IMUS: THE JOHN ROCKER OF MORNING TALK RADIO?
Is There Any Difference Between Them?
Philip Nobile is the editor of Judgment at the Smithsonian, which
printed the banned Smithsonian script on the 50th anniversary
of the Bombs of August in 1995.
John Rocker was an easy out for Don Imus. Like the rest of his on-air colleagues at sports-station WFAN in New York, Imus was quick to denounce the Atlanta Braves pitcher for his nasty words in Sports Illustrated last December. Rocker's anti-black, anti-gay and anti-ethnic slurs stunk up the national pastime. More than a half-century after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's Gentlemen's Agreement, this lug was still jawing like Ty Cobb.
On January 13, Imus slammed "Steak" Shapiro, an Atlanta talk-show host, for appearing to defend the local hero on MSNBC. "John Rocker, I don't know if he's a racist, I don't know if he's a bigot," said Shapiro in the MSNBC cut replayed by Imus. "I've been very critical over the last few weeks. I think he's guilty of being extremely ignorant for making comments."
"Oh God, shut up," blurted Imus, blowing up Shapiro's statement with an explosive sound effect. "God Almighty, what a moron! Shut up! You don't know if he's a racist? Read the article. You make serious comments like that? I mean come on. What did he call somebody, 'a fat monkey'? No, no, no. No, no, no. No, no, no. See if his name is on the list of the people who contributed money to Father Tom's AIDS hospice. That might absolve him, you know." (Fr. Hartman is a regular on the show.)
On February 9, the day before Rocker testified at an arbitration hearing in Manhattan, Imus resurfaced his trademark scorn, beaning the pitcher as an "absolute moron," "probably a racist," and a "redneck goober shootin' his mouth off."
"That's exactly what it is--goober shootin' his mouth off, affirmed his newsman-sidekick, Charles McCord.
Squatting on the moral highground, Imus proposed a $1,000,000 fine instead of the $20,000 imposed by baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Alluding to the SI spitters tossed mainly at New York City minority subway riders, the show's producer, Bernard McGuirk, wisecracked that Rocker should have to go to the Mets's Shea Stadium on the 7 Train wearing a dashiki.
But it is not Imus's nature to support the underdog. Granted his business-as-usual bigotry--Mike Wallace exposed Imus's use of "nigger" on "Sixty Minutes" in 1997--the mammoth contempt for Rocker seemed insincere. Unable to fake decency for extended periods, Imus and McGuirk instantly revealed their skinhead resentments. Despite the hoked-up, seven-figure penalty and the 7 Train dashiki scenario, ultimately, they saw Rocker as a victim of white hypocrisy, the same sinister force that doomed Jimmy-the-Greek and Al Campanis for demeaning assertions about blacks while saving Jesse Jackson from his "Hymietown" disgrace.
"They're not going to do anything to Jesse Jackson because he's black.Hello? Which you already know obviously," said Imus.
"You mean there's hypocrisy out there?" replied McGuirk.
"As long as he's white, let's get him [laughter]," Imus continued. "That's where I'm coming from."
"That's what I'm sayin'," concluded McGuirk.
Three days later, on February 11, Imus confirmed his brotherhood with Rocker via Bo Dietl, a former New York City cop turned entrepreneur, who ostensibly reviews movies for the program. Predictably, Dietl was coming from the same place as the host. His weekly stints are routinely laced with racist as well as homophobic and xenophobic insults. During the U.S. Open Tennis Championship last September, he called Patrick Rafter "the fag from Australia," the Indian men's doubles finalists "Gunga Din and Sambo," and the Williams sisters "two booma-chucka big-butted women." In a review of Instinct last summer, he observed that the "gorilla special effects look the starting lineup of the Knicks." So the fix was in when Imus asked Dietl about the Rocker controversy.
"A little overreact-shi-tation with the guy," said Dietl, whose parlance is filled with quasi-neologisms wrapped in a Brooklyn accent. "I' ll be honest with you, I didn't like what he says. We all kid around. But then again, he didn't spit at anybody. He didn't stab anybody. He didn't kill anybody. A little overreaction here. You know what would be acceptable, woulda been a nice public apology to New York, and to the people of New York, and I would've accepted that and give him a small suspension, maybe a couple of games, but that as far as it goes. You don't beat a guy into, this is a professional ballplayer. He acted like, you know he was over there when I was at the World Series that I was calling him all kinds of things. He's the one who gravitated his crotchal area. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I tell you the honest truth, a little overreaction.
"Right," McGuirk added.
"Yeah," said Imus in solidarity.
