him immensely; about as much as one can dislike someone he’s never met, having gone so far (several times in this space) as to say Sharpton is a dunce. What passes for his intelligence seems more like a head full of programmed talking points which he somehow manages to string into complete sentences without hurting himself, along the way adding stock rhetorical flourishes to give the illusion of spontaneous thought.

The great unspoken irony of this controversy is drawn from Sharpton’s demand of complete personal and corporate accountability from everyone involved, which is ironic because Sharpton himself has yet to take responsibility for the great disasters he has personally fostered over the years. (Or as Bernard Goldberg so succinctly put it, “Being Al Sharpton means never having to say you’re sorry.”) The myth of Sharpton the Infallible has always existed on intellectually shaky ground, but was first questioned around these parts in a September 2002 essay titled “Al Sharpton, Candidate,” where a transcript of a Sharpton appearance on Meet the Press was liberally quoted to display several of his own personal ticks, including his continued denial of any accountability in the Tawana Brawley hoax.

When asked by Tim Russert whether he would apologize for “promoting the case of Tawana Brawley, which divided New York terribly,” Sharpton matter-of-factly said he still wouldn’t deny Brawley’s charges, which until the Duke Lacrosse lie stood alone as one of the grossest untruths ever forced down the throats of self-hating whites. “Tawana Brawley told her story months before I got involved,” Sharpton explained, “and many others got involved, Bill Cosby and many others, who have never refuted the story. I don’t refute it now [emphasis added].” Not long afterward, Russert asked whether Sharpton actually believed a gang of white men raped Brawley. Sharpton said both that he believed “something happened to her” and that Brawley had “made statements of what happened to her.”

Some may be tempted to dismiss this as far-flung and pointless in the face of modern controversies, but this is not merely a case of a girl and her personal advisors saying dopey things (as in the Imus case). Harry Crist, one of the men Sharpton, Alton Maddox, and C. Vernon Mason falsely accused of raping Brawley, killed himself, and in the aftermath the three were found guilty of fifteen counts of defamation, whereupon they were ordered to pay a former district attorney named Steven Pagones eighty-seven thousand dollars in damages.

More importantly Sharpton, even with blood on his hands, has never given a serious thought to holding himself to the Imus Standard and admitting Brawley lied, taking responsibility for his own flame throwing, or even admitting that he was simply fooled (which would have at least given him some intellectual cover). Now to be fair, this Meet the Press interview is four-and-a-half years old, which is why I undertook an extensive search of the Internet before writing this essay, in search of Sharpton’s mea culpa for the part he played in this gross miscarriage of justice. You won’t be surprised to know I didn’t find one.

All this is to say nothing of the Freddy’s Fashion Mart fiasco, which is an equally long and sad story, or the various problems he’s had paying rent on office space, or his refusal to refute a statement by Louis Farrakhan calling for a Nuremberg trial for American presidents, or his hobnobbing with Khalid Muhammad, et cetera, ad infinitum. Individually these would be bad enough. Collectively they’re indicative of a much larger problem, namely that Sharpton is often more reckless, irresponsible, and incendiary than Don Imus, but never to his detriment. And if you’re in New York City, you can still hear Sharpton on the radio.

The point is that Don Imus isn’t representative of whatever may vex the black community, but Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are. But between the three, blacks perceive only Imus as a disgrace.

* * *

All this having been said, the primary questions remain: 1) Is Don Imus a racist? and 2) Should he have been fired? About these I have significantly less to say than everything else here, but my standing is no less resolute. No, Imus is not a racist. But he is an idiot, and while that’s nowhere near as bad as being a racist, idiocy can be fatal when put on wide display, as in this case.

As to whether he should have been fired, I stand in the “No” camp, having said from the beginning that “nappy-headed ho’s” didn’t seem like a death penalty offense, but that the free market would work things out. If only that had been the case. Oh, enough advertisers made enough noise that the exodus certainly gave the appearance of a spontaneous free market reaction, but the smell of threatened boycotts (and et cetera, in the Jackson tradition) comes too strong.

Having nothing upon which to base my suspicion other than the suspicion itself, I would again bet the remainder of this sad writing career that if one could get hold of various internal memorandum concerning the Imus affair, he would learn that most of the companies contemplating pullouts were overly concerned with being viewed as responsible social partners (or whatever the popular vernacular). You might call companies dropping advertising under these circumstances a free market movement; I would call it being muscled.

In any event, once advertisers began abandoning Imus in droves, NBC and CBS had no choice but to drop the hammer. Whatever their various faults, neither NBC nor CBS are in business to provide programming just for the quixotic thrill of doing so. They exist to make profits and to pass value on to their shareholders. (NBC is obviously owned by General Electric and trades under the ticker symbol “GE”; CBS split from Viacom in January 2006 and now trades under the ticker symbol “CBS.”) Meddle with that process long enough and you eventually butt up against the truth: Corporate responsibility is all well and good, but there’s a reason they call it “profit motive.”

Notes. (If you find dead links, send an email to brianwisedotcom@gmail.com and a copy of the source material you request will be emailed to you, except in the case of the Wall Street Journal piece quoted.)

1. One Rutgers player said she was “scarred for life” by this controversy. See, for example, “'This has scarred me for life,' Rutgers player says of Imus' comment,” from the Vancouver Sun, dated Wednesday, 11 April, here:

2. While needlessly bowing at the alter of Reverend Jackson last week … see transcript from Countdown dated 11 April 2007, Olbermann’s interview with Jackson, here:

3. Last Friday’s Wall Street Journal explained how this ball got rolling. See “Behind the Fall of Imus, a Digital Brush Fire” by Brooks Barnes, Emily Steel and Sarah McBride in the Friday 13 April 2007 edition of The Wall Street Journal, pages A1 and A10. Only a dead tree copy is on file.

4. Steve Capus, the aforementioned president of NBC News, said in an interview with David Gregory on Hardball … see transcript from Hardball dated 11 April 2007, 7pm edition, Gregory’s interview with Capus, here:

5. Floating about Jackson is something Michael Kelly, the late journalist and brilliant writer, once described as “a strong whiff of Who Cares.” See Kelly’s book Things Worth Fighting For, published posthumously, page 86.

6. Or as Bernard Goldberg so succinctly put it, “Being Al Sharpton means never having to say you’re sorry.” See Goldberg’s book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America, page 250.

7. “Al Sharpton, Candidate” can most easily be found in my book The Unabrian Manifesto, available online at
www.brianwise.com/UnabrianBook.htm, pages 32 through 37.


2006 TGO Awards

2006 Album of the Year: The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance

2006 Song of the Year: "Vicarious" by Tool

2006 Movie of the Year: Clerks 2 (written and directed by Kevin Smith; produced by Scott Mosier)

2006 Television Show of the Year: Deadwood, season three (HBO)

2006 Man Card: Jason McElwain; one of the greatest stories ever told.

As I do every year, and fail to do every year, I promise that a complete list of TGO Award winners will be available here soon.


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