Reflecting on Imus — Do I have to?

As the students of VaTech head back to class, I thought I’d get back to blogging on other topics. Never thought I say this, but the events of the past week had me missing the trivial headlines, even the ones about Imus.

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I have ZERO interest in talking about Don Imus and those three little words. No matter what I say, it’ll piss people off.

But the Imus case hits awfully close to my classroom, as it involves issues of ethics & social responsibility, with a dose of free speech. So since I couldn’t ignore it, I decided to delay my comments until no one cared anymore. Maybe I’ll give my students extra credit for reading the post and the rest of you will choose to ignore it.

imus2.jpgHow did a story about an over-the-hill shock jock hijack the MSM for a week or more? You tell me. While Imus’ comments about the Rutgers’ basketball team have no place in civil discussion, they don’t belong on the front page, either. But, you see, the 24/7 media beast has an insatiable appetite for the “easy” story, and this one was way too easy.

Here are the issues I’m talking about in class when the subject arises:

Free speech isn’t free. Imus finally learned that “free speech” isn’t an all-encompassing shield. Words have consequences, especially on the public airwaves where your successes is tied to the commercial sponsors.

Of course, neither his employers nor his sponsors dumped Imus for moral reasons. It was purely economic. Had they been truly outraged by his remarks, they’d have sacked him immediately. Instead, they let their sponsors make the decision amid a PR firestorm fueled by the 24/7 media beast.

Is it censorship? Imus has been silenced, so yeah, it is a form of censorship. And it worries me is that this case could inhibit social and political commentary — especially its satirical forms, though Imus was more about insult than satire.

On the positive side, maybe a few media loudmouths will choose their words more carefully from now on. But others may say nothing at all for fear of offending someone and ending up unemployed. Political comedy and satire in media will be under the microscope like never before. I can hear the editors and producers now: You’d better not say that! Remember Imus?

Crime and Punishment. Was justice served in the Imus case? I don’t think so. The guy screwed up, he apologized immediately, then he got fired. OK, it wasn’t his first offense, but outrageous statements from Imus are hardly unexpected. Those who tuned in knew the Imus schtick. And those who didn’t like it tuned out long ago.

I’ll admit to enjoying the Imus program from time to time, so I’m a little sympathetic to his plight. But I wasn’t sure how to express my thinking until I read Kathleen Parker’s column. She stakes out a sensible position on the whole mess — an Aristotlean mean that we see too little of these days. And you know me. I’m a middle-of-the-road kinda guy.

Jeff Jarvis (Buzz Machine) thinks Imus is boring, and he celebrated his firing for that reason. But he also said this (the typos are his):

I was just passing a bank of monitors here at CUNY and heard the parade of cable blather on the topic. Tom DeLay was calling for Rosie O’Donnell to be fired because she has said things that have offended him. This is what I mean about the dangers of the piranha pool in the age of offense. Just because someone offends someone, that is not cause to fire them make them resign from a show or a campaign. It means you can disagree with them. In fact, today, you have more means to state that disagreement and be heard than ever before. But we can’t fire everyone somene wants fired; we’ll be left with no more stars and no more politicians. And as tempting as that may sounds, it’s no way to run the world.

snl.jpgI’m thankful that this overblown story has blown over. To celebrate, I had planned to link you to SNL’s brilliant skit featuring Jesse Jackson (Darrell Hammond) and Al Sharpton (Kenan Thompson) discussing the Imus affair (April 14). It was hysterical and irreverent, a but clearly more than NBC’s gunshy management could stand. It’s no longer posted on YouTube, I am assuming because someone at NBC objected.

Wait a sec. Isn’t this the same network that took Imus off the air? Hmmm. Well, at least they’re consistent.

But regardless of who removed the clip from YouTube, it seems my concerns over censorship aren’t so far flung. If you find the clip somewhere, lemme know. I’ll add the link.

11 Responses to Reflecting on Imus — Do I have to?

  1. Brian Wooley says:

    The firing of Don Imus had nothing to do with free speech. Violation of freedom of speech occurs only when government, not private individuals, suppresses speech.

  2. Bill Sledzik says:

    Brian,

    Glad to see you stayed awake during the “law” class. Most don’t. While technically/legally you are correct, the firing of Don Imus will serve to suppress speech in that folks will be less willing to express themselves for fear of offending certain persons or groups. While that’s that’s not entirely a bad thing, it remains a coercive influence. And in my book, coercion limits freedom.

