A PLEDGE BROKEN: Part 2
Imus the Untouchable
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.
"Imus will be untouchable as long as influential journalists and politicians turn a blind eye to the tide of racism and sexism that passes for satire on his program. Their tolerance of his nauseating brand of humor raises serious doubts about the mainstream media's sensitivity to a range of racial and social issues. The problem isn't really Imus, it's his collaborators, who go along with him to flack their books and stoke their egos, selling out whatever principles they claim to believe in for personal profit. To hell with all of them."
- Jack White, Time magazine columnist, to "Imus Watch" author Philip Nobile.
How low will politicians and journalists stoop to enjoy the favors of Don Imus, who, from his perch at WFAN in New York City, broadcasts racist, sexist and homophobic trash across the nation via MSNBC and CBS radio?
Maybe we should ask Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx borough president who is running for mayor of New York City. His campaign is built on his Puerto Rican base and a hoped-for coalition with blacks. While politicians are wired to walk on their grandmothers' graves in quest of votes, Ferrer went an extra mile on May 22 when he suffered Imus's racist introduction without reproach.
Reminding listeners of a previous Ferrer interview conducted by his on-air sidekick Bernard McGuirk outside Yankee Stadium, Imus said,
He [McGuirk] was talking with Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and he asked President Ferrer (laughter) how it felt being the mayor of Mogadishu (laughter). ... So we begin on a sour note, but one would hope that it'll get better. Anyway, please welcome to the 'Imus in the Morning' program the Bronx Borough President, one of the people running for the mayor of New York City, Fernando Ferrer. Good morning, Mr. Ferrer.
"Good morning, Don, how are you?" replied the politician, pretending that he did not hear the insult to his consituency. To complete Ferrer's mortification, Imus replayed McGuirk's moldy oldie remote
from Yankee Stadium, spiked with a Colt 45 reference and dripping with disdain for "the natives of the area," one of whom McGuirk asked out of nowhere, "Have you ever mugged anybody?"
Or maybe we can ask Frank Rich, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, who is likewise adept at filtering out Imus's prejudice even as it fills his ears. Although Rich stoutly defends gay rights in print, he winks at Imus's homophobia, as the following dialogue, reprised on March 23, reveals (note Imus's trademark flattery):
Imus: Frank Rich was writing theater reviews for the New York Times when Charles and I discovered him. And it was some of the most entertaining prose I've ever read. ... [His reviews] were so wonderfully well-written and educational with historical and literary references that were in fact educational. ... [He] earned the apellation "butcher of Broadway" and somebody thought, well, why not just let him hammer everybody rather than just the homos on Broadway.
Charles McCord (sidekick): Precisely. (laughter) ...
Imus: Which is what he is doing now on the op-ed page of the New York Times.
McCord: And brilliantly, to this day.
Imus: Here he is now, good morning, Mr. Rich.
Rich: Good morning, how are you? How's the fatherhood going?
What is it with Rich? Why would a famous friend of the Friends of Dorothy, honored by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, fail to rebuke Imus for this cheap shot against gays? What would it have cost Rich to say, "Are you out of your mind, Don? 'The homos of Broadway'?
I'd expect that from Howard Stern or Dick Armey. You can't talk like that and expect me to come on."
Whatever the price of telling off Imus, nobody in his league seems willing to pay it. Not Tim Russert, who said nothing after Imus demeaned his then-fellow NBC News employee, Gwen Ifill, as a "cleaning lady," as reported by the New York Daily News. Not Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop of New York, who keeps silent on Bernard McGuirk's racist, homophobic, and pedophilic parodies in his voice. Not Marc McCuen of the CBS "Early Show," who won't comment on being called a "laughing-gas, fat, black weatherman" in a Walter Cronkite parody. ("Not interested, see ya'," McCuen said recently, hanging up the phone.) Not Mort Kondracke, who went on Imus to plug his book about his wife's Parkinson's disease even though Imus ridicules people with the fatal condition (e.g. "old bigfoot shaky Janet Reno"). ("He does a lot of charity, the guy has redeeming characteristics," Kondracke said, while conceding, "I criticized [Senator Joseph] Lieberman for going on the show, so I guess that makes me a hypocrite.") And not Lieberman himself, the "conscience" of the United States Senate, who last summer rushed to do the Imus show after the Democratic convention despite an earlier series of anti-Semitic parodies lampooning his "non-shellfish-eating ass" and hinting that he had sex with Karenna Gore by "invading her fertile crescent."
