The Imus Factor

Big Boy is most radio stations’ dream — a funny, gregarious morning-show jock with a Rolodex loaded with A-list stars and a wealth of energy and ideas that keeps listeners (and advertisers) entertained and coming back for more. Don Imus is something else entirely. His politically driven brand of in-your-face morning-show commentary is less about entertainment and more about caustically humorous confrontation, like a right-wing Jon Stewart for Middle America. While to many Imus is just another morning-show shock jock who got his comeuppance, his actual influence (and relevance) extends far beyond the majority of his radio counterparts (most can’t boast speaking engagements at White House functions). Honestly, his closest true contemporary is Howard Stern, whose jump to satellite might be a predicate of what’s to come for Imus.

In the post–Dave Chappelle world we live in now, where South Park can do an episode lampooning “The N***** Guy” (and title it “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson,” no less), and Isaiah Washington, the star of ridiculously popular TV show Grey’s Anatomy, can grab a microphone at the Emmys and yell “I never called [co-star T.R. Knight] a f*****” with relatively minor (if any) repercussions, it wasn’t easy for Imus to get himself fired. After all, Don Imus saying stupid things is nothing new. He’s been doing it his entire career. His fatal mistake this time around was simply choosing the wrong target. In this case, a scrappy and poised team of innocent Rutgers University athletes who fought their way to the NCAA National Women’s Basketball Championship game for only the second time in the school’s history. Theirs was one of the year’s feel-good sports stories, and Imus’ ill-fated and undeserved backhand slap to their collective face suddenly turned a proud moment in the spotlight into something undeniably ugly.

You could argue that the most strident advances in American race relations have come as a direct result of sports. Oftentimes even the most ardent bigot shows remarkable tolerance when it comes to the playing field. It was exactly 60 years ago that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, kick-starting a history of firsts that continues until today. More a cause than an effect of American society, such sports-related integration is a cow still too sacred to be so publicly slaughtered. Maybe Imus should have thought about late sports broadcaster Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder — who endured a similar outcry and subsequent firing when he said that blacks were better athletes because they’d been bred that way by slave owners in pre–Civil War times — before opening his own mouth.

Still, given Imus’ immense popularity and surprising political clout, one should wonder (and maybe worry) about the fallout of his firing. Martyrdom is right around the corner, and it wouldn’t be difficult for him to find another media outlet to address his faithful. If he chooses to really turn up the race-baiting heat (he’s already derided hip-hop to justify his slur), this incident could just be the beginning of something much larger — and uglier.

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