The "national dialogue" is nearly over. No one left to sponsor it, and no network suits willing to put it on the air in any case. Doesn't hit the right demographic any more. Imus is gone, into well-padded retirement or to Rupert Murdoch's morning zoo or to money-bleeding satellite oblivion like Stern. Next week, we'll be on to some other distraction from the obscene, blood-painted alleyways of Iraq. Some other celebrity will fall from grace, or overdose, or reveal a body part.
Imus famously called Dick Cheney a war criminal, hit Halliburton for refusing to contribute to a new hospital for wounded veterans, and has been a long and consistent critic of this dreadful failed war. He's also a gun-toting, Republican, Clinton-bashing apologist for Joe Lieberman. Even at 66, his brand of humor is simple and sophomoric, hearkening back to the some of the coarser skits and voices of the 60s when racial, sexual, and ethnic humor was new and fresh and shocking. Think Rickles and Mason, not Sahl and Newhart.
Yet he insisted on keeping this lame-ass, old shtick even as the rest of his show morphed into an A-list parade of pols and media figures - and even as Imus in the Morning brought the news to the radio each morning with some opinion, some reaction, some juice. Worse, he allowed and encouraged playground bullies like producer Bernard McGuirk to riff crudely on race and gender in the background, while occasionally apologizing with the contrite face of a proud father who really kind of loves his wayward son's antics.
McGuirk killed his sugar daddy, in the end. Killed him dead and put the whole Imus staff on the street. It was McGuirk who regularly used the term "ho" to describe women, particularly black women. See, it wasn't race or gender that lit this spark in the dry tinderbox of aging, old school Imus in the Morning. It was the combination. It was fathers and mothers with daughters who kindled the wider reaction (with a big hand from Al Sharpton). Those Rutgers women, when we all started to actually look at them as real people, were indeed stirring in their poise and accomplishment. Barbara at the Mahablog gets it exactly right, I think:
...there’s a big difference between Imus insulting the political and media elites who are guests on his program and calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed ho’s.” If he and his defenders can’t see that, there’s something seriously wrong with the lot of them.
Did Imus deserve to be fired? Yes, of course he "deserved" it - as if morality and ethics played even the tiniest part in the decisions made by the suits. The pure hypocrisy of Viacom's executive suite was stunning; their "outrage" grew in direct proportion to the dwindling of sponsors. When the calculations included Imus's shrinking ratings, his age, his ill health against future earnings and a likely boycott, the corporate chime rang down the hall from Sumner's office and a suitable lackey was dispatched to dispatch the I-Man - right in the middle of his annual charity drive.
I listened to Imus for about 20 minutes most weekdays over the last decade; it seems like pure rear-view mirror self-excusing, but I never enjoyed the stupid skits and the fake voices. I enjoyed the take on the news. Eleanor Clift describes it well:
His acerbic manner was a welcome contrast to the soft news and banal talk that dominated the morning shows. And he was an oddly compelling figure, ravaged by long ago battles with drugs and drink; he was like watching a train wreck in progress.
No excuses: I'm guilty of tolerating the hate speech, the slurs, the misogyny as much as the guests I loved to hear on the Imus hot seat. Nor was I "blind" to the bad stuff, as some regulars now claim; I was not culturally insensitive. I knew what I was doing. I gave Imus a pass because he delivered in other ways; his show was where the action was in morning drive-time politics.
Yeah, we're winding down the national dialogue on race and gender. It's getting as old as Imus. The portable circus that poses as our national news media will move on to the next town shortly. This was one of those stranger-than-fiction episodes - hell, the Governor of New Jersey was almost killed racing to the big Imus-Rutgers Summit. Maya Angelou spoke out in verse. Al Roker weighed in on his blog. Obama and Hillary dueled to see who could get with those power forwards from New Brunswick first. McCain and Giuliani ducked. Harold Ford and Tim Russert turned coat. Imus did the black friends defense. Then he held up the kids with cancer for the cameras. Then the broken soldiers down at Walter Reed. First he shot himself in the foot. Then he turned the gun on the more vital organs, and fired off a few more rounds. What a circus. Did I mention Maya Angelou?
At the middle was a mean old man insisting over and over again, "but I'm a good person." The skids were greased over time, however, and the old shock jock's legendary misanthropism did him no good. All his "friends" - the A-listers in it to sell books or build personal brands - melted away into the night. As David Hinkley wrote today:
The off-air Imus is happy to admit he really doesn't like people all that much. He's irritable, cranky and profane. Asked if Imus was a mean drunk, his friend Kinky Friedman replied, "He's mean when he's not drunk."
The profiles in courage at Viacom, meanwhile, have a big hole to fill. I'm sure it won't be too hard. After all, just down the dial from the spot where Imus was simulcast, Les Moonves and ole Sumner have another show on right now: "Pimp My Ride." Pimps - procurers and exploiters of women; sexual terrorists. Big man, Les Moonves. Big ethics, sitting on Sumner's craggy lap.
But they're probably tired of the national dialogue over at CBS now. The firing was a sure sign of it. I'll leave it here with Lupica:
Imus himself talked Monday morning about context and proportion and happened to be right. But by then nobody was really listening to one of the most famous voices in this country, one of the most famous voices his medium had ever produced.
Now all those who went after him as hard as they could, who acted as if the only solution was his firing, say they don't want this conversation about race and women and what has happened to the airwaves in this country to end with this firing.
Only they don't get to decide that. Because even after those three words and the perfect storm they caused, the best place to have the kind of conversation they are talking about would have been on the show they just got canceled.