Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Better Imus on The Air Than Off
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Die hard Don Imus dissers will lose round two with the shock jock. Round two is a renewed battle to keep him off the air. He will be back on the air possibly as early as December. And he should be. It has nothing to do with him, his talent, his marketing draw, or the legions of fans that have shouted for his return since the nappy head ho dumping episode. His return has everything to do with the blacks that screamed for his hide back in April. The top Imus scalp hunters have mellowed, softened, or proclaimed disinterest in and toward keeping him off the air. The list includes Al Sharpton, the Rutgers women’s head basketball coach, some of the Rutgers players (one dropped her lawsuit against him), and a few prominent black columnists.
Their silence or indifference on an Imus return should not be mistaken for any ringing declaration of support for him. It’s simply recognition that continuing the vendetta against Imus serves no real purpose. There are two reasons why. It fuels the eternal accusation of a racial double-standard . That accusation came up time and again during the Imus firefight.

When Sharpton, the NAACP, and black journalist groups sprinted to the barricades to oust Imus, white and black Imus defenders pounded them for their vehement Imus assault while playing like deaf mutes when it came to the misogynist spouting black rappers, comedians, and filmmakers. The Imus denouncers scrambled fast and mounted a noisy campaign against the rap defilers to quash the double standard charge. But that hasn’t stopped the fling of the double-standard accusation at blacks that scream racism when whites mouth off, but say nothing, or make a tepid criticism when blacks do the same.

Sharpton got hit again with the double-standard accusation when he called on New York Knicks president Isiah Thomas to apologize for demeaning women. Sharpton bashers hammered him for calling on Thomas only to apologize and not demand that he be fired, as he did with Imus. Sharpton has since said that while he called for Imus’s firing, he did not call for him to be banned in perpetuity to broadcast Siberia. This fine distinction won’t satisfy those that pounce on any inconsistency blacks show when it comes to dealing with black and white verbal bashers.

In any case, the debate over Imus’s Rutger's gibe and the defense of it and him skirted the all too fine, and often blurred line, between what's free speech and offensive, libelous speech. The insult was, of course, crass, crude, and repulsive. But Imus almost certainly didn’t intend the poor taste joke or vile crack – take your pick – as a hate epithet against the Rutgers Lady Cagers. As Sharpton and countless others noted, his dig was no worse than the bile that the pantheon of rap opportunist/defilers regularly spew against black women.

There’s another reason for standing aside when Imus returns to the airwaves. It goes far beyond the self-serving moans from his posse that the poor guy has suffered enough. A live and sobered Imus behind the mic would serve as the O.J. Simpson of broadcast media. He’d be the permanent broadcast poster boy for what can happen to shock jocks that stray over the line of racial trash talking indecency. That can always ignite the swift wrath of much of the public. A tame, well-behaved Imus won’t instantly turn shock jocks into reincarnated Edward R. Murrows. It will make them pause and think a tad more carefully about their words and possible consequences.

That’s already happened to a few shock jocks that have dribbled out an Imus like slur. They have been quickly called on the carpet and suspended or canned.
Imus also made some corporate sponsors wince at his antics. And when the clamor for his hide rose to a crescendo, they instantly cut bait, and Imus was the bait. And since the name of the game on the airwaves is still ratings and dollars, corporation’s---post-Imus--- have tipped more gingerly around controversy. While the truism remains in full force that controversy always gets the cash registers jingling, too much controversy can turn those jingles into headaches for a station management that has to spend countless hours fending off black, Latino, Asian, gay and women’s groups that are up in arms over a shock jock’s taunt. The perverse silver lining in Imus’s fall from public grace then is that he slightly redefined the rules of ethnic and gender engagement on the airwaves for some station owners and management.

The hard reality is that Imus did pay a steep price for his mouth, and he deserved to pay that price. Now that he will and should return to the broadcast studio, he has a chance for redemption. His return is no cause for cheers and popping the champagne corks. But it’s certainly no cause for jeers and tossing those bottles at him either when he returns.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.