Phil Sheridan | When hate meets ignorance on the air

Posted: April 07, 2007

There probably isn't a good time to expose yourself as a racist creep on national television. There are, however, especially bad times to do what Don Imus and his producer, Bernard McGuirk, did this week.

A few days after the death of legendary Grambling football coach and pioneer Eddie Robinson . . .

As Major League Baseball prepares to observe the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first cleated step across the color line . . .

Just before the 20th anniversary of Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis' televised self-destruction for making similarly ignorant comments . . .

Imus and McGuirk, on a New York radio show simulcast nationally on MSNBC, referred to the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos" (Imus) and "hard-core hos" (McGuirk). McGuirk went on to compare Rutgers' national championship contest against Tennessee to the "Jigaboos vs. the Wannabes" from Spike Lee's film School Daze - although it was mistakenly referred to as Do the Right Thing on the air.

Guess all Spike Lee movies look alike to these guys.

Why does this racist and sexist radio patter warrant our attention? We'll count the ways, but first let's cover the non-reason.

This is not a case of gotcha in the pursuit of political correctness. That will be the reaction from the likes of Imus and his audience, not to mention others whose knees jerk in that direction when hate speech is called hate speech. The First Amendment protects every American's right to freedom of speech. It doesn't protect racists' high-paying media jobs.

This was the issue when Rush Limbaugh made his infamous ESPN comments about Donovan McNabb a few years ago. It wasn't Limbaugh's freedom to express himself that was at issue, it was an all-sports network's willingness to be associated with his race-baiting tactics. ESPN was not.

Speech is free. Neither Imus nor Limbaugh, however, speaks for free. The rest of us have the freedom to object when something hateful and ignorant is said in such a public forum.

Consider the targets of his vitriol.

The Rutgers women's basketball team - coached by C. Vivian Stringer, one of the classiest acts in all of sports - reached the Final Four, played earlier this week in Cleveland. The Scarlet Knights beat Louisiana State for the right to play powerhouse Tennessee in the final.

Months after Greg Schiano's football team established itself on the national scene, the women's basketball team brought more positive attention to Rutgers athletics. Within days, the team's members are slurred on national TV and their university president and the NCAA are issuing joint statements in their defense.

Imus brought this up specifically to sneer at the physical appearance of the Rutgers women, calling them "nappy-headed hos" in stark contrast to the "cute" Tennessee players. What kind of man feels the need to heap scorn on young women who play college basketball? Take the racism out and the remarks are merely unnecessary and cruel.

But you can't take the racism out. It's one thing for Spike Lee, a superb filmmaker, to explore issues of racial identity in an edgy satire. It's another for two out-of-touch white imbeciles to use Lee's terms, or the unfortunately ubiquitous, hip-hop-derived "hos" - both hopelessly out of context - to express their Neanderthal reaction to a women's basketball game.

This wouldn't be worth talking about if Imus were still content to dwell in the sad, dank cave with the rest of the nation's radio "shock jocks." He isn't. Imus has pretensions to serious journalism, and politicians routinely use his show to reach an audience they might not otherwise. The MSNBC.com Web page devoted to Imus' show has links to recent appearances by Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain.

That's why it is important to pin the hate-speech tail on the donkeys here. No aspiring presidential candidate or Beltway insider who goes on Imus' show in the future should be able to pretend ignorance of this episode. If a U.S. Senator or political pundit wants to share the air with Imus, let it be clear what poison is in that air.

Same for MSNBC. The network's attempt to distance itself with a statement pointing out that Imus' show is produced by WFAN radio was a long way from sufficient. Like ESPN with Limbaugh, the network is getting what it pays for.

Imus' own apology, reproduced on his Web site, was especially revealing: "Want to take a moment to apologize for an insensitive and ill-conceived remark we made the other morning regarding the Rutgers women's basketball team," Imus said. "It was completely inappropriate, and we can understand why people were offended. Our characterization was thoughtless and stupid, and we are sorry."

It's the "I-Man" on payday, but it's "we" in the apology. That's "we" as in weak.

No doubt Imus is sorry he said it. You'd be sorry, too, if you revealed that much ugliness about yourself on national TV.


Post a question or comment for Phil Sheridan at http://go.philly.com/asksheridan.

Or by e-mail: psheridan@phillynews.com.

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