Monday, April 09, 2007

Don Imus: A Flawed Treasure

This is a man who thinks with his heart,
His heart is not always wise.
This is a man who stumbles and falls,
But this is a man who tries....

Oscar Hammerstein
from The King and I

It's ironic. My first exposure to the I-Man was not via the radio but through the late, lamented medium of the comedy album. On Christmas day 1972, my older brother Jack, gave me the LP, "1200 Hamburgers To Go", a compilation of routines and pranks from a morning program I had never heard of called, Imus In The Morning. The "title track" consisted of Don Imus, a former Cleveland DJ who had recently transferred to New York's W-NBC, phoning a McDonald's Restaurant and claiming to be the the head of the local National Guard unit, which was about to violently put down a demonstration at an unnamed college campus (This was not long after the Kent State massacre of May 1970). He then proceeded to give an order that was so mind-numbingly complicated, the poor manager hung up in frustration. His style and approach to morning radio was, for that time anyway, nothing short of revolutionary. There had never been anyone like him before. I was fourteen when I first heard that record and I've been hooked ever since. I still have the same copy of 1200 Hundred Hamburgers that I received thirty-five years ago and, every once in a blue moon, I'll place it on the turntable and drop the needle. It's still a scream.

This week, many of the so-called "experts" are predicting the death knell of the Imus In The Morning radio program. After his unfortunate, off-the-cuff comments a few days ago regarding the Rutgers University woman's basketball team, referring to them as "nappy-headed hos", the explosion of outraged opinion was not unpredictable. It has to be honestly conceded that in recent years, Imus and, in particular, his otherwise talented producer Bernie McGuirk have crossed the line with respect to good taste. But the mistake a lot of people have made has been to compare Imus to others within the main stream media. The argument seems to be this: had the remarks been made by Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News, it would have rightly meant the end of his career. Why does Don Imus get off relatively easy with a two week suspension on MSNBC Television and the CBS Radio Network? The answer to that question must be viewed within the framework of the format with which the Imus program operates. His program is, it should not be forgotten, a topical comedy show . Since his debut in the early seventies, he has made his reputation by pushing the envelope. This is not to excuse what he said last week, but merely to put things in their proper context. As Newsweek's Howard Fineman told him on the air yesterday, "The form of humor you do is risky and sometimes it goes off the rails".
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In 1960, while Imus was still working in a copper mine in Arizona, Lenny Bruce walked onto a nightclub stage one evening and asked his audience, "Are there any niggers here tonight"? What, you may well ask, was the point to that? The point, according to Lenny, was that the repetition of the word would deflate it of its "violence and viciousness". His philosophy, right or wrong but nonetheless sincere, was that by repeating the word, over and over, the day would eventually arrive when a seven year old black kid would never again come home crying because someone called him a nigger at school. Almost half a century ago, Lenny Bruce was thrown in jail for his material. Don Imus has merely been suspended for two weeks. That's progress - I guess.
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The reaction to the Imus controversy has been, to say the least, curious. On the surface, the general glee of the right-wing media at the fall from grace of this essentially conservative, registered Republican and ordained minister doesn't make a bit of sense. Unless, of course, one takes into consideration the fact that, while Don Imus, on occasion, approaches the troth, he rarely drinks the kool-aid.
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With the exception of Washington Journal on C-SPAN, no other morning program on radio or television (his show is simulcast) is more informative than Imus In The Morning. It should also be noted that no commentator within the main stream media has been more outspoken with regard to the crimes and utter incompetence of the Bush administration than Don Imus. This fact should not be forgotten by the left-leaning critics, some of whom have been as giddy as their counterparts on the right by Imus' downfall. That extremists on both sides of the political aisle have been exploiting this unfortunate incident for all it's worth, there can be little doubt. Maybe - just maybe - the phony righteousness of Al Sharpton on the left and FOX News on the right means that the I-man, crude humor aside, has been doing something right!
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Here's the nasty little fact that every one of his critics has conveniently chosen to ignore: Don Imus is a good man. I don't need to mention (but I will) his Imus Cattle Ranch for Kids with Cancer; a place in Ribera, New Mexico where children (of all races, thank you very much!) some of them mortally ill, come to work as cowboys and cowgirls, learn to rope cattle, ride horses and, in the process, regain their self-esteem - all but annihilated by their insidious disease. It is estimated that in the last seven years he has raised at least one-hundred million dollars for the care and treatment of these children. Parse his words if you must but, please, look into the man's soul.
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Three years ago, when it was revealed to him that the families of American soldiers being killed in Iraq were receiving a paltry twelve thousand dollars in death benefits, the I-Man made such a hideous national stink over the matter, he was able to shame Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon into raising the amount to well over one-hundred thousand dollars. And it must never be forgotten that it was Don Imus alone, who, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, publicly condemned the overt racism of the Bush White House. He bravely pointed out that the government's pathetic response to that tragedy was due to the obvious fact that the majority of Katrina's victims were poor and black. As he stated at the time, had the disaster occurred in the rich and very white Hamptons or Crawford, Texas, the response would have been instantaneous and complete.
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Yeah, yeah, I know. He's grumpy as hell and he occasionally does go "off the rails" - but, dammit, he wouldn't be the I-MAN if he didn't! I tend to think of him as Will Rogers with a bad hangover or Mark Twain after a particularly nasty acid binge. He is to our generation what Fred Allen was to his. Although two entirely different manner of men with geometrically opposite approaches to humor, Don Imus, like Fred Allen (and Lenny Bruce) before him, is unique to his generation in that he is a humorist - not a comedian, mind you, but a humorist (there is a decided difference) - who holds up a mirror to our sick, hypocritical society. Society may not always like what is reflected, but it's a brutally honest if, at times, over-the-line type of humor that is truly valuable - if hardly ever cautious. This might be a good time to remind you that, even as I write these words, there are actually organized groups of people in this country who are trying to have Twain's classic Huckleberry Finn banned from our nation's public libraries. Think about that.
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Imus will do his two week suspension beginning Monday, April 16th. He'll have time to make amends, for some personal reflection and to re-evaluate the direction of his career. He'll return on April 30th, humble and chastised....well, maybe not humble but definitely chastised. But most importantly, he will return! That very fact alone is cause for celebration.
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To quote the Reverend, Dr. Billy Sol Hargis, an Imus character from the early days: Say Hallelujah!
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Pray for peace.
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Tom Degan
Goshen, NY
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POSTSCRIPT 4/10/07:
It has just been announced by Steve Capus, general manager of MSNBC, that the "Imus In The Morning" radio program will no longer be simulcast on that network. Fine. Let's all watch FOX AND FRIENDS. Three cheers for the Thought Police.
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4/11/07:
Imus has just been fired by CBS radio.

