Friday, April 13, 2007

The Martyrdom of Don Imus or The Devil Wears Hip Hop

Even in his demise talk show host "nappy-headed hos" Don Imus has attained a form of popular martyrdom. Read any of the many comment boards or blogs or gauge the reaction from commentators and regular citizens alike, and Imus is painted as a scapegoat—a sacrificial lamb (albeit a tainted one) that was vilified by a hypocritical black lynch mob that does not speak out equally against the use of derogatory language towards black women in rap music. Black commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson even advocates that Don Imus is rapper Snoop Dogg’s “Frankenstein Monster." But did Don Imus really die for Hip Hop's sins? Or is the media elite protecting one of their own in order to restrict and limit our discussion?

The Martyrdom of Don Imus
The Devil Wears Hip Hop

A Martyr and the Devil ?

Did Don Imus really die for our black sins?

Even in his demise talk show host Don Imus has attained a form of popular martyrdom. Read any of the many comment boards or blogs or gauge the reaction from commentators and regular citizens alike, and Imus is painted as a scapegoat—a sacrificial lamb (albeit a tainted one) that was vilified by a hypocritical black lynch mob that does not speak out equally against the use of derogatory language towards black women in rap music. Imus had as much to say. "That phrase [nappy-headed hos] originated in the black community….I may be a white man, but I know that these young women and young black women all through that society are demeaned and disparaged and disrespected…by their own black men and that they are called that name." This defense has been cited repeatedly by defenders of Imus, and by those who assert it is rap music that is to blame for his slur. Increasingly conservative commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson even advocates that Don Imus is rapper Snoop Dogg's "Frankenstein Monster."

However there is a glaring problem with the impending martyrdom of Don Imus—it rests on a series of omissions.

"Nappy Headed Hos:" Chances are if you heard the news story repeatedly, you mostly got the abridged version. Here's the larger context. Imus began by saying the women on the Rutgers team were some "rough girls" with "tattoos." It is the executive producer of the show Bernard McGuirk who interrupts to say, "Some hard-core hos." Imus responds, "That's some nappy headed-hos" and begins to compare them unfavorably to the women of the Tennessee team. McGuirk then jokes, "The Jigaboos vs the Wannabes," alluding to Spike Lee's School Daze. He and Imus go on to talk about the lack of femininity of the Rutgers players. A fellow regular on the show, sports announcer Sid Rosenberg, adds "It was a tough watch. The more I look at Rutgers, they look exactly like the Toronto Raptors." This larger context brings up an entirely different angle. What we have here are several white men indulging in an age old intersection of sexism and racism that degrades black women as either sexually exotic or physically unattractive—at least in comparison to white women. Put together, along with words like "Jigaboo," we have a story more offensive than the "nappy headed hos." But the media inexplicably leaves this context on the cutting room floor. And now our conversations and debates are restricted to, "well don't rappers use ho' too?" and "why is Imus being singled out?" Perhaps it's because "Jigaboo" wouldn't fit into the "it's the rappers fault" theme.

"Bitch is Going to be Wearing Cornrows:" Executive producer Bernard Guirk, who instigated the disastrous remarks about the Rutgers team but goes unmentioned in news stories, just weeks ago made comments that were even more inflammatory. Just one month ago, on the March 6, 2007 edition of MSNBC's Imus in the Morning, executive producer Bernard McGuirk stated that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) was "trying to sound black in front of a black audience" when she gave a speech on March 4 in Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the infamous 1965 "Bloody Sunday" Civil Rights march. McGuirk added that Clinton "will have cornrows and gold teeth before this fight with [Sen. Barack] Obama [D-IL] is over." Earlier in the program, in reference to Clinton's speech, McGuirk had said, "Bitch is gonna be wearing cornrows." McGuirk also said that Clinton will be "giving Crips signs during speeches," alluding to the infamous Los Angeles-based street gang. The entire time McGuirk is stating this, denigrating an important moment in Civil Rights history, Imus jokes along, never stating the words himself but urging on the comments and certainly never calling McGuirk out for them. Although all of this happened just a month ago, and McGuirk was intricately involved in this current controversy, somehow he escapes mention in most media depictions of the story. So, again, we are presented with no context by which people can make a sound examination of both the initial controversial event and the very recent history of the show.

"Whitey plucked you from the jungle"…and "took away your spears:" Bernard McGuirk made those statements just one month ago, on the same March 6, 2007 edition of Imus in the Morning mentioned above. He was doing a mocking imitation of African-American poet Maya Angelou. Don Imus, playing along, urges McGuirk to do his imitation of "that woman…the poet" who another guest (Rob Bartlett) compares to "Esther Rolles from Good Times." McGuirk eagerly indulges with a poem where he jokes about slavery and the stereotype of blacks being lazy: "Whitey plucked you from the jungle for too many years, Took away your pride, your dignity, and your spears, With freedom came new woes, Into whitey's world you was rudely cast, So wake up now and go to work? You can kiss my big black ass." It's only after a good laugh that Imus playfully warns McGuirk to stop because "I don't need any more columns."

