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

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good Morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

Don Imus showed up for his meeting yesterday with the Rutgers women's basketball team that he insulted. The host of the meeting did not show up. New Jersey Governor John Corzine was on his way to that meeting when his car crashed. A truck swerved into the governor's vehicle, causing it to strike a guardrail. We're told that the governor has a broken leg, broken ribs, and more. A doctor says it will be months before he can walk normally again.

Now, the meeting did go ahead without the governor. This was the meeting where the radio host said he wanted to apologize for his remarks about the team. It happened on the same day that CBS cancelled the "Imus in the Morning" radio program. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Don Imus met with the Rutgers women's basketball team privately late last night at the New Jersey governor's mansion. The man who so eagerly sought to provoke 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, with fans and famous public figures who love him as well as critics who claims he's toxic. The freelance journalist Phillip Nobile took on Imus after he appeared on the show in the late 1990s to promote a book.

Mr. PHILLIP NOBILE (Journalist): But when I started listening to him closely, I realized that he was a bigot, a homophobe, a racist, who had absolutely no soul. I grew to despise him.

FOLKENFLIK: But it took until yesterday for CBS chief Les Moonves to argue the rules of the road had shifted. In a memo to employees, Moonves wrote that Imus, quote, "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.

As recently as Wednesday, CBS was standing by Imus, even though MSNBC cancelled his simulcast on the cable TV station. CBS radio doesn't have the core journalistic identity claimed by NBC News, and it's been a fertile spawning ground for raunch radio. Moonves' statement suggests that's over.

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

Mr. DON IMUS (Host, "Imus in the Morning"): I'm not surprised at any of this. And I'm not surprised at the hypocrisy of Al Sharpton, or Jesse Jackson, or any of these people, but you can't whine about it. I mean Harold Ford Jr. has been disgraceful in his lack of support because I endured death threats to support him in Tennessee, so I mean it's unfortunate that he has no courage.

FOLKENFLIK: In a statement Wednesday before Imus lost his job, Ford had called Imus a good friend and a decent man, but said his 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 is a Pulitzer-winning columnist for the Miami Herald. He says major media corporations are making a lot of money by shocking their costumers.

Mr. LEONARD PITTS (Columnist, Miami Herald): It's sort of a mistake to make It just about Don Imus. You know, he's just one aspect of an entertainment culture which seems to be coarser and meaner than it - than, you know, it has been in many years.

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

Mr. PITTS: For the life of me, I can't find a similar purpose in Don Imus referring to, you know, these young women as, what was it, nappy-headed hos. You know, I don't see that same purpose there.

FOLKENFLIK: And that's exactly how Imus referred to the Rutgers players. Back in 2000, Phillip Nobile started tracking Imus' offensive remarks. Yet it made no difference, as Imus enjoyed a parade of Senators, columnists, network anchors and historians. The guest list was as distinguished as any Capitol Hill dinner party.

Mr. NOBILE: Imus has made cowards and hypocrites of some of the best minds in America. And I hope that they do penance as well as Imus.

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

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (New York Times): You know, most of us who are pundits are dweebs at some level. And he was the cool bad boy in the back of the room. If you're mostly doing sort of serious punditry, you like to think you can horse around with a guy like Imus.

FOLKENFLIK: Brooks, who's also a regular analyst for NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, says he doesn't believe that Imus is a bigot.

Mr. BROOKS: He deserves to feel some public humiliation for saying stuff like this, but he didn't deserve to have his career ended. 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.

FOLKENFLIK: As for penance, maybe not. But Brooks acknowledges some heartburn. Is Imus really done? Commercial radio is littered with people who have second and even third acts. Imus' 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. Nowadays you can listen to both shows on satellite radio.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

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