11 Comments:

At 7:57 AM, Blogger Saltwater said...

Tom, thanks for reminding us of some of the good things about Don Imus. Yes, he made a stupid, offensive,racist remark- but essentially it's the same kind of remark that men and women make in private, in homes or bars, all over this country every day of the year- they just don't say it on the radio. So who among any of those who are calling for his show's termination really has the right to cast the first stone?

Imus realizes he was out of line, and he has apologized, last I heard. Really, I don't think he makes nasty remarks based on race; he'll pick on anyone, no matter what color or religion they are. As you said, he is a comedian- and some folks don't understand his kind of comedy, and take offense.

This comment he made has caused such a tempest in a teapot. Let the man have a mistake, forgive him for it; there are much more important things for us to be concrned about, such as the war and the maniacs who have taken over the White House. You write that he is like Fred Allen, or Mark Twain- and of course, Lenny Bruce. As you no doubt know, some of Twain's works were considered unpublishable until after his death- such as "The Diary of Adam and Eve" or "The Damned Human Race." In a country that prides itself on its supposed adherence to the principle of free speech, it is astounding that free speech is so often followed by such hostility... from death threats- i.e. the Dixie Chicks- to calls for the offender to be fired, or prosecuted. As someone (maybe Sarah Silverman?) said, we have free speech in america, as long as you don't say it publicly.
Imus did cross a line, and I hope that oversensitive folks can just get over it and move on. Like Lenny Bruce, Imus has pushed the boundaries of topical comedy past the comfort zone of some people, and so they are calling for his head on a platter, figuratively speaking. So thanks for your post putting Mr. Imus in a broader picture beyond that one carelss and regrettable remark he made.

