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Imus debacle leaves bad taste for many reasons

Don Imus now has something in common with O.J. Simpson. Imus became involved in a broadcasting episode so distasteful that two networks appeared to have found their moral conscience only after an advertiser revolt.
You may recall that Fox only canceled a reprehensible Simpson special, "If I Did It" -- that was supposed to be a fictional take on the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman -- after advertisers cried foul.

MSNBC fired Imus Wednesday, the same day advertisers revolted against the shock jock's reprehensible sexist and racist remarks about the Rutgers University women's basketball team after they lost in the NCAA basketball final. CBS followed suit on Thursday.

NBC said the decision wasn't tied to advertisers' reactions. And CBS President Leslie Moonves said Thursday the decision was made after speaking "with all races, economic groups, men and women alike."
But it's easy to be skeptical and conclude Imus was fired because he was losing advertisers and the support of some high-profile guests.
The idea that advertisers are going to determine morality is a little dangerous, but it is very difficult to criticize the sacking of Imus, whose radio program was managed by CBS and was simulcast by MSNBC.
However, MSNBC and CBS shouldn't exactly be proud of themselves, either. After all, it took a week to pull Imus' show -- enough time to see which way the wind was blowing. When civil rights and women's groups denouncing Imus were joined by advertisers and NBC News personnel -- including "Today" weatherman Al Roker -- NBC saw the handwriting on the wall and fired him first.
On Thursday's "Today," NBC News President Steve Capus stressed that NBC staffers had asked why "you have an integrity policy if you are not going to enforce it" and added he was moved when someone told him (regarding the Rutgers players) "that could have been my daughter." "How could I ignore that?" Capus asked host Matt Lauer. He noted this isn't the first time Imus has been offensive and added "at some point you have to say enough is enough."
It is extremely unlikely that Capus made the move without the advice or the permission of his boss, NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker. Perhaps Zucker's only motivation was that it was the right thing to do.
But there was a side benefit for NBC: Its decision put pressure on Moonves to fire the 66-year-old Imus, too. There is little amusing at all in this case. But the thought that Zucker was pressuring Moonves is amusing to anyone who knows how much these powerful men often irritate each other. You can imagine Zucker saying to NBC executives: "Let's see Les wiggle out of this one."
Moonves had more reason to keep Imus on the air, because his show made much more money for CBS than it did for MSNBC, and his company has already lost shock jock Howard Stern to satellite radio. Imus could land there as well.
CBS and the Imus team butchered the crisis with public relations mistake after mistake. It took Imus a few days to apologize. After the apology, CBS (and MSNBC) announced he would be suspended for two weeks. It was a laughable punishment that could have been viewed as much as a vacation as a suspension.
And then Imus apparently thought that the Rev. Al Sharpton might be in a forgiving mood during a two-hour attempt at damage control on Sharpton's radio show. Imus' appearance and the confrontation just fueled the controversy.
This is also one case in which working in the New York City market was a disadvantage for a celebrity. The nightly newscasts based there gave Imus almost as much time as they would a presidential candidate. I suspect many viewers had two thoughts: 1) What an idiot! and 2) Who the heck is Don Imus?
His radio show wasn't carried in Buffalo. It had about 3.5 million listeners weekly on 61 stations. The MSNBC broadcast reportedly received another 370,000 households daily.
Imus' comment would have been despicable about any university, but Rutgers' proximity to New York City made it a bigger story with the media elite and has led to important discussions about today's media culture.
The Rutgers team has behaved with dignity, especially during a news conference that made front-page news. One player said the incident has scarred her for life. She's young and has time to heal. Imus is the one scarred for life by a self-inflicted wound. But since America has an amazing capacity for forgiveness, he eventually may be viewed by some as a sympathetic figure, wherever he lands.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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