Did Imus Cross an Invisible Line?

Firing Don Imus may do little to change the fact that racially charged language is often used in public discourse. Where is the line drawn? Often it depends on who is doing the talking.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As you may have heard by now, "Imus in the Morning" will no longer be heard on the radio. CBS Radio yesterday fired Don Imus and cancelled his show effective immediately. He has no goodbye program this morning.

It was only last week that Imus described the Rutgers women's basketball team using racially and sexually offensive language. The whole debate has raised some questions about who can use offensive speech, and where.

NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams has been following this story.

Juan, good morning again.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Hi, Steve. Good morning.

INSKEEP: I want to mention, Don Imus got in trouble for three offensive words and they've been repeated enough. We don't need to repeat them here. But as many people have pointed out, you can go online and do a search for, for example, rap lyrics and find those same three words in any number of rap songs, popular songs, which raises the question of, when is it permissible to use that kind of offensive speech and when is it not?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think, obviously, we have a very fractured media market that's a situation where, as you say, you can go online in any of these niches that cater to a specific audience and to people who want to hear that kind of thing and find it. And you know what? Sad to say, it's not always, you know, people making fun of themselves.

For example, when you have black people using the N-word, I think that has flown under the radar for all time. And I don't think that if it had been a black disc jockey in Imus' shoes, I don't think it would have caused a stir in some ways because I think there hasn't been the kind of lead taken by civil rights leaders to say that rap music is offensive, demeaning, dehumanizing. I think there's been a real absence there.

But when you get a white male like Imus doing it, and you have the weight of history, the weight of race in this country, I think there's a different level of scrutiny. And as result, I think you have this ouster that we've seen this week. In addition, you know, the president of CBS, Les Moonves, and the president of NBC, Steve Capus, both said they were talking to people at their corporations. And there you have more women, more minorities saying they don't want to be associated with this kind of language at this time. I don't think that would have happened a generation ago.

INSKEEP: Explain that a little more, if you would, one point that you've made there. Why do you think it is that if it were a black radio host and he said the exact same thing, which is what you're suggesting, right? That that would have not caused such controversy?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think that - you know, obviously, the relationship between, let's say, white men, Don Imus, and black women, the Rutgers female basketball team, is heavily weighted in our society. And therefore, I think white men are not allowed to say things like that, in public anyway, without exposing themselves to some, you know, to some people saying that this is wrong and therefore having some consequence to it.

And I think that in addition, when you stop and look then at the rappers - and I think this is so sad in my mind - many of the rappers have been given a free pass by the same people who would, you know, criticize and condemn the Don Imuses. Because they say, oh, the rappers are making money, they're entrepreneurs, they're in touch with the streets.

But it seems to me that the Al Sharptons, the Jessie Jacksons have allowed that kind of dehumanizing, wrongheaded language to go out in rap music, and the audience there is overwhelmingly young white males, Steve. And those young white males, I think, are being allowed to enjoy stereotypical language about not only blacks, but women coming out of the mouths - if you look at the videos, black actors, black dancers. And I think that's just ruinous, but it's being allowed because it's being done by black people.

INSKEEP: Well, let's explore another thing here. CBS's president, as you said, made it clear that he doesn't want to tolerate this sort of thing. But we should say he doesn't want to tolerate this sort of thing anymore, because Imus himself has made any number of offensive remarks over the years that his employers seemed to tolerate. What has changed now, do you think?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think, the key change is that, for example, at CBS on the board, you have a Bruce Gordon who recently resigned but was president of the NAACP. And I think that you have people in-house, as I said, more minorities, more women, who are willing to speak up and say to him that they don't want their brand of journalism associated with - and also the entertainment division - associated with it.

And then you come to the idea of the advertisers. I think this was a business decision. Let's not get away from that. Imus was making millions for CBS. Well, at some point, they felt the advertisers - and again, you come down to advertisers like American Express led by a black man, Ken Chenault - felt that, you know what? We don't want to be associated with it, and they made a call. And CBS made a call and said, you know, it's too expensive even with the profits that Imus is bringing in.

INSKEEP: NPR's Juan Williams tracking signs of change. Juan, thanks very much for your analysis.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

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