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The revulsion against racism

April 20, 2007 | Page 9

LEE SUSTAR looks at the political backdrop to the reaction against Imus.

WHY IMUS--and why now? There's no shortage of shock jocks regularly making racist, sexist and homophobic comments. And Don Imus has a long history of bigotry that has been well documented by watchdog groups over the years.

The difference this time is a shift in the political climate--reflected in, but going far beyond, the ouster of the Republican Congress last November and the ever-worsening crisis of the Bush administration.

The Pew Charitable Trust captured the sentiment in its latest opinion poll tracking popular attitudes. The polltakers found a steady drift to the left on the major issues of the day.

When Imus targeted the Rutgers women's basketball team for racist and sexist abuse, that sentiment crystallized. Here was a multimillionaire white bigot attacking a group of young African American women, some still in their teens and all exemplary student-athletes. The episode exemplified the mainstreaming of racism and sexism in the media over the last 30 years--and now, the popular revulsion against it.

The solemn statement of CBS CEO Les Moonves announcing Imus' ouster is supposed to make us forget that CBS Radio and Imus' TV outlet, MSNBC, first tried to ride out the storm with a two-week suspension. But nervous advertisers, fearing possible boycotts and protests, pulled the plug. According to the Wall Street Journal, Proctor & Gamble went first, followed by General Motors, American Express, GlaxoSmithKline and Sprint Nextel.

But for many years, those same advertisers were willing to pour money into Imus' show, which made $25 million a year for CBS Radio and $8 million a year for MSNBC, according to the Journal.

The advertisers certainly weren't ignorant of Imus' M.O. They wanted access to his 2 million radio listeners and 350,000 television viewers--and if racism and sexism was part of the package, so be it.

The group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting documented what these corporate dollars paid for: a racist slur of African-American journalist Gwen Ifill as "a cleaning lady," and New York Times sports reporter Bill Rhoden as a "quota hire"; as well as an anti-Semitic attack on Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz as a "boner-nosed" and "beanie-wearing Jewboy"--to give but a few examples.

Politicians, pundits and reporters also hankered after Imus' big audience, and were willing to ignore his racism, sexism and homophobia. The Imus archive at his (now former) home station WFAN lists recent guests that include Sens. Chris Dodd, John McCain, Claire McCaskill, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Charles Schumer, Joe Lieberman, Orrin Hatch and Pete Domenici--and that's just since January 1 of this year.

Big-name journalists were also fixtures on Imus' show, including New York Times columnists Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman and David Brooks. Other media figures on the show in recent months were Chris Matthews, Chris Wallace, Tom Oliphant, Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, Dana Priest, George Stephanopoulos, Jeff Greenfield, Tim Russert and Jim Lehrer.

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THAT'S WHY the Imus scandal implicates the entire media-industrial complex. It highlights how liberal journalists, supposedly committed to objectivity, nod and wink at the most outrageous, hateful and bigoted behavior, as long as it serves their careers--and how racism has been made respectable in the mainstream media.

Unlike the army of right-wing, hate radio "personalities" led by Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage, Imus, like Howard Stern, styles himself as a libertarian, taking shots at liberals and conservatives alike, and using racist and sexist "humor" as a way of poking fun at an uptight "politically correct" crowd.

That lame excuse, presumably, is what helps liberals like Rich and Dowd reconcile their consciences with their pocketbooks after their appearances on Imus' show.

Imus is down, but right-wing and hate radio remains. "One thing I have observed is hypocrisy from big media companies on value issues," said New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of the new book Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media.

"On the one hand, they try to present themselves as doing family-friendly programming, and align themselves with cultural conservatives politically, but at the same time, they tend to feature programming that most Americans see as beyond the pale."

Yet even here, there are signs of a shift under popular pressure--including at Clear Channel, the big radio broadcasting company whose executives are closely tied to the Republican Party.

"The company controlled at one time more than 1,200 stations, plus the largest national syndicator of radio programs, Premier Radio Networks, which includes Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, Michael Savage--a whole cast of extremely right-wing characters," Klinenberg said.

"Clear Channel got publicly criticized for this. So in recent years, they've added to their roster people like Jesse Jackson, and have more Air America stations than any other company. So they're trying to respond to this criticism."

Right-wing, racist and sexist shock radio isn't about to disappear. But the Imus collapse is proof enough that reactionaries on the airwaves aren't nearly as popular--nor as invulnerable--as they and their corporate backers would have us believe.

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