Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Imus Controversy?

One of America's original “shock jocks,” Don Imus, is in hot water again, this time over some ill-advised comments over the Rutgers women’s basketball team, calling them, among other things, “nappy headed hos” and “jigaboos and wannabees,” a reference to Spike Lee’s film, School Daze.

It’s not the first time that the Imus show has run into problems over racial insensitivity. A couple of years back, regular guest Sid Rosenberg contrasted the Williams’ sisters to Anna Kornikova, claiming that while Anna was the type of women you’d expect to see in a Playboy magazine centerfold, the Williams’s sisters were the type “you’d expect to see in the centerfold of National Geographic.”

Rosenberg was released for awhile and now works in a Florida radio station.

Imus, of course, is not the only entertainer, white or black who has dabbled in gross insensitivity and all of this leads inevitably to the question, “Should offensive remarks be punished, and if so, why?”

Personally, I think it’s a good thing that people can say offensive things. On the one hand it puts a lot of our petty bigotries (and we ALL have them) out there in the open, and on the other hand, the First Amendment exists solely to protect offensive, unpopular and controversial speech, with exceptions only for overtly threatening, reckless (“fire in a crowded theater”), slanderous and treasonous or seditious speech.

Ethnically insensitive speech is none of the above, so there can be no governmental sanctions against such speech.

Certainly there can and have been private sector sanctions against such offensive speech. John Rocker, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, Al Campanis and Bob Grant have all been fired for various offensive outbursts. But such sanctions are dangerous, because they lead to more hyper-sensitivity on the part of various segments of the public.

For instance, if humorist Don Imus can be fired for these comments, can there by any tolerance for anyone from another race making fun of whites, or Hispanics?

The answer is probably not, precisely because even if a majority of those groups can accept such comments as humorous, there will always be enough of a vocal minority within those groups to impact corporate decision making.

Sanctioning offensive speech is a double edged sword, as virtually every thought is ‘offensive” to some people.


Dan O. said...

I certainly agree with your assessment of this issue. However, I took issue directly with Sharpton and his ilk in my post at Imus Is Not The Problem (hope you don't mind the link, delete it if you find it improper-d)

I wonder how many people listening to Imus actually have a problem with what he said? Or to ask that another way, how many people complaining about what he said, actually heard him say it?

Honestly, when someone in his position says thing like this, they are saying it for their audience. Which one assumes are people who enjoy listening to him and share his sense of humor. However crude it may be.

JMK said...

I don't mind the link at all.

I do think Imus is a dope...a shrewd dope, and a calloused one, but a dope none-the-less.

I'm beginning to believe he and his staff made these comments to generate controversy and ratings. That trick never fails.

Now he's spent all day Monday whining about "context and proportionality."

WFAN fired Sid Rosenberg after his comments about the Williams' sisters, but Imus gets a free pass. For that matter, so has Jesse ("Hymie Town") Jackson and Al ("Tawanna Brawley" & "the Freddie's Sporting Goods debacle") Sharpton.

In a sense, Sharpton, Imus and Jackson all make their livings off racial invective.

I wouldn't have minded so much if he'd just apologized and went on, depending on WFAN's agreement, but this pandering for ratings via self-flagellation is just sickening.

I think Imus has gotten too old for radio. After all, if you're going to engage in raw humor and ethnic invective, you'd better have a pretty tough skin.

Rachel said...

I found it offensive, but I think everyone should be held accountable for their speech and even intra-ethnic speech.
I was talking to one of my fellow students (who was also black), and said that the main issue was that Imus was not one of us. Has Imus been black or referring to a white team a "white trash" he would have gotten into trouble for racism but crudeness.

JMK said...

I understand your point Rachel, and I'm not an Imus fan (don't like his politics much), but I think the problem is the double standard - "ho's" is not really a racist term, but a sexist one and one that's used by rappers and comics regularly.

The "nappy headed" remark is overtly racial, but hardly as offensive as the many ethnic epithets that are often thrown around by other entertainers.

I agree that Imus is a real jackass and that his comments weren't just offensive, but unwarranted to a group of women who'd just reached the pinnacle of their sport, only to lose in the Final Game against a Tennessee team.

But I also think that they weren't based in any animus, but in a reckless disregard for other people's feelings, which is the stock and trade of all shock jocks.

I'll even acknowledge that it probably doesn't say much good about us, that so many of us find such juvenile. outer-directed, "bullying" humor (Stern's & Imus', etc) amusing.

Then again, the support for so much offensive hip-hop and ethnic comedy doesn't say much good about us either.

What I didn't like about the whole episode was Imus going into the obligatory public "damage control," instead of just immediately and privately trying to contact the Rutgers team himself and looking to let them know that it was a stupid attempt at a joke, he instead groveled in front of the odious Al Sharpton (a professional race huckster, himself) and then spent the next few days parading guests and the heads of charities he's helped to give on-air testimonials about what a great guy Don Imus really is.