When Imus and McGuirk gripe about hypocrisy, I reach for the transcripts. In fact, every repellent Rockerism in SI can be matched a hundred times over by quotes from Imus and his crew. Consider these SI/Imus in the Morning comparisons:
ROCKER: [New York's] the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the number 7 train to the ballpark like you're riding through Beirut. [ed: put all Rocker quotes in italic and Imus quotes in regular type]
McGuirk [to Bronx President Fernando Ferrer]: Do you sometimes feel like the the mayor of Mogadishu?
Voice of Elvis: "I was hopin' Michael Eisner and Gerald Levin would wind up driving livery cabs in the Mogadishu section of New York City. [laughter]
ROCKER: ... next to some fag with AIDS.
McGuirk [in voice of Cardinal O'Connor]: Good interview with Larry King the other day, Imus-in-the-Morn', both of you kissin' each other's butts like two old fags.
Jim Nantz [CBS Sports]: Magic Johnson is going to be at this game tonight and I'm actually going to go over to him and tell him that you were comparing some passes in the women's championship game to some of his passes.
Imus: Wear gloves. [laughter, huzzahs]
ROCKER: The biggest thing I don't like about New York are the foreigners.
McCord [reading news]: Here's Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee talking about his position on nuclear weapons.
Vajpayee: I have reiterated our commitment...
Imus: [interrupting to mock Indian newsstand vendors in New York] Give me a pack of cigarettes [sound of explosion, laughter]. I'll have some Marlboros and some jerky ... fruit punch or Gator Aid, okay?...
McCord: Good grief.
McGuirk: [mocking Indian cabbies in New York]Take me to Third Avenues, Punjab. Imus: That's exactly right. Forty-ninth and and Sixth and make it snappy. [laughter]
ROCKER: I'm not a very big fan of foreigners.
Imus: We were nearly beaten by Zimbabwe [in Davis Cup], for God's sake.
Patrick McEnroe: Both matches in Johnny Mac's captaincy. We were down 2-1 going into the last day. But guess what? Two W[in]'s, two W[in]'s, baby.
McGuirk: Against countries that eat dirt sandwiches.
ROCKER: ... fat monkey [re Latino teammate on Braves].
Imus: knuckle-dragging moron [re Knicks center Patrick Ewing] .
ROCKER: I'm not a racist or prejudiced person.
Imus: I get accused of being a racist all the time, but I'm not.
In light of Imus's famous attachment to black-and-gay-baiting, the last person one might expect to guest on his program was Commissioner Selig. Surely, the man who pilloried the Braves star for his SI fulminations, demanding therapy in addition to a fine and suspension, was no fan of the I-man. Think again. "I feel like I know you guys because you're with me the first two or three hours of every day," gushed Selig on his maiden visit to the Imus locker room on May 2. On the way out, he trilled, "I've enjoyed this immensely myself and nice to talk. I look forward to meeting all of you."
In between, the host and the commish chatted amiably about baseball matters, including Rocker. In a hitting duel of hypocrisy--McGuirk was right for the wrong reason--Imus dropped his aryan-guy defense and Selig pretended that Imus and his prodigal pitcher did not play the same game. Ironically, only a few minutes before Selig came on, McGuirk made a Rockeresque remark during Patrick McEnroe's sports report. McEnroe had noted that a fan rushed on to the infield at Dodgers Stadium the previous night and mooned Rocker while he was on the mound. "Was it David Geffen?" improvised McGuirk. (In the next hour his foil was Kevin Spacey.) As an ardent listener, Selig may have even heard McGuirk smear the Red Sox's Pedro Martinez with a crude homosexual jab in February. If he had tuned in during the league championship series last September, he would have heard Imus call Hall of Famer Joe Morgan "an idiot" merely because Morgan criticized the scarcity of black managers in the major leagues.
Of course, none of this messy backstory intruded on the air. The host had snared another establishment parasite in exchange for fifteen mintues in the exclusive redhot center of white media power where Tom Brokaw, Tim Russert, Jeff Greenfield, and Dan Rather towel off with Jim Lehrer, Michael Beschloss, Jonathan Alter, and John McCain.
"Looking back on that entire affair, do you think you were too tough or not tough enough, what are your thoughts on that?" Imus asked Selig softly. Although the Players Association successfully reduced Rocker's suspension at arbitration, the commish stuck to his hardball stance. "I read the article about Rocker. And while he's entitled to his opinion, as a player he represents a franchise. He represents a sport. Therefore I really felt that there had to be some discipline."
Who does Don Imus represent? He is employed by CBS, which owns Infinity Broadcasting, syndicator of the radio show. And NBC, which simulcasts it on MSNBC. At CBS, the boss is Mel Karmazin. At NBC, Jack Welch. Apparently, neither CEO has the necessities to curb their franchise bigot.
Published: May 16 2000