THE IMUS A-LIST MEDIA: GOING ALONG AND GETTING ON
The New Gentleman's Agreement
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.
Prominent journalists and not-so-prominent journalists come on your show. So they -- and I can't pretend to be neutral about this since I'm one of them--we don't seem to have a problem with that [i.e., "racially offensive stuff."]
Jeff Greenfield to Don Imus on "Larry King Live," February 24, 2000
Jeff Greenfield, CNN's senior political analyst, is not reputed to be racist. Unlike his friend and benefactor, Don Imus, he probably does not use "nigger" in private conversation. Nor would he publicly defame sportswriter Bill Rhoden as a "New York Times quota hire" or PBS anchor Gwen Ifill as a "cleaning lady." No doubt, too, Greenfield would bite his tongue before calling the black players on the New York Knicks "a bunch of thugs," "chest-bumping pimps," and "the New York Crips," as they are known on Imus in the Morning. Yet Greenfield gladly associates with Imus and avidly defends his bigotry, which extends to gays, foreigners, and amputees.
Consider Greenfield's lapdog interview with Imus on "Larry King Live!" last February 24. I was an interested party in the event. A few hours before showtime, I faxed Greenfield a copy of my February 22 Newsday op-ed column attacking Imus and the gang of straight, white journalist-guests who mistook him for H.L. Mencken (Tom Brokaw, Tim Russert, Dan Rather, Cokie Roberts, Howard Fineman, Frank Rich, Jonathan Alter, Maureen Dowd, Jeff Greenfield et al.) I had also highlighted some of Imus's maledicta toward blacks and gays and wagged my finger at New Yorker editor David Remnick for accepting a $50,000 Imus Book Award for King of the World.
I wrote on the fax: "To prove you're not in Imus's pocket, ask him about the racist & homophobic material on show." Greenfield took half of my advice and brought up the matter of race:
Greenfield: I mean, there's a piece in Newsday I think today or yesterday that says your show just engages in racial humor of the most stereotyping kind. Every one of the black political figures that you parody sounds like something out of an Amos and Andy radio show. Do you cop to this at all? Do you do racially offensive humor?
Imus: Well, I don't think so. I mean, has there been racially offensive stuff on the air? Yes. But do we make a practice of it? No, I mean, I don't think so.
Normally, a journalist would pounce on such a revelation. Here was the most powerful political talk-jock in the media--one of Time magazine's "twenty-five most influential Americans" and host to presidential candidates John McCain, Bill Bradley and Al Gore--confessing on live television that he deliberately broadcast racist content. The occasion demanded basic follow-ups like--What stuff? How often is not a "practice"? Why do it at all? Do you have any black staff? Black friends? With my Newsday piece in hand, Greenfield simply could have read the quotes about Ifill and the Knicks and sought an explanation. That is standard operating procedure. In fact, that is what Mike Wallace did when he confronted Imus's David Duke slop on "Sixty Minutes" (March 31, 1997):
Wallace: This one about black rapper Snoop Doggy Dog.
McGuirk: But for the grace of God, he'd be eating monkey carcasses in Africa.
Wallace: Bernard McGuirk is the producer of the show. He glories in the role of the resident bigot. Bernie jokes about Ebola virus, Africans' eating monkey. It's sophomoric, and adolescent. It's as smart as the dickens. It's on top of politics. It's dirty and it's sometimes racist.
Imus:Give me an example--give me one example of a racist incident. Wallace: You told Tom Anderson, the producer, in your car, coming home, that Bernard McGuirk is there to do nigger jokes.
Imus: Well, I've nev--I never use the word.
Anderson: I'm right here.
Imus: Did I use that word?
Anderson: I recall you using that word.
Imus: Oh, OK. Well, then I used that word. But I mean, of course, that was an off the record conversation.