I have little problem believing that Imus may well be a good guy, for that matter, Snoop Dog may be a very nice guy too, but it doesn't make their acts any less offensive.

The question is, do we as a people censor such acts, and if so can we abide by a double standard?

If Imus goes, shouldn't recording executives be forced to sever ties with offensive rappers and ethnically insensitive comics, as well?

But how far down that road do we go?

Undercover Black Man said...

Rosie O'Donnell, of all people -- remember the "ching-chong" incident? -- spoke up in Imus's defense on "The View" Wednesday. Or at least in defense of the First Amendment. (I doubt that would've been Rosie's thesis statement if Imus had slurred the Rutgers team as "some nappy-headed dykes."

Me, I think it's a red herring to talk about Don Imus's free-speech rights. It's not about rights. He has the right to say whatever he wants to say.

He doesn't, however, have a right to host a radio show or a TV show. Those are privileges.

He had the right to mock those girls as "nappy-headed hoes." Other people had the right to protest this... to boycott advertisers, even.

Which proves that one can exercise one's rights and jeopardize one's privileges at the same moment.

I won't be shedding tears either way.

Dan O. said...

I understand what you're trying to get across UBM, but I disagree that earning a living is considered a privilege.

People have a right to work. And hosting on radio and TV is a livlihood regardless of what you think of it.

You may not like what they do, but that's where freewill comes in. Freewill to not listen or to boycott advertisers etc., as you stated.

But, to demand an out and out firing, like Sharpton is doing is ridiculous.

JMK said...

"He (Imus) has the right to say whatever he wants to say.
He doesn't, however, have a right to host a radio show or a TV show. Those are privileges."
100% correct! An firm can fire someone for "conduct unbecoming," or for speech they'd like to disaasociate themselves from.

I'm no fan of Imus' largely Left-wing politics (his support for Rick Santorum & Harold Ford JR. two decent and pretty Conservative guys, notwithstanding), but I understand that live radio is a lot like live comedy.

Dave Chappelle has had some incredibly funny bits (the Rick James story and the Black White-Supremacist, to name two), but he'll follow those up with incredible misses, like incorporating children into a skit that borders on making light of seems that that's the fate of all such talents. Occasionally they'll go over the edge.

The problem I have with the Imus uproar, is that it wasn't anything close to a "Michael Richards moment," it was said in jest, incredibly tasteless and insensitive jest, but it didn't seem to be said in malice.

Still he's walked that razor for a very long time - the "Lenny the Jew" references to Len Berman and the "John Cardinal O'Connor" bits that drove many Catholics into anger,are just a couple of examples.

The problem I have with this hypersensitivity is this, "Where does it stop?"

Do we force entertainment execs to sever their ties with offensive rappers and comics?

Will we see attempts to muzzle political speech, either Liberal or Conservative?

I don't like rap much and I don't like Liberalism at all, but I don't want them muzzled either.
"I doubt that would've been Rosie's thesis statement if Imus had slurred the Rutgers team as "some nappy-headed dykes." " (UCBM)
I tend to agree. Rosie's a little concerned about her own position right now, given her trafficking in those inane 9/11 conspiracy theories and the equally insipid view that the British sailors taken captive by Iran and recently released was a "Gulf of Tonkin" moment.

I don't think Rosie has any real love for the 1st Amendment. I could be wrong, but that's my gut feeling on that.

JMK said...

Dan O, a private company can distance themselves from controversy and they tend to do so, more foten than not.

The 1st Amendment only protects us from government censure. An employer can fire a representative for involving that company in unwanted controversy. Just as a NYC cop can be fired for posing in Playboy or Huslter, an Imus can be fired for making controversial comments that bring unwanted negative attention to his sponsors.

Now I can understand the view that "this makes those companies cowards," but what else is new?

Companies are trying to sell stuff.

And they want to sell stuff to everybody. As a result, they don't like things that tend to alienate people.

Personally, and I don't know whether either Rachel or UCBM would agree, but I think the Imus controversy was more about his bullying that any perceived "sexism" or "racism" in those statements.

If he'd made fun of Sharpton's looks or another public black person's looks, people may have been offended, but Sharpton is a public figure, like Imus himself.

The Rutger's women's team were really not public figures and didn't have a forum in which to smack Imus back.

That's bullying and I think that's what really helped this thing gain traction.

Now, I'm no fan of Imus or Stern or any of those guys, or rap or any of the more offensive comics either, so for me, it's not about those individual's shows or perceived "right to make a living," it's about the larger concept of us suddenly seeking to silence those we find offensive and those we disagree with.

That concept is a very dangerous one, in my view.

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