Chris Matthews on the Brink
Yet for one brief, shining moment in April of this year, Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's "Hardball," seemed on the brink of smashing the Gentleman's Agreement that protects Imus: Give valuable airtime and access to a national audience to A-list pols and pundits and they'll dismiss the tasteless, racist, homophobic and sexist schtick as ha-ha 'entertainment.'
Matthew's crise de conscience began on April 10, when I phoned him about his latest Imus appearance. A few weeks earlier, he went on immediately following a nasty McGuirk parody of Cardinal Egan, including a line about how you know when a black woman is menstruating. Instead of raising hell about the slur, Matthews disputed McGuirk's Irish brogue.
"How come Irish guys who've been in this country since 1840 get Irish accents?" he said. "I just don't understand that. I mean, they still have these Hollywood actors -- they got these guys like they just got off the boat. Everybody's fourth generation. Egan, how long has his family been in the country? I guess it's okay to make fun of us though."
"Well, yes it is," replied Imus, cutting him off.
When I asked Matthews about his narrow outrage, he was candid and ostensibly contrite. "Yeah, you're right. I remember that the Egan thing bothered me at the time and I grimaced and just went on. I should have said something then instead of defending my own group. I guess I attacked an area that bothered me. "
And what about the anti-gay and anti-black parts of the parody? Why didn't those areas disturb him more? "I don't have an answer," he said. As for the Imus show's chronic Jim Crow content, he expressed ignorance.
"I listen to the show, but not that much. He used to do a parody of Vernon Jordan which was just 'Amos 'n' Andy.' Is this still going on?"
Matthews was the lone member of Imus's entourage to return my calls (perhaps because he remembered me from Holy Cross). Thus he was the only one I confronted with the stinging quote (at the top of this story) from Time's Jack E. White's about the boys on Imus's bus.
How did Matthews feel about White's contempt? I asked him point-blank: "Have you sold out to Imus?" He danced and dodged and told me to tune into his next Imus guestshot two days hence, strongly hinting that he would make a stand.
No such luck. Instead, Matthews turned informer and fixer. First, he warned Imus about our conversation, even sending him a transcript that I had emailed him, and then, contrary to his statement to me, he remained mute on the air regarding Imus's act:
Imus: We're talking with Chris Matthews from MSNBC's "Hardball" program. Did you come up with that name, "Hardball"?
Matthews: Yeah, I wrote the book in '88.
Imus: Well that's right, yeah.
Matthews: And it's still doing pretty decent you know.
Imus: Do I have a copy of that, Bernie?
McGuirk: I don't know.
Imus: Get me one. Anyway, he also writes a column a week for the San Francisco Chronicle which is syndicated around the country. Matthews acquitted himself, this guy's been after us for years, what's his name, Philip Nobile?
Matthews: Oh, yeah.
Imus: He's this punk who ah, who ah, thinks that I'm a racist and thinks because we make fun of people that we, or whatever, and ah so he finally got TomPaine.com jacked up and ran a op-ed advertisement in the New York Times. Then my old friend Jack White, who I just recently found out was an African American, and we attacked him for months. I wish I had known he was African American I could have included that in my attacks on him, but I attacked him as if he were a real person -- ha ha -- and he wrote a column about us and so on, and so he calls Matthews. Every time someone appears on the program this jerk calls him and tries to get 'em not to appear on the program. [Unintelligible] and I read his transcript with what Matthews said and I thought he acquitted himself very well because in fact, do we make fun of everybody and do we get out of line? Yeah. Are we racist? No. Anyway, thanks Chris, that was ah, I read that this morning. I, obviously, you're not endorsing everything on the program, nor would we ask you to, but I thought you were fair and honest and all that.