    Geez, I hope this doesn’t paint me into a corner where I have to defend that frizzy-headed cokehead, who, in his own producer’s words, once “snorted half of Peru.”

  3. Andy Curran says:

    New development, courtesy of Radio and Records…Imus might sue CBS!

    http://www.radioandrecords.com/RRWebSite/ (Check the “Newsroom” section)

    Why is this not surprising?

  4. Brian Wooley says:

    I understand your point, Bill; however, a great many people have been throwing around the phrase “free speech” as regards the Imus situation, and it simply does not fit. Call it coercion, or attribute it to political correctness, and disagree with it as much as you like–but mislabeling the situation (especially when you know the difference) does nothing but add to an already pervasive misconception.

  5. The interesting thing about all of this was the role that technology played. The show was broadcast on radio, the web, and TV. But it was recorded by a user, then distributed via web video and blogs by a user. This level of distribution wasn’t really possible until relatively recently.

    Shelly Palmer pointed this out on this week’s article — “Imus in a Techno-Political World.” Interesting stuff.

    Allie

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    Your point is well taken, Brian. After all, I get paid to preach precise use of language, among other stuff. So let’s just say in this post I use the term “free speech” in its broadest sense. Should have said “freedom of expression.” Regardless, it still has that coercive effect.

    And Andy, I appreciate your sending that item about a possible lawsuit by the I-Man. The MSM needs a new focus this week, as I don’t think they can go far with the Alec Baldwin story. I mean, he’s such a spoiled, inconsiderate pig. Or was that Imus? No wait!

    On more important topics, how about them Sabres?

  7. Noah Grieco says:

    Will the name Imus become synonymous with the four letter words of the PR realm? Will the Imus incident be used as an example in the pages of future PR textbooks? Maybe not; however, there is undoubtedly an opportunity for discussion of the case in the classroom. In PR case studies, we examine how past and present situations are handled from a public relations viewpoint. Studying the PR strategies and tactics of companies such as Tylenol and British Petroleum (BP) provides practitioners of public relations with direction in times of crisis. It might be an interesting in-class case exercise to explore the Imus case.

    Was the decision to fire Imus based solely on financial considerations or did it come as a result of NBC’s publics expressing dissatisfaction? Did the company stand to lose brand value or have its image damaged, if Imus remained on the airwaves? As in PR case studies, where students study the past to succeed in the future, the entertainment and communication industries may be trying to answer these questions. Right now, companies may be considering NBC’s response – firing Imus – as the new best practice for dealing with well compensated public figures overstepping political correctness boundaries. One thing is certain: The threat of the public censorship guillotine will be looming over the industry in the near future.

  8. Andy Curran says:

    From a former radio person’s perspective, I believe that MSNBC and WFAN are going to lose those sponsors, anyway. Imus’ replacements on both outlets won’t generate the ratings and revenue that the I-Man did.

    I am also sure that Imus wasn’t long for the radio world even if he didn’t make the flub. His health has been “iffy” for years, and he is pushing 70. He led a hard life of drug and alcohol abuse in the 70s and 80s, and it has certainly taken its toll. It is amazing to many insiders that he lasted as long as he did.

    It will be interesting to see how his charity, the Imus Ranch, holds up without the benefit of the incessant free on-air plugs that Imus gave. Another PR dilemma occurred for the stations when they canned the I-Man during his radiothon for the ranch and the Tomorrow’s Children/CJ Foundation.

    The fact that his suspension and subsequent firing came a few days after the incident is clear evidence that money talked, and not the executives’ inner souls.

  9. Noah Grieco says:

    Good point, Andy. Crisis is emotional and requires a quick response. The network stayed its hand until the commercial sponsors began pulling out. This signals that Imus may not have been fired, had the show’s financial banking remained steadfast. It could also indicate that decision makers were looking more at the bottom line and not listening to the anger – not truly reacting to public outrage. It’s not difficult to understand the reasoning behind the sponsor’s desire to be distanced from the show. Unfortunately, by being associated with Imus, the companies may have been next on the political correctness police’s hit-list.

  10. Bill Sledzik says:

    Yep. Saw that — though not on Drudge. I’m an Imus fan, which doesn’t sit well in the PC world in which I live (you don’t get any more PC that academe). Sue me.

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