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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Free Speech, Not Consequences


And so it came to pass that MSNBC, caving to intense pressure, dropped Don Imus from their morning line up. A day later, followed by a meeting with Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson with CBS Corp. chief executive Leslie Moonves, his radio show was killed, essentially ending the career of a man that for years had ruled the airwaves with an unimpeded barrage of bigotry and hate.

Two years ago, I warned MSNBC that Imus was tainting their brand. More than that, I questioned how they could continue to allow Imus to denigrate their journalists, as the media and political elite sustained his platform with appearances on his show.

I am a firm supporter of free speech. I have fought my own First Amendment battles all the way to the United States Supreme Court. I currently serve as President of the Board of First Amendment Project (FAP).

The Don Imus firing is not a First Amendment issue, and this is not a censorship story. Only governments censor.

Imus in the Morning was a ratings and revenue bonanza and despite a despicable slew of misogynist homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Islamic garbage, the executives at both NBC and Universal did nothing for ages.

When this story broke, MSNBC, attempting to shirk responsibility, once more, had the audacity to claim that it was not responsible for the content on the show – that it was merely a simulcast. This, despite the full blown resources of NBC journalists and technology at his disposal.

Amidst intense pressure, both MSNBC and CBS pretended that the internal cacophony of protest is what ultimately led to their decision.

Again, in 2006, in another attempt to draw attention to the damage caused by Imus, I wrote the following in an editorial titled Fox, Henhouses and Chickens:

“Despite his reputation as a provocative, albeit aging, 'shock jock,' MSNBC does a simulcast of Don Imus’ WFAN radio show, 'Imus in the Morning,' which is positioned by MSNBC as a news program, replete with the reporting muscle of NBC News at its disposal.

Despite the childish, sexist, homophobic and racist diatribes that define Imus and his crew, and have caused anchors like Contessa Brewer to cringe in embarrassment before bitter and public feuds separated them on-air forever more (or at least until MSNBC does a reality show about supposed journalists), it’s highly unlikely that a genuine NBC journalist reporting on developments in the Middle East will inspire any sympathy from groups like the 'Holy Jihad Brigades' if they happen to catch Imus referring to Arabs as stinking ragheads with dirty laundry on their heads, as he has done before. (As he sits, ironically, with a gay cowboy hat in New Jersey). Or in the case of the now-fired Imus sportscaster, Sid Rosenberg, who stated on-air that Serena and Venus Williams were best suited posing for National Geographic rather than Playboy and that Palestinians mourning the death of Yasser Arafat were 'stinking animals' upon whom the Israelis 'ought to drop the bomb right there, kill 'em all right now...' Perhaps it was the crack cocaine talking, but it was neither his drug habits nor that comment that got Rosenberg fired."

I also suggested that as long as hard-working, courageous, idealistic and responsible journalists and reporters remain willfully ignorant of the corporatization of news, and allow and accept equal billing with loud-mouthed shills, spitting deliberate provocations in an increasingly divisive substitution of content for discontent, the remaining shreds of nobility in the profession of journalism will be irreparably damaged and news will forever be defined by shallow attempts to generate ratings and revenue, and to push agendas rather than explain them.

Imus should not have been fired for what he said per se, and certainly not because the new speech nannies, replacing Tipper Gore, Lynne Cheney and Joe Lieberman, namely Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, demanded it. Let’s get real.

In his own defense, Imus attempted to explain that his comment could not be considered without a broader context. And tried to pass his remark off as a joke. The only problem was that even taken in context, the “joke,” as New York Times’ Bob Herbert summed up on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, was missing a punchline.

Context is important, and so the banning of certain words, regardless of the frame of reference, is an ill-informed solution. And aptly demonstrated by how many times the phrase “nappy headed hos” has been repeated in the telling of this story.

If this was really about journalists and employees at MSNBC and CBS threatening mutiny if the response wasn’t swift and fatal, this would have happened a long time ago. The only reason Imus is off the air, and it’s not a censorship issue, or even relevant whether Imus is really a racist or just playing one for laughs that only he and his cohorts find amusing, is because of the marketplace.

Had American Express Co., Sprint Nextel Corp., Staples Inc., Procter & Gamble Co., and General Motors Corp. not decided to pull advertising to distance their brands from the show, would MSNBC and CBS really have listened to and acted on the concerns of their journalists and employees? Such concerns didn’t seem to warrant any action before.

Imus made a point of thanking Bigelow Tea for sticking with him. A fabulous tea, mind you. Especially served in the morning with crackers.

Bill Maher, the comedian who was fired by ABC for his controversial remarks about September 11th, said it was sad to see the “swaggering mustang” broken following the implosion of his career.

For me, it wasn’t. Seeing a bullying, arrogant, blowhard brought to his knobby knees by his own making could not happened to a more deserving guy.

Imus still has the right to free speech, and the right to call whoever he wants whatever he wants. With or without appropriate context. But never forget, that speech may well be free, but never free of consequences, and is not guaranteed under the banner of a news organization striving for integrity and journalistic excellence, no matter how far short they have measured.

Clinton Fein can be emailed at


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