Wallace's j'accuse should have ruined or seriously soiled Imus's career a` la Al Campanis, Jimmy-the-Greek, Bob Grant, the Greaseman, Fuzzy Zoeller, and John Rocker. But Imus is protected by a Gentlemen's Agreement. A bodyguard of media bigfeet and elite sponsors like the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, the New York Times, New York Daily News, Jeep, Mercedes Benz, Barnes & Noble, and Newsweek help to perfume the odor. Rather than a national scandal, Imus's racist speech and cowardly lie on "Sixty Minutes" was erased from national memory. Evan Thomas neither mentioned the "Sixty Minutes" episode nor explored Imus's problematic race relations in his subsequent Newsweek cover story (January 18, 1999) headlined "The Savvy Ringmaster." Without seeking response from the target class, Thomas whitewashed Imus's ugly act in three sentences:
Imus uses McGuirk, who can be wickedly funny, to push an edge with an impersonation of a black pro basketball player. Imus routinely has to protest that he is not a racist. He plays Martin Luther King Jr.'s entire 'I Have a Dream' speech, on King's birthday, over the objections, he archly insists on the air, of the radio station's "Jewish management."
Likewise on Larry King, Greenfield pulled back from the full-Wallace. Tailoring his journalism to fit friendship, he did not squeeze Imus on his startling admission. Instead, he allowed the Q&A to become sidetracked on the issue of voice parodies:
Greenfield: There are some folks who now will not come on your show because of this.
Greenfield:And the question is, why do so many other people accept it? I mean when Bob...
Imus:I think if you sit down and listen to it, I mean, it's not -- I am not a racist. It's not -- are there things that get said on the program that that shouldn't be said? Yes, absolutely. So, but I mean....
Greenfield:But what's your take on that? I mean, you could obviously stop it if you wanted to. You could just say to Bernard, and Charles and yourself --and not do the recording bits with Al Sharpton or Vernon Jordan.
Imus: Have you ever listened to an Al Sharpton essay? I mean, they're brilliantly written, intelligent essays, but we're parodying Al Sharpton's voice, why is that offensive? [Click here to read a transcript of a sample Sharpton parody.]
Imus:But nobody complains when we parody, you know, Walter Cronkite or Andy Rooney or...
Greenfield: What some folks have said is that every black voice you do...
Imus: ... Ross Perot...
Greenfield: ... every black voice you do sounds the same.
Imus: Well, I don't agree with them.
Imus: It's not true.
Greenfield: Let's take a call from San Francisco. Nonetheless, Greenfield was on to something. A few black voices, written and performed by Imus's troupe, have a demeaning Amos 'n' Andy ring (e.g., Vernon Jordan, Betty Currie, C. Vernon Mason) while others do not (e.g., Maya Angelou, Mike Tyson, and Al Sharpton). Les Payne made this distinction in his Newsday column (October 18, 1998): "It is fair game to satirize, say, O.J. Simpson in a voice approximating his grainy baritone as a self-possessed golfer, a schmoozer, a bad actor, a dummy, a murderer even. It is quite another matter to satirize Simpson as a generic blackman with an Amos 'n' Andy voice."
Regrettably, Greenfield mangled the point and let Imus off the hook. A sharper interviewer would have noted that the parodies of Cronkite and Andy Rooney are likable imitations and more vehicles of commentary. After all, both men have appeared on the program and have cordial relations with the host. In contrast, the black voices tend to blow back on the imitated. Imus's Al Sharpton is a lout. Here is the show's Al Sharpton on the invisibility of blacks at Imus's Spina Bifida roast last October in Washington D.C.: "Even if some black celebrities had been axed to your roast, I don't think they would have gone neither, especially seemin' as most of them I know was back here hanging out with your lady at your apartment."
Given Greenfield's long history with Imus--he has been doing the show for ten years--the fix was in on Larry King. Greenfield candidly gave the game away, not only expressing solidarity for Imus's "racially offensive" shtick (see below), but even worse, providing cover for it. Threaded with dishonesty, disingenuousness and gobbledygook, the dialogue below indicates the difficulty that white apologists like Greenfield have rationalizing the racist humor on the show--e.g., witty word portraits of Patrick Ewing as "Mighty Joe Young" or Secretary of Defense William Cohen as "Bill (Jungle Fever) Cohen" a` propos his black wife, Janet Langhart, who is risibly called a "ho."
Imus: ... I mean, some of the black voices we do and some of the essays -- I mean, we don't write essays that make black people sound stupid or make Ross Perot sound stupid or -- I mean, if people are offended -- I mean -- I can't -- get over it. I mean, we're just trying to be funny. Everybody thinks it's funny until it's about them and then they get hysterical. So -- but, I mean, I'm the first to say that we've done things that's inappropriate? Absolutely. But, I mean, we -- you know -- we try to do better, so...
