Thursday, April 26, 2007

Don Imus: Did The Punishment Fit the Crime?

(This entry was adapted from a letter sent to the television show Countdown With Keith Olbermann while the controversy was still at the top of the news cycle. It has been altered so as to be more meaningful to a general audience.)

As I write this, it is the end of a week during which the Don Imus controversy has been the focal point of every television news and opinion show on the air, not to mention countless magazines, newspapers and blogs. Now that the man has been fired and the proverbial pound of flesh has been shaved off the corpse of his career, I wonder whether it isn’t beneath all of us to keep this story going. In fact, continuing to attack Imus is both petty and unfair. If Don Imus’s statements are now to be considered the pinnacle of racism, a huge segment of our population needs to start getting fitted for white sheets.

I am no fan of Don Imus- in fact, I can’t recall ever having listened to his radio show, as the whole concept of “shock” radio is unappealing to me. Like many others, I found the comments that led to his downfall abhorrent, and, after learning of some of the other things he has said throughout his career, I have no doubt that the man is a bigot. It is right and just that Mr. Imus should have to take responsibility for his statements, and it is right and just that there be consequences for those statements. That said, shouldn’t punishment at all times be appropriate to the crime at hand? Shouldn’t they be appropriately timed? While it is clear that Don Imus has engaged in a pattern of racially and sexually insensitive remarks, and that there has been outrage from the public on those occasions, it is not at all clear that Imus was ever officially warned by his employers, MSNBC and CBS Radio, that he would lose his job if he didn’t stop making such remarks. Without a warning, why on Earth wouldn’t Imus feel he could just go on as he had for years? It was apparent that few cared, and that the few who did didn’t represent a loss of income for the man or his employers. It is perfectly reasonably that Imus would not edit himself- nobody has ever attempted to edit him.

Adults are not much different from children- if they are not given effective and concrete warnings about their behavior, they have little incentive to stop that behavior. If little Tommy kicks little Peggy in the shins, he will keep kicking her until he’s told not to. In the same vein, punishment for adults works best when it’ threatened in the same manner punishment for children is. If a child talks back to his mother, it is not right that he be sent to his room for two weeks unless he has already been warned that such is the consequence of his behavior. When a broadcaster says offensive things, it is not right that he should be fired when he has never been warned that such are the consequence of those statements.

Suspending Don Imus was a perfectly reasonable response to his remarks, and Imus should additionally have been made to promise that he would never make such remarks again, lest he lose his job. If he refused to make that promise, or broke that promise in the future, firing would be perfectly reasonable- but not until then. One might feel that that is too lenient; that any proof that one is bigoted is enough to justify taking away his livelihood and publicly raking him across the coals. Reasonable people, on the other hand, who can follow that line of thought to its inevitable conclusion, feel that actions and words may be punishable in a free society, but thoughts are not. Perhaps the man is a bigot, but it is not his bigoted mind that should be punished: it is his bigoted words. And the punishment he received for those words was unjust. It is a convenient way for his employers to look like heroes without ever admitting that they could have put an end to his behavior years ago and did so only after they received uncomfortable attention.

I am well aware, as is anyone familiar with the way broadcast media works, that broadcasters have the ability to employ a time delay when material goes out live. If Imus has a history of making these inappropriate statements, why wasn’t he forced to work with a delay? And if there was, in fact, a delay, how can MSNBC and CBS Radio pretend to have been so offended by Imus’s words when that delay was never utilized? Imus had a certain degree of power as a celebrity, but his ex-employers had the power of the paycheck, and are thus far more powerful than Don Imus ever was. Where was the admission of guilt on the part of MSNBC and CBS Radio? “Liberal media” shows such as The Daily Show and Countdown With Keith Olbermann frequently (and correctly) lambaste President Bush for throwing his subordinates “under the bus” when his misdeeds and mistakes are discovered. How is this situation any different?
I have to question the smirking condescension and mock indignation that are invariably employed by commentators in response to Imus’s own defense: that this condemnation of him is an example of rank hypocrisy. Imus was wrong to speak as he did, but he is not wrong that something stinks about the way he has been treated. The fact that the Rev. Al Sharpton was the one person who was most stridently and vocally called for Imus’s firing, no matter what apologies or promises the latter offered, underscores this hypocrisy. Sharpton is a man who, to this day, refuses to offer any apology to the many people who were hurt by his manipulation of the Tawana Brawley case, his support of the anti-Semitic orchestrators of the Million Man March (and his own well-documented history of making anti-Semitic remarks), or his own history of divisive and inflammatory behavior. How can Sharpton possibly take the moral high-ground here? Even if Imus’s apologies were disingenuous, the fact that they were offered at all still beats Sharpton’s record by a mile.

Without a doubt, the media needs to continue to explore the issue of race- and not just when high-profile white men say obnoxious and hateful things. I would hope the media could do so without employing Imus as a convenient whipping boy. The man’s career is dead- throw some dirt over it and walk away. There is real racism to fight, racism that exists in governmental policy and human actions, not just in words. There is also other news out there- news that I daresay is more important than the incoherent “humor” of a man whose entire act was based on the fact that he was angry and misanthropic.

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