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Paying the Price - New York Times

Paying the Price - New York Times

April 12, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist

Paying the Price

You knew something was up early in the day. As soon as I told executives at MSNBC that I was going to write about the “60 Minutes” piece, which was already in pretty wide circulation, they began acting very weird. We’ll get back to you, they said.

In a “60 Minutes” interview with Don Imus broadcast in July 1998, Mike Wallace said of the “Imus in the Morning” program, “It’s dirty and sometimes racist.”

Mr. Imus then said: “Give me an example. Give me one example of one racist incident.” To which Mr. Wallace replied, “You told Tom Anderson, the producer, in your car, coming home, that Bernard McGuirk is there to do nigger jokes.”

Mr. Imus said, “Well, I’ve nev — I never use that word.”

Mr. Wallace then turned to Mr. Anderson, his producer. “Tom,” he said.

“I’m right here,” said Mr. Anderson.

Mr. Imus then said to Mr. Anderson, “Did I use that word?”

Mr. Anderson said, “I recall you using that word.”

“Oh, O.K.,” said Mr. Imus. “Well, then I used that word. But I mean — of course, that was an off-the-record conversation. But ——”

“The hell it was,” said Mr. Wallace.

The transcript was pure poison. A source very close to Don Imus told me last night, “They did not want to wait for your piece to come out.”

For MSNBC, Mr. Imus’s “nappy-headed ho’s” comment about the Rutgers women’s basketball team was bad enough. Putting the word “nigger” into the so-called I-man’s mouth was beyond the pale.

The roof was caving in on Mr. Imus. More advertisers were pulling the plug. And Bruce Gordon, a member of the CBS Corp. board of directors and former head of the N.A.A.C.P., said publicly that Mr. Imus should be fired.

But some of the most telling and persuasive criticism came from an unlikely source — internally at the network that televised Mr. Imus’s program. Women, especially, were angry and upset. Powerful statements were made during in-house meetings by women at NBC and MSNBC — about how black women are devalued in this country, how they are demeaned by white men and black men.

White and black women spoke emotionally about the way black women are frequently trashed in the popular culture, especially in music, and about the way news outlets give far more attention to stories about white women in trouble.

Phil Griffin, a senior vice president at NBC News who oversaw the Imus show for MSNBC, told me yesterday, “It touched a huge nerve.”

Whether or not Mr. McGuirk was hired for the specific noxious purpose referred to in the “60 Minutes” interview, he has pretty much lived up to that job description. He’s a minstrel, a white man who has gleefully led the Imus pack into some of the most disgusting, degrading attempts at racial (not to mention sexist) humor that it’s possible to imagine.

Blacks were jigaboos, Sambos and Brilloheads. Women were bitches and, above all else, an endless variety of ever-ready sexual vessels, born to be degraded.

The question now is how long the “Imus in the Morning” radio show will last. Just last month, in a reference to a speech by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in Selma, Ala., Mr. McGuirk called Mrs. Clinton a bitch and predicted she would “have cornrows and gold teeth” by the time her presidential primary campaign against Senator Barack Obama is over.

Way back in 1994, a friend of mine, the late Lars-Erik Nelson, a terrific reporter and columnist at The Daily News and Newsday, mentioned an Imus segment that offered a “satirical” rap song that gave advice to President Clinton on what to do about Paula Jones: “Pimp-slap the ho.” Mr. Nelson also wrote that there was a song on the program dealing with Hillary Clinton’s menstrual cycle.

So this hateful garbage has been going on for a long, long time. There was nothing new about the tone or the intent of Mr. Imus’s “nappy-headed ho’s” comment. As Bryan Monroe, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, told me the other night, “It’s a long pattern of behavior, and at some point somebody has to say enough is enough.”

The crucial issue goes well beyond Don Imus’s pathetically infantile behavior. The real question is whether this controversy is loud enough to shock Americans at long last into the realization of just how profoundly racist and sexist the culture is.

It appears that on this issue the general public, and the women at Mr. Imus’s former network, are far ahead of the establishment figures, the politicians and the media biggies, who were always so anxious to appear on the show and to defend Mr. Imus.

That is a very good sign.