AJR  Features :     * WEB ONLY    
From AJR,   April/May 2007

Shunning the I-Man   

Online Exclusive » It’s time for all those big-name journalists and politicos to abandon “Imus in the Morning.”

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

There are many things I don't understand. Nuclear physics. The stock market. Why anyone would watch "American Idol," even at gunpoint.

Add another to the list: Why people who should know better — people like "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert and Newsweek's Evan Thomas and Sen. John McCain — appear on "Imus in the Morning."

That's Imus as in Don Imus, the radio host with a penchant for racist insults.

Imus is in the news again for his comments about players for the Rutgers women's basketball team. After Rutgers lost to Tennessee in the NCAA championship game last week, Imus engaged in this sprightly dialogue with his sidekick and producer, Bernard McGuirk:

Imus: "That's some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they've got tattoos.."

McGuirk: "Some hardcore hos."

Imus: "That's some nappy headed hos there, I'm going to tell you that."

That Imus would say something like this is about as surprising as Britney Spears busting out of rehab. He has, as they say, a history. And while insulting African Americans is nothing new for the I-Man — he once called Gwen Ifill, now host of PBS' "Washington Week," a "cleaning lady" — he's pretty much an equal opportunity jerk.

His latest paroxysm was greeted, quite rightly, with outrage and calls for his ouster. But it looks like Imus will skate yet again. After first dismissing the contretemps as no big deal, he wisely did a one-eighty and went into damage-control mode, apologizing for an "insensitive and ill-conceived remark."

WFAN-AM, where Imus' nationally syndicated show originates, and MSNBC, which simulcasts the program, both distanced themselves from the trash talker's racist comments but gave no hint that any disciplinary action was in the works.

That's where those big-time regulars come in.

It's time for Russert and Thomas and NBC's Andrea Mitchell and "Hardball" impresario Chris Matthews and Sens. McCain and Joseph Biden and Joe Lieberman — and many, many more — to, in the immortal words of Nancy Reagan, just say no.

By continuing to appear on a program hosted by a guy who makes comments this far beyond the pale, Russert & Co. are giving their tacit approval. They give Imus a protective cover of legitimacy. It's as if they're all members of the same club. Imus may be naughty, but, hey, he's just being Imus.

Well, naughty is fine. Ugly, racially tinged comments are not. And this isn't a one-shot episode. This is a career-long pattern.

And, no, this isn't about political correctness. I'm a big fan of freewheeling debate, and I'm concerned about the effort to sanitize speech, to enforce cookie-cutter views, to go so far to protect feelings as to stifle vigorous discussion. But this is a different level of magnitude.

And, hey, Imus has a First Amendment right to say whatever he wants. While it's discouraging that WFAN-AM and MSNBC want to embrace this type if behavior, I guess bidness is bidness.

That makes it all the more important that Russert and Thomas and McCain and the rest of the A-list do the right thing and walk away.