You know things are serious on Meet the Press when there isn’t any room for the panelists to discuss host Tim Russert’s favorite topic: speculation on the ’08 presidential race. Analysis of shock-jock Don Imus’ combustion over his flippantly racist/misogynist crack about the Rutgers basketball team and the implications of its well-fanned public exposure made for as lively, pointed and personally honest a self-examination of modern media as you’re likely to see on a broadcast institution like NBC’s.

Of course, Russert did his best to pose ridiculous future-minded questions of Gwen Ifill, David Brooks, Eugene Robinson and John Harwood, clumsily trying to inject hope into a conversation about the reality of pervasive cultural ugliness when he proudly said he would listen to a new Imus show dedicated to racial healing. That’s because Russert is at heart an Imus defender, since he’d been on his show countless times.

And that’s the reason Gwen Ifill was the star of the day, calling out Russert and occasional Imus guest Brooks — and practically everybody in big media and politics, from Newsweek to Harold Ford Jr. — for their silence on Imus’ “dark” side until the radio host’s job was most assuredly dead. “Tim, we didn’t hear that much from you,” she said. “David, we didn’t hear from you.” (Russert’s director, looking after his dude, forgoes a reaction shot.)

Ifill looked comfortably stern as the men around her tried to move the debate to Al Sharpton’s credentials, rap music, Borat and all things wrong about pop culture today — as if Imus were a foot soldier following a crude society’s orders, not a stand-alone bully getting his comeuppance — but with brief, sharp strokes she reminded everyone that for those hurt and demeaned by a powerful cultural arbiter, it was a victory — market-based, integrity-based, however — for decency. “So we’re all hypocrites, Tim,” Ifill said exasperatedly when Russert pulled out a Chrysler ad starring “ho”-spouter Snoop Dogg and Lee Iacocca to show that complicity is — gasp — everywhere! “It doesn’t take anything away from the moment we’re seeing right now.”

And then I watch The Amazing Race on CBS, and there’s a male contestant calling two females who outplayed him “dirty, dirty hookers.” Catch that, Les Moonves?

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