by SaraRutgers center Kia Vaughn, All-Met Division I Women's College Basketball Player of the Year
Don Imus is off the air -- not for a two-week slap-on-the-hand, but for good. It's a good day.
What Imus said about the Rutgers women's basketball team is hardly the most offensive thing we've heard from a right-wing talker over the past 20 years. In fact, looking his long record of past gaffes (including calling Gwen Ifill "a cleaning lady," and NYT reporter William Rhoden "a quota hire,") it's not even particularly out of line for him. What happened this time? Why is today different from all other days?
For 25 years, the dominant radio format in America has consisted of rich white conservative boys filling the national atmosphere with their putrid bloviations about people who were not rich, white, conservative, or boys. What started out as outrageous bad-boy shock-jock shtick in the 80s curdled into self-righteous rebellion against "political correctness" in the 90s, as a growing number of trash talkers and professional potty mouths joined a national race to the rhetorical bottom. Radio stardom was easy. Forget rock'n'roll -- all you had to do was be willing to spew a little more hate against minorities, foreigners, women, the poor, and liberals than the guy on the next band over, and you could have a mansion in Palm Beach, too.
But something is changing in America. I'd like to think it started with Spocko -- just a guy with a recording device and the addresses of the hate talkers' advertising sponsors. Spocko's assault on KSFO was a local skirmish, but it was stunningly well-organized; and, perhaps more importantly, it took on one of the biggest stations in one of the country's biggest markets. Spocko simply asked the hate jocks' advertisers a few straightforward questions: Is this what you endorse? Is this what you believe? Does this convey the kind of image for your product, or your station, that you want to project?
It seems likely that, even as ABC's attorneys were trying to bully Spocko into silence, these questions also gave radio execs across the country a long moment of pause (probably while they were letting a big slug of Maalox settle). You could hear the echoes of that pause in the voice of NBC president Steve Capus tonight on Countdown, as he emphatically explained that he was the guardian of the NBC brand, and that all a network has is its own credibility. Furthermore, he noted, "There has been a trust placed in us. We must honor and respect that trust." It was like the man had a sudden attack of conscience, an up-close and personal encounter with his network's critical role in maintaining the high level of civil discourse that makes democracy possible. You have to wonder where the hell Capus and his scruples have been vacationing for the past two decades; but at least they finally made it to the party. Which makes it a good day for corporate responsibility.
Let's hope it's a big party, too. Imus's guests in recent years have been a veritable who's who of the nation's political and entertainment elite. His shit never stuck to them before -- but it's sticking now. Which means all the other hate talkers are also having that long Maalox pause tonight. They've got a stark and nasty choice here. On one hand, ugly is what they do. It's how they got famous. It's really all they know. But, as of today, they're either going to have to clean up their act, or risk losing the hot bookings...and, perhaps, their jobs. What's clear is that ambitious celebrities will think twice before being seen in such gutter company after this. Which makes it a good day for civility.
Another thing I found striking about this how deeply Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson understand the concept of the transmission belt that moves anti-democratic ideas and behavior from the fringes to the mainstream -- and how tightly they seized on this as a prime opportunity to educate the nation about it. I've seen both of them on several news shows over the past few days; and in every case, they explained, carefully and clearly, that allowing Imus to get away with a mere hand-slap this time would only loosen the standards, and open the door for more mainstream expressions of racism and sexism in the future. It has to stop here, they said. Otherwise, we're going to see it everywhere. Which makes it a good day for decency.
One of the things Dave and I have said (over and over) here is that when it comes to hate crime and hate speech, we get exactly what we're willing to tolerate. Stopping it is as simple (and sometimes, as hard) as standing up and making it clear we don't approve. 24/7 hot-and-cold running hate speech became the national radio norm because too many of us were willing to listen, and not enough were willing to put pressure on those footing the bill.
In that sense, Don Imus' firing says far less about him than it does about us. And what it says is that we have finally begun to count the heavy cost of 20 years of on-air denigration of everything that is not white, male, rich, and conservative --
and are realizing that it's a price we're no longer willing to pay. Which makes it a good day for democracy, and everybody who wants to see it thrive.