What a weird country we live in- the so-caled President can break the international laws of war, and commit, with his associates, monstrous crimes against our country, and against Iraq,et cetra et cetera, and few dare utter the word impeachment even now; but let Don Imus make a stupid and ill-advised remark, and the news of it eclipses the war, and Bush and Cheney's crimes, even though Imus's remark vs the war is like comparing a grain of sand to a mountain range.
p.s. I just read that Henry Waxman want to get Ms. Condoleeza Rice in for some questions, later this month. Hmmm. Maybe she will plead the fifth amendment, or quit her job...? Nah, probably Bush will somehow keep her off the Waxman griddle; but I believe that woman owes the American people some real and truthful answers, so I wish Waxman success.

 
At 1:05 PM, Anonymous Wilma Lamb said...

Dear Tom,there is absolutely NO EXCUSE FOR SUCH TALK!!!!
This smacks of Julius Streicher's Der Stuermer Nazi Jew-baiting rag.
Nuremberg was famous as the home of Albrecht Durer of Praying Hands fame; also as a world-famous toy-making town but since the infamous Nazi rallies has never recovered from its past.
The same thing is happening in this country, the world is equating us with the Nazis.
We will never see the stain removed in our lifetime

 
At 3:56 PM, Blogger Tom Degan's Daily Rant said...

Dear Wilma,
My position is that, yes, Don Imus' comment was outragious and unwise. It is just that, considering all the good he has done, his career should not be destroyed over this one incident. Within the so-called "liberal media", only on the Imus In The Morning program can what get a true picture of what's happening to out country. I ask you, when was the last time you saw or heard Frank Rich or Tom Oliphant or Tom Freidman interviewed on the Today Show or "Fox and Friends" or CNN? Don Imus has them on regularly.

My plea to America is, please, give the man another chance. He certainly deserves it.

Peace.

Tom Degan

 
At 4:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Howard Stern gets away with comments like that all the time. I've never heard him apologize.

 
At 11:06 PM, Anonymous fearless flower said...

Dear Tom,

What Imus did made me angry not so much for the stupidity and downright meanness of it, but for what that kind of humor does to the collective sense of humor of our society. I've tried and tried to think of any possible context in which what he said could be considered funny, and I can't do it.

I have a few rules for my children and what they can joke about. They can poke as much fun as they want at themselves, at Mom and Dad and our own family, even our own country and race. They're allowed to mock anyone for obvious character flaws or acts of incompetency (teachers are fair game as well as celebrities of all kinds.) They get a stern lecture whenever they ridicule anyone for something that isn't their own fault or that they can't help about themselves. They don't get away with ridiculing anyone weaker or more unfortunate than themselves. So far insults of a sexual nature haven't become an issue, but I won't allow those either.
Believe me, that still leaves them a lot of leeway. Dumb blonde jokes fly like snow in a blizzard in our home at times. They are all blondes and it is pretty funny to hear them comment on the stupid things they sometimes do like when my youngest daughter tried to warm up some bacon on a paper plate in a toaster oven. (Don't worry; it just smelled like the house burned down, there was no actual damage. We only had to open the windows a couple hours in the dead of winter to get the smoke out.)

It's sad that Imus crossed the line he did. It has had a snowball effect that will be huge and unfortunately it will become a big part of his legacy. What was he thinking? He didn't even dance close to the line; he barged over it. I hate to think it's his age catching up to him and affecting his judgment. I personally think people should ripen and improve with age. Unfortunately some just get rotten.

I'm sorry I can't be as forgiving as you are.

 
At 2:20 PM, Anonymous jo_reside@yahoo.com said...

