With Imus ousted, will other shows clean up their acts?
Don Imus's firing could cause radio and cable talkers to be more careful in some of their characterizations, say analysts.
NEW YORK — Click on talk radio or cable news. Do you expect the chatter to be any less crass now that CBS Radio gave Don Imus the boot for his racist, sexist comment about the Rutgers' women's basketball team?
Some media analysts are hopeful. They say Mr. Imus's firing signals a new awareness on the part of network executives – that while mean-spirited banter might bring in the ratings and advertising bucks, it's ultimately bad for the nation.
CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves indicated as much when he said that what "weighed most heavily" on his mind in making the decision about Imus was the effect that "language like this has on our young people, particularly young women of color."
But other analysts aren't quite so sanguine. They say that if Imus's advertisers hadn't flown the coop with their cash, he would still be at his morning perch. And they're quick to cite a long list of other equally offensive talkers who are still on the air. People like CNN's Glenn Beck, who recently called Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) a "stereotypical b*@!%" or Cox Radio's Neal Boortz, who referred to the Muslim prophet Muhammad as "just a phony ragpicker." And Rush Limbaugh once mused: "Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?"
Still, most media analysts believe that at least in the short term, Imus's ouster will cause the nation's radio and cable talkers to be a bit more careful in some of their characterizations of fellow human beings.
"I don't think this is simply a speed bump that everyone will forget about in two weeks," says Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington. "Yet, it's very hard to know if a year down the line this will change the nature or culture of talk radio."
Mr. Jurkowitz sees the Imus incident as a "Janet Jackson" moment of sorts. That's the 2004 debacle when the entertainer's so-called "wardrobe malfunction" sparked a Federal Communications Commission crackdown on indecency. It levied dozens of fines on television stations across the country. Also, as a result, Congress increased the fines for indecency from $27,500 per violation to $375,000.
"After that, for a while, media outlets really did mind their P's & Q's and recognized there was a new atmosphere," says Jurkowitz. "My sense is this is a similar moment. There's a lot of talent and a lot of ownership that are thinking a lot harder about what passes for debate and discussion now."
Many media activists, emboldened by the ouster of a big name like Imus, are determined to keep the pressure on. Media Matters, the nonprofit advocacy group that first flagged Imus's "nappy-headed hos" comment, wants to broaden the discussion about what is and what is not appropriate commentary on the air.
"We need to raise the level of discourse in the media in America, and journalists should really be taking the lead," says C.R. Wooters, the spokesman for Media Matters in Washington.
The organization, which says its goal is to monitor "conservative misinformation on the air," also keeps a daily tally of on-air comments they deem inappropriate.
"Talk radio and cable news are big offenders. They're led by the [Bill] O'Reillys, Limbaughs, and Glenn Becks, and most of them are on [news] channels," says Mr. Wooters. "There's no disclaimer that says [it is] 'entertainment.' "
Wooters and other media watchdog groups also want to call to account the many political leaders and journalist-celebrities who frequented Imus's show.
"This is not about one man and one racist/sexist comment. There's a long history, and it happened because CBS and NBC allowed it to happen," says Steve Rendall, a senior analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal media watchdog group in New York. "CBS and NBC still need to answer why they allowed this to go on for so long – ditto, those journalists and politicians who indulged him for so long."
In some conservative circles, Imus's ouster is not being applauded or perceived as a larger effort to elevate the nation's on-air political discourse. Instead, it's seen as part of a larger "left wing" effort to "censor" conservative political speech – even though Imus was not perceived as a particularly conservative commentator.
"As far as elevating the tone of the media, that has nothing to do with this," says Cliff Kincaid, editor of Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog group in Washington. "This is an opening salvo in a campaign to put FCC bureaucrats in charge of what can and can't be said on the air."
Mr. Kincaid says he doesn't condone Imus's comment. But he also doesn't condone his firing. "The issue is whether the cowardly suits of CBS and NBC should buckle in the face of an organized campaign of a pressure by the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton," he says. "Al Sharpton, a convicted liar. He was convicted of defamation in the Tawana Brawley case for falsely accusing a white man of raping a black woman and never even apologized for that."
But for others, the larger issue is that large segments of the media are still sorely lacking in racial diversity.
"If Imus were working in a more diverse atmosphere – he wouldn't have been as comfortable as he was spewing his bigotry," says FAIR's Mr. Rendall. "So we hope this sparks a discussion about newsroom diversity, and that we do see some more change. The story is not over."