"Bernard McGuirk is there to do 'nigger' jokes:" That was a quote attributed to Don Imus by producer Tom Anderson in 1998. Imus was speaking to CBS journalist Mike Wallace. At first denying that he had said so, when called to the carpet about it by Wallace, Imus laughed and admitted it—but said it was "off the record."

"That Animal [Venus Williams]….She's an Animal:" That was sports announcer Sid Rosenberg, a regular guest on the Imus show in June of 2001, talking about tennis player Venus Williams. Rosenberg was also part of the crew involved in this latest controversy [comparing the Rutgers women to a male basketball team] who disappeared from the headlines. "That animal…" Rosenberg says of Venus Williams in her appearance at the 2001 U.S. Open, "She's an animal." Commenting on the Williams sisters together, Rosenberg says, "I can't, I can't even watch them play anymore. I find it disgusting…They should play with the men." In his normal way, Imus calls this stupid, but allows Rosenberg to continue with his disparaging remarks. "A friend, he says to me, 'You know what,' he goes, 'Listen, one of these days you're going to see, find Venus and Serena Williams in Playboy.' I said, 'You gotta better shot at National Geographic." To this Imus responds, "That'll be fine." After a small furor erupted over this, Imus fired Rosenberg but re-hired him within a week after an apology was made on the air. Rosenberg would insist that his comments about the Williams sisters weren't racist, "just zoological." After a string of later offenses, including referring to Palestinians as "stinking animals" and mocking singer Kylie Minogue's cancer, Rosenberg was let go in 2005. However earlier this year he returned, and picking up on his old habit of demeaning women, especially black women, he referred to the Rutgers team as "a tough watch" and that "they look exactly like the Toronto Raptors."

As the above illustrates, the Imus show's problems with gender and race are not new. It was part of a larger pattern, one that had long been noted by others like Media or FAIR, though glaringly overlooked by the mainstream media and tolerated by both CBS and MSNBC. Imus often walked a delicate tightrope, never straying directly into the most inflammatory remarks himself, but encouraging and allowing it from both Sid Rosenberg and Bernard McGuirk (the one hired to do "nigger jokes."). A May 30, 1996, column in The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina, protesting the show's treatment of Maya Angelou, summed it up thusly:

"As the show's resident racist, Bernard [McGuirk] allows Imus to remain above the fray. When he wants to. For instance, they recently discussed poet Maya Angelou, who said she no longer watched 'Jeopardy' because the TV show seldom had black contestants. The reason for that, Bernard opined, is because 'Jeopardy' doesn't recruit contestants in prisons or have an affirmative action recruiter. Imus' response? A feeble, insincere 'Stop that.'

In 2000, the show's treatment of blacks became so dismal, that African-American Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page appeared on the show and asked Imus to pledge to "cease all simian references [to] black athletes" and "references to noncriminal blacks as thugs, pimps, muggers, and Colt 45 drinkers." Imus responded, "I promise to do that." Page also asked that Imus put an end to black minstrel-like "Amos 'n Andy cuts," to stop the "comparison of New York City to Mogadishu," and cease with "all parodies of black voices." Imus joked, "I think Bernard should be doing this," but accepted the pledge, only to break it almost immediately.

And so the show has long operated. What was different this time was that Imus broke his own rule. Rather than letting McGuirk and Rosenberg make derogatory comments for him, he jumped into the fray, calling the Rutger's team "nappy headed hos." At first refusing to recant, when the heat was turned up he invited himself onto activist Rev. Al Sharpton's show to apologise. And it wasn't long before the media elite--from The Boston Globe's Tom Oliphant to Newsweek's Howard Fineman--rallied around him. However this time it wasn't enough. Key advertisers began to abandon him. MSNBC and CBS, perhaps fearing of opening a Pandora's Box into the show's sordid history, decided to finally cut ties with Imus and take their losses.

This has happened before. Right wing radio host Rush Limbaugh was invited in the summer of 2003 as a Sunday sports announcer for ESPN, even despite a long history of insensitive racial comments. By October of that year Limbaugh found himself mired in controversy when he made disparaging comments about black quarterback Donavan McNabb. Fearful of bad publicity, ESPN jettisoned Limbaugh quickly. Why was Limbaugh axed for what was normal fare on his radio show? Because what is usually allowed in right-wing radio commentary cannot be tolerated on a big name mainstream television station like ESPN.

For Imus, a great deal was tolerated by CBS and MSNBC for a long time. But unlike Snoopp Dogg and the other purveyors of derogatory and sexist "thug" rap, or the radio landscape of insensitive commentary by Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Laura Ingrams, Don Imus was able to have a program on mainstream television outlets that reached millions of viewers. Unlike the explicit drug-dealer glorifying Young Jeezy or the violent fictional mob boss Tony Soprano, Imus interviewed members of the media elite, presidential candidates, influence peddlers, and more. 50 Cent is derogatory in nearly every aspect of his lyricism, no doubt. But much like soft-core porn stars on Cinemax, he and other pushers of smut and violence, aren't afforded these privileges. Imus was. And when he crossed that line—wanting his cake and eat it too—he fittingly had his "ho" card pulled.

Special thanks to Media for the invaluable information.

No comments: