It was not the first time Don Imus uttered something racist, homophobic, sexist or anti-Semitic. But the talk show host’s comments last week about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team continue to eclipse any controversy created by his previous slurs, sparking soul-searching from past guests and supporters.
One day after CBS Radio and MSNBC announced that they would yank Imus off the air for two weeks, the players held a nationally televised news conference to condemn him for referring to them as “nappy-headed hos.” At the same time, NBC weatherman Al Roker said the radio host should be fired, and media critics urged Imus’ regular guests to reconsider appearing on his show again. Even President Bush, through a spokeswoman, weighed in on the matter.
“The president believed that the apology was the absolute right thing to do,” spokeswoman Dana Perino said. “And beyond that, I think that his employer is going to have to make a decision about any action that they take based on it.”
The basketball team’s and coach’s comments were less measured.
“These young ladies before you are valedictorians, future doctors, musical prodigies,” Rutgers basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer said. She labeled his comments “racist and sexist remarks that are deplorable, despicable and unconscionable.”
The team plans to meet with Imus in private to discuss the matter further.
“I am not a racist,” Imus, 66, said on his show Tuesday. “What I did was make a stupid, idiotic mistake in a comedy context.” His two-week suspension begins Monday. A CBS Radio spokeswoman said he likely would donate his salary during that period to charity.
But critics were not appeased.
“The ‘I’m a good person who said a bad thing’ apology doesn’t cut it,” Roker wrote on the “Today” show blog, also calling for Imus’ firing.
It remains to be seen whether disgust over Imus’ comments will translate into a boycott of his program by NBC correspondents and anchors, such as Tim Russert, Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams, who have frequented “Imus in the Morning,” which is simulcast on MSNBC.
But the subject was a central topic at NBC, and Williams noted the potential conflict in his blog. “Making this especially difficult: the obvious fact that many of us have been on-air guests of his, a relationship both sides have benefited from over the years.”
Philip Nobile, the former media critic for New York magazine and a longtime chronicler of Imus’ offensive statements, noted that none of Imus’ frequent news media guests has criticized what Imus previously has said, nor has any one of them declined to appear on his program.
Within the next couple of days, it should become clear whether Imus will keep his job, according to radio industry observers. Reuters reported Tuesday that some sponsors were backing away.
“Clients have asked us to pull their advertising because it’s controversial and offensive,” said Dennis McGuire, vice president and regional broadcast director for Carat USA, a leading media-buying agency.