Greenfield: It is interesting to me, though, that when Bob Grant, a radio personality in New York referred to the former mayor, an African-American, as a washroom attendant, he was fired by ABC. [For the facts, click here.] And yet, on your show, people like Anna Quindlen, Senator Bill Bradley, the vice president of the United States, Joe Lieberman, people -- prominent journalists and not-so-prominent journalists come on your show. So they -- and I can't pretend to be neutral about this since I'm one of them. We don't seem to have a problem with that.
Imus: Well, I've never referred -- I mean, we don't say things like that to -- if we -- if something like that gets said -- and I don't think something like that hasn't been said, but it's an attempt to be humor -- to be funny. Now, it may not be an appropriate attempt to be funny, but it isn't a -- you know, if Bob Grant -- whatever he said -- I mean, if he's serious about it and it's a serious talk show and the guy is not trying to be funny, well then, that is offensive. You know, if people think that you're serious and you're making some serious pronouncement about the mayor being a washroom attendant, well, that is offensive so ...
Greenfield: The fact it's said in fun, it's like a friar's roast?
Imus: But I mean -- I don't know whether -- it would depend.
Greenfield: But that's what it seems to me like. It's like a friar's roast. It's one of those things where you -- political correctness is the enemy.
Imus:You can cite two or three examples over 30 years. Thirty years I've been on the radio -- of stuff that's been offensive. I mean -- or that's been -- you know -- so I mean -- they're going to have to get over it. Because, you know, I got black kids with cancer coming out to this ranch in New Mexico who don't think I'm a racist. And the people who are accusing me of being a racist haven't give and dime to any charity in their lifetime and -- I mean, so it's outrageous. I mean, it offends me, and I'm not going to put up with it. I don't put up with it. It's silly.
Greenfield: We'll be back in a minute.
Summing up Imus's position--funny is funny, three exceptions in three decades, contrition is bullshit, I'm-nice-to-black kids with cancer, drop dead. Consistency is not Imus's strongest suit. Last March 4, perhaps when Greenfield was out of range, Imus said quite the contrary on his program:
Imus: Maybe I'm getting too old to do this. There's no reason to hurt people's feelings. In some cases I have, and I'm not going to do it anymore.I get accused of being a racist all the time, but I'm not. I realize that we do things here that are misconstrued and frankly I regret it. People have criticized me and they're right.
What spawned this short-lived burst of compunction? The context of Imus's apology was the Greaseman controversy that shook up shock-radio in February of 1999. Doug Tracht, a wiseguy disk jockey at Washington D.C.'s WARW-FM with the monicker "Greaseman," had cracked on the Texas truck-dragging murder of James Byrd Jr. After playing a Lauryn Hill song, Tracht said, "Now you understand why they drag them behind trucks." Predictably, Tracht pleaded slip of the tongue, said sorry for the pain, and denied that he was a racist. Nevertheless, Tracht was fired, just as Disney had terminated Bob Grant in 1996 for wishing death on Commerce Secretary Ron Brown via WABC-AM in New York. (Greenfield was wrong about the cause of Grant's firing. Prior to Disney's takeover, ABC management allowed him to slur Mayor Dinkins as a "washroom attendant.") Whether Imus was hearing the hoofbeats of conscience in March of 1999 or merely pressure from his bosses at CBS (which owns both WARW and WFAN-AM), the effect wore off quickly.
But two or three examples of racial horrors in thirty years? Who was Imus kidding? A few minutes earlier, he had conceded offending blacks on Imus in the Morning but said it was not a "practice." Now he remembered only three such transgressions, all unidentified, in his entire radio span. This discrepancy slipped by Greenfield who had already pardoned his pal under the Friars Roast exemption.
Greenfield's analogy was weak. The Friars-style roastee is always in on the gag and laughs along with the roasters, as Imus did at the Spina Bifida event. But Imus's targets are ridiculed at a distance with hostile remarks that are not remotely amusing unless one chuckles upon hearing Johnny Cochran called "Chicken-wing Johnny Cochran," Sammy Davis Junior "a one-eyed lawnjockey," or Venus and Serena Williams "two booma-chucka-big-butted women." Imagine how Ifill, daughter of a prominent preacher with a splendid multimedia career and five honorary degrees, must have felt when she read the "cleaning lady" insult in Lars-Erik Nelson's 1998 column in the New York Daily News: "Isn't the New York Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House." Despite Ifill's achievements, she was just another "nigger joke" to Imus.