Matthews: Well thank you. I do Playboy interviews, too.
Two weeks later, Matthews was speaking at the New School in Manhattan. During the Q&A, I pressed the still-unanswered question: "Why don't you have the decency to stand up to Imus on the air and criticize his racism and homophobia?"
"I think that Imus has certain off-the-wall, politically incorrect, wiseass points of view," he replied. "When he makes fun of people like Vernon Jordan, I get a lot of calls from Vernon Jordan and he doesn't talk like Calhoun on 'Amos 'n' Andy.' And stop making those accents, you know. Do clever accents like Darrel Hammond does of Jesse Jackson. Don't make racial, stupid, ethnic accents. I can make those arguments. But you know, I think Imus has some qualities which I don't think are great. But is he a detriment to society? I don't know."
If Matthews had not been pushed to the wall before a closed audience of progressives, he probably would not have straddled as wide as he did -- still without responding to the original question about hardballing Imus on the air.
Among Imus's regulars, the standard defense is denial and/or straight, white solidarity. When Jeff Greenfield sat in as guest host on "Larry King Live" and interviewed Imus, he spun Imus's bigotry as merely "a roast" (February 24, 2000).
Tom Brokaw recently told Brian Lamb on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" (May 24) that Imus did a "user-friendly political show," though noting that "occasionally, he goes over the line, but we all do." Occasionally? How often does Brokaw use "homo" or "lesbo" when hosting the "Nightly News" on NBC?
Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz admitted in his 1996 bestseller, Hot Air (Times Books), that he (Kurtz) and his peers talked like Imus behind closed doors. "Imus's sexist, homophobic, and politically incorrect routines echo what many journalists joke about in private," he wrote, perhaps explaining Imus's free ride in the mainstream press.
Of all the politicians who have groveled for Imus's approval, the most likely to challenge him is his own congressman, Representative Jerrold Nadler, a two-time guest. The super-liberal Democratic is much admired on Manhattan's upper West Side for his pro-gay, pro-black record. In other words, Nadler has nothing to lose by confronting Imus.
Nevertheless, after reading excepts from the "Imus Watch," he stonewalled an interview and issued a non-committal statement through a spokesman: "If I do ever get invited on Imus again and go on, I'll be sure to remind him of his comments." When I pointed out the blandness of the quote, Nadler added the modifier "shameful" to "comments."
The Paper of Record
Then there is Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher of the New York Times. Although alien to Imus's ethos, the Times has been part of his rise to respectability through heavy advertising buys and the avid support of columnists Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Anna Quindlen, and Tom Friedman.
In 1995, Imus got a boost when the paper invited him to sit at its table at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Imus is also a phone pal of Howell Raines, editorial page editor and now its designated executive editor.
But Sulzberger is no fan of Imus, something that came to light when TomPaine.com ran its original "AnImus In The Morning" ad on the op-ed page of the Times last year. According to standard operating procedure, the Times reviewed the ad copy in advance. The Times raised objections to printing Imus's slurs. John Moyers, the website's publisher, insisted that quotes from the show's transcripts were central to the charge that Imus's show is filled with bigoted material. The debate moved upstairs to Sulzberger, an executive of reputed substance devoted to affirmative action for blacks and gays.
Sulzberger must have been particularly upset to read Imus's remarks, recounted in the ad, about his former White House correspondent, Gwen Iffil ("Isn't the New York Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.") and his sports columnist, Bill Rhoden, whom Imus labeled "a New York Times quota hire."
TomPaine.com and the Times eventually reached an accommodation, but not before Sulzberger, in his conversation with Moyers, revealed that he was unaware that his paper advertised on the Imus show.
If true to his principles, Sulzberger would have squelched the Imus contract. And maybe he did just that. Not long after TomPaine.com's ad ran, the Times discontinued its sponsorship. Was this conscience or coincidence? Sulzberger would not speak on or off the record. In any case, the Times recently renewed its advertising with "Imus in the Morning," but only on the MSNBC feed.
