Firing by CBS Radio Takes Imus Off the Air CBS Radio fires Don Imus for racist and sexist remarks about Rutgers University's women's basketball team. But the problem underlined by the shock jock's comments is much bigger than Imus.
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Firing by CBS Radio Takes Imus Off the Air

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Firing by CBS Radio Takes Imus Off the Air

Firing by CBS Radio Takes Imus Off the Air

Firing by CBS Radio Takes Imus Off the Air

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/9564596/9564597" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Analysis

The implosion of shock jock Don Imus's career — at least, as we've known it — is now complete with the cancellation of the CBS radio show at the heart of his empire.

Last week, Imus and a producer made racially and sexually disparaging remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team. The CBS decision followed a wave of public revulsion at the comments.

Don Imus met with the Rutgers women's basketball team privately late Thursday night at the New Jersey governor's mansion. The man who so eagerly sought to provoke his guests and listeners was now seeking forgiveness. But it was too late. He had run out of second chances.

When you look back, it might seem amazing it took this long. But Imus brings out strong feelings on both sides. There are fans and famous public figures who love him. And there are critics who claim he's toxic.

The freelance journalist Philip Nobile took on Imus after appearing on the show in the late 1990s to promote a book.

"When I started listening to him closely ... I realized he was a bigot, a homophobe, a racist who had absolutely no soul," Nobile said. "I grew to despise him."

But it took until Thursday for CBS chief Les Moonves to argue the rules of the road had shifted. In a memo to employees, Moonves wrote that Imus "has flourished in a culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people."

Moonves said removing Imus would help change that culture.

CBS was standing by Imus as recently as Wednesday, even though MSNBC canceled his simulcast.

CBS radio doesn't have the core journalistic identity claimed by NBC News, and it's been a fertile spawning ground for raunchy radio. Moonves' statement suggests that's over.

Before the CBS announcement, Imus appeared on WFAN radio Thursday. He lashed out at MSNBC, at the black activists who were his antagonists and at a prominent black Democrat, Harold Ford Jr., who ran for Senate last year with his endorsement.

"I mean, Harold Ford Jr. has been disgraceful for his lack of support," Imus said on WFAN. "Because I endured death threats to support him in Tennessee."

In a statement Wednesday — before Imus lost his job — Ford had called Imus "a good friend and a decent man." But he also said Imus's remarks were "reprehensible."

The Imus show brought in about $15 million a year in revenues for CBS. The profits aren't quite that high, but they do count.

Leonard Pitts Jr., a Pulitzer-winning columnist for the Miami Herald, says major media corporations are making a lot of money by shocking their customers.

"It's sort of a mistake to make it about Don Imus," Pitts said. "He's just one aspect of an entertainment culture that's coarser and meaner than it has been for many years."

Pitts, who is black, says popular culture can enlighten people even as it offends them.

"For the life of me, I Can't find a similar purpose in Don Imus referring to these young women as "nappy-headed ho's," Pitts said. "I don't see that same [enlightening] purpose there"

And that's exactly how Imus referred to the Rutgers players.

Back in 2000, Philip Nobile started tracking Imus's offensive remarks. Guests on the show included a parade of senators, columnists, network anchors and historians. The guest list was as distinguished as any Capitol Hill dinner party.

"Imus had made cowards and hypocrites of some of the best minds in America," Nobile said. "I hope they do penance [along with] ... Imus."

By Nobile's reckoning, New York Times columnist David Brooks would be one of them. He was on the Imus show a half-dozen times and says Imus is just plain fun to talk with.

"You know, most of us who are pundits are dweebs at some level. And he was the cool bad boy in the back of room," Brooks said. "And so, if you're mostly doing serious punditry, you'd like to think you can horse around with a guy like Imus."

Brooks, who's also a regular analyst for NPR's All Things Considered, says he doesn't believe Imus is a bigot.

"He deserved to feel some public humiliation. But he didn't deserve to have his career ended," Brooks said. "You know, when you're dealing with humor, you're not dealing with literal words. You're dealing with people who are putting on a costume."

Despite being dropped by CBS, Imus may not be done. Commercial radio is littered with people who have second, and even third, acts.

Imus's best-known rival — Howard Stern — left CBS radio because he said federal regulators were throttling his free speech. Shock jocks Opie and Anthony were tossed out of their radio gigs after a stunt where two listeners supposedly had sex in a cathedral. You can now listen to both shows on satellite radio.