Assuming that Ifill knew about the epithet, made in 1992, Nelson implied that she was a Tom for continuing to appear on the program. As NBC News congressional correspondent, synergizing with Imus's MSNBC simulcast, she had phoned in a couple of reports during Monicagate in 1998. However, Ifill told me that she had been blissfully unaware of Imus's comment when she was working for the Times in 1992. Her friends told her contemporaneously that Imus had said something about her, but none had the nerve to repeat it. Doubly embarrassed by Nelson's column, Ifill quietly refused to do the show again. (Why make a stink when her then NBC bosses--Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert--were leading members of Imus's posse?)
Despite Greenfield's roast mentality, he would surely draw the line at McGuirk's lowroad tribute to Mike Breen on the occasion of the latter's January exit from Imus's sportsdesk. Parodying the voice of Clyde Frazier, Breen's polysyllabic partner on the Knicks broadcast team, McGuirk dared to rap: "Mike always ubiquitous, precocious, promiscuous in the Knicks' locker room. Often times you hear someone shout, What's Ewing doing? And you hear back, He's doing Breen in the latrine. Go behind the shower screen. Yeah, Mike pleasin' the missing link by bending over the sink. Mike takin' his leave from the morning show to spend more time bein' Ewing's ho." Doing Breen? Missing link? Bending over the sink? Ewing's ho?
Before imputing bad faith to the roast excuse and concluding that Greenfield was intellectually dishonest, I sent him a copy of this article in February. (I have subsequently revised and updated some passages.) Specifically, I asked him to review the Imus Guest Bigotry Memo, that is, to rate the Imus transcripts according to his Friary standards. To me, these snatches of dialogue are prima facie evidence of a racist, homophobic, xenophobic loudmouth waiting for his Joseph Welch close-up. If Greenfield thinks otherwise, if he can read these vile words without feeling shame for his Imus ardor, journalist-to-journalist, let him explain why. To date, he has stonewalled my request, along with two other Imus stalwarts--Anna Quindlen and Frank Rich (who was named columnist of the year by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.)
Although Greenfield is Imus's number one ambassador in the press, several peers have sold their reputations to the show. In addition to the aforementioned Brokaw, Russert, Rather, Roberts, Fineman, Alter, Cronkite, Rooney, and Remnick, there are Steve Brill, Judy Woodruff, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Bob Schieffer, Fred Graham, George Stephanopoulos, Howard Kurtz, Howell Raines, Thomas Friedman, George Vecsey, Walter Isaacson, Mike Lupica, Joe Klein, Jeffrey Toobin, Laura Ingraham, Andrea Mitchell, Ken Auletta, Lloyd Grove, and Tony Kornhieser.
It is no accident that black journalists are missing from Imus's media A-list. The only blacks advertised as "regular guests" on Imus's MSNBC webpage--Gwen Ifill and Clarence Page--are actually boycotting the program. "Out of respect for Gwen, a friend and colleague, I also am reluctant to re-appear on Imus's show until I hear an apology or, at least, a proper disclaimer of some sort for those whom he has offended," said Page. "So far, I have not heard, either."
Oddly enough, Ed Bradley neither saw nor heard about Imus's "nigger" lie and subsequent admission on "Sixty Minutes" in 1997. As an aficionado of NPR, Bradley was unfamiliar with Imus in the Morning, which accounts for Bradley's spring 1998 appearance. But after catching up on selected quotes, he, too, decided against another visit. "Until reading your letter, I was unaware of the comments you attribute to Imus and his crew," he emailed me last summer. "If they are true, I would not appear on his broadcast." Stanley Crouch read the same Imus quotes and reached the same conclusion.
Why did all thirty-plus straight, white journalist-guests of Imus, whom I contacted blow off the bigotry and the boycott, yet four-of-four previous black journalist-guests did not? Maybe Bernard Shaw, Greenfield's CNN brother, can tell him why.
Published: May 16 2000