[Editor's note: In 1999, just after TomPaine.com was launched, and many months before we learned of Philip Nobile's reporting -- which became the basis of the original "Imus Watch" series -- the website purchased three ads on a single day of the Imus program.]
Teaching Kids to Masturbate
If the gentlemen and ladies behind the Gentlemen's Agreement that shields Imus can comfortably co-exist with Imus's "nigger," "fag," "lesbo," "gook," "chink," "Gunga Din," and "boner-nose jewboy" jokes, what about his scary, dirty old man schtick?
Consider the bizarre sexual rambling about his son Wyatt on "Larry King Live" last February 22:
The other night, he's standing up in a bathtub. He's standing -- listen, I swear to God this is true. He's two-years, eight-months old. He's standing in a bathtub. I was giving him a bath. And he says, look, daddy, I'm playing with my penis. And I said, well, first of all -- his mother got mad at me, by the way. I said, first of all, you're not playing with it properly or fast enough. Well, I said, by the way, you'll be doing that when you're my age, so ...
King nervously laughed off Imus's anecdote, saying, "Children are the best, though. There's nothing like it."
Although Imus's outburst would have ruined the career of a lesser star, especially one who runs a kiddie camp, as he does, the media ignored this major indelicacy. Accordingly, like a dog to his vomit, Imus revisited the subject the morning after. During a phoner with his wife, Deidre, a woman all too eager to play the foil, Imus repeated his father-son masturbation bit.
"I have to work with [Wyatt] this weekend," he said. "Why?" replied his wife. "To teach him how to play with his penis."
Ms. Imus observed a few breaths later, regarding a neighbor's proposed avian gift, "Falcons have really large penises, you know."
A few days later, on March 4, youthful masturbation was back in the line-up. While chatting with his brother, Fred, Imus reversed his stand and knocked Dr. Jocelyn Elders, the former Surgeon General, "for figuring out a way to teach high school kids to masturbate."
This allusion launched Fred, co-director of Imus's $20 million New Mexico children's ranch into a leering soliloquy on the joy of instructing youths in self-pleasure:
All right, I could teach that. There's a class I could teach (laughter) 'cus I got my master's degree in masturbation. (laughter) Not only could I teach it, (laughter) I really want to teach it. I damn sure want to teach that class. (laughter) It's safe sex. (laughter) If you wash your hands, it's safe. (laughter)
"That will be enough," said Imus with mock disapproval. "I'm sorry," Fred replied. "I just got carried away when I heard that word. I'm practicing on teaching that class." (laughter)
No Sense of Decency
"Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" is the question that Joe Welch used to upend the career of Senator Joseph McCarthy. His earnest question was a plea, really, uttered for the whole nation to see and hear on national TV and radio, and it was heard.
Today it is a question that might be asked of those who benefit from the exposure that "Imus in the Morning" offers -- his corporate and journalistic and media enablers, and the contributors to his children's camp in Reader's Digest, New Mexico.
Is there no sense of decency among them? Are there no Joe Welchs among the upstanding citizens who flock to Imus's microphone? Or do the pull of celebrity and the push for profit in the Media Age excuse any behavior?
Who will tackle these questions?
Maybe the journalists: Tom Brokaw? Howard Fineman? Maureen Dowd? Chris Matthews? Jonathan Alter? Cokie Roberts? Howell Raines? Anna Quindlen? How about you, Tim Russert? Or you, Dan Rather? Larry King? Jeff Greenfield? Frank Rich? George Stephanopoulos? Walter Isaacson? Tony Kornhieser? David Remnick? The high-principled Bill O'Reilly?
How about the politicians: Bill Bradley? Representative J.C. Watts? Senator Chris Dodd? Senator Lieberman? Senator Domenici? Al D'Amato? Representative J.D. Hayworth?
If only they could hear Jack White's j'accuse.
Ultimately, Imus is beholden to two men, Mel Karmazin, president and chief operating officer of Viacom/CBS, and Bob Wright, chairman of NBC. Either one could put an end to Imus's filthy game. But at long last, they probably won't, because, as David Rosenthal, Imus's editor at Simon and Shuster, said, "Imus is good for business."
Published: Jun 28 2001