Tom,

Normally, I agree with your Rants, but as a feminist, what Don Imus said was inexcusable. Not only the fact that it was racist, but to call a group of women "hos" is an insult to all women. Especially, such an accomplished group of college aged girls. I know rappers and other lowlifes call women that, and I wish women all over the world would boycott their product. I do not listen to Howard Stern because of his abuse of women. It is not humorous, it is not appreciated, and unless women call them on their comments, it will never end. Every time a group of women try to raise themselves up, there is some old coot like Don Imus kicking them in the face. I think he, along with most of the white haired old men in WA need to retire NOW! Racism and sexism will never end if there is no consequences to such actions.

Keep up the good work, Tom, but please, don't try to defend Don Imus. If he ever was cool, he has most certainly lost it.

Peace to you,
Jo

 
At 11:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom,
I usually agree with you.
You and I hold similar views regarding many topics.
That said, despite all off the good things Imus has done, his words pissed on them.
He gives voice to a view that desensitizes the many to the hurt and pain those words cause and seek to perpetuate.
"Thought police"---NO!
He's a tool that makes big bucks for the corporations that sponsor him. The distraction he provides is equally as powerful as Anna Nicole stories or McCain wandering around a "safe" marketplace.
Defending liars, excusing racists, and not standing up against to misoganists only condones that which is intolerable.
Good ridance Imus!

 
At 6:24 PM, Anonymous fearless flower said...

Tom,

I can forgive you for defending him; just don't ever become him. For whatever reasons he may have he decided to self destruct. I'm no psychologist, but I think I understand why he did this. He looks so old and tired in his recent photos. I think some people would rather be shot down than step down, even if it means they have to pull the trigger themselves. He'll certainly never be forgotten.

 
At 7:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about free speach?????

 
At 3:00 PM, Blogger stoney13 said...

Tom,

Well here's my view on Don Imus:

Ever since I didscovered him on obn MSNBC, I've never once missed a morning! As a Catholic, I'm sure that you could find "Cardinal Eagan" a lot more disturbing than a whole lot of peole found the "Nappy headed 'hos remark! But what I want to know, is exactly WHER is the indignatiopn towards the African Americans rappers, and hip-hop musicians that go by names with the spelling skills of a first grader, declaring all women are somehow less than virtuaous, and the finest thing that African A,merican youth can aspire to is being a "pimp" with a "pimped out ride" wearing all kinds of "bling-bling"?

Where is the outrage over the fact that hip-hop artists publicly state that "School's for suckahs"? Why is it all well and good to call your fellow man a "niggah", or "dawg" (their spelling, not mine!) as a term of endearment?

I will share with you my feelings on the word "Nigger"!

The word "Nigger" is the result of a person who by uneducation, or pure ignorance attepts to say the word "Negro" and fails!

It is a word concieved in failure, nursed by intollerance, sustained by hate, and proclaiming less than nothing! It is a word that says more in the negative towards the person that says it, than the person that it is directed towards!

I am NOT a failure! I do NOT have hate towards my fellow beings! I do NOT follow the way of intollerance! And I am SO much more than nothing! I DO NOT, and WILL NOT use that word!!

Now to my African American brothers and sisters! A word only has relevance when it is used! DO NOT USE THAT WORD!!!!

To all you Hip-hop artist out there! Show love and respect to your mothers, and sisters! Show the positive things that money can do when it is used wisely in your comunity to put people to work, and teach children skills that will help, not hurt thir families and neighbors!

Hey!!! Fifty cent! Quit drinking iced tea from that "Hennesey" bottle! DRINK YOUR ICED TEA WITH PRIDE!!!! I know you don't drink alcohol!!! QUIT GLORIFYING IT!!! Show the youth that acting in a responcible manner IS the coolest thing there is!!

Then maybe, just maybe, there will be less graves and prison beds filled, and more universities with our young people!

 
At 1:10 PM, Blogger Kathleen Meredith Cole said...

Don Imus, maybe, should not have been so vilified. And, okay, he said so much of what he said in the context of topical comedy and in his role as an equal opportunity offender.

On the other hand he needs to know there is no such thing as apologizing for racial slander. He daily let toads out of his mouth -- just couldn't catch 'em, once they escaped.

The women he targeted, their team, coach, university, community parents ... deserved the highest regard anyone could give them.

 

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