The Silencing of Imus

Statement by 

William O’Shaughnessy
Chairman, Whitney Radio
Editorial Director, WVOX and WVIP
Westchester, New York

April 16, 2007

Re:  The Silencing of Imus


“Censorship which results from corporate timidity in the face of intimidation or coercion is just as dangerous as the stifling of creative and artistic expression by government fiat, decree, sanction or regulation.”

“Howard Stern … Opie and Anthony … Bob Grant … Bill Maher … Chris Rock … George Lopez … and even – God forbid! – Rosie.  We’ve always had terrible examples to defend.  And Don Imus has given us another terrible example.  But defend it we must.

Not the hateful and discomforting words.  But the right of the social commentator and critic (read:  performer) to be heard … and the right of the people to decide.

Don Imus is a performer, a disc jockey, a humorist, a social commentator and a provocateur with a rapier sharp wit.

Unlike several of our colleagues, he does not deal in raucous vulgarity or incendiary right-wing rhetoric directed at immigrants, illegal aliens and other familiar targets of our tribe. 

Throughout his brilliant career, Mr. Imus has been an equal opportunity offender … poking fun at the high and mighty as well as the rest of us for our foibles and pomposity.

He may have on occasion gone too far during a remarkable 30-some year career.  Were his comments about the Rutgers basketball team racist or mean-spirited?  Only Imus knows for sure, but we doubt it.  Were they funny?  No.

His mea culpa and apologies seemed sincere.  We had thus hoped his sponsors and the elders at CBS, WFAN, MSNBC and all those many stations across the country that carry the I-Man would stand up to the intimidation and pressure we’ve read about.

So many performers who have achieved his kind of success take … and put nothing back.  Imus has been extravagantly generous to a number of worthy causes – some of it publicly known and some of it done very personally, anonymously and without fanfare.

Imus says he’s been active in our profession for 30 years – actually, it’s more like 40 since he came roaring out of Cleveland.  By our calculation, that’s about 8,000 broadcasts, during which he has probably uttered some 2,400,000 ad libs.  Not all of them as inartful, insensitive and wide of the mark as his fleeting reference to the Rutgers team.   

There’s no question this was a misfire.  And it was to be hoped that the elders at CBS and NBC would see this for what it is. 

I’ll give you a baseball analogy.  Let’s say you had a pitcher, with remarkable stamina, who threw 8,000 innings:  many of his pitches are going to be wide of the plate, some way off the strike zone.  A few may even hit the poor batter.  And in the course of those 8,000 innings across 30 or 40 seasons, he may even bean the damn umpire on rare occasion!  But he’s still … a great pitcher.

With the possible exception of overnight work from dusk till dawn, morning drive is the toughest shift in Radio.  And when Imus plops those well traveled bones into a chair, straps on his earphones and throws his voice out into another dawn armed only with his humor, wit and irreverence, he is not, I think, unlike a Franciscan priest dragging himself up into a pulpit after 30 or 40 years to pronounce the Good News or at least make a passing attempt at Pure Truth before a sparse, sleepy congregation at an early Mass.  

Imus’ mission is not quite as noble or majestic.  He has only to make us laugh and make us think.  I think that’s a pretty good way to make a living.  And he should thus be protected from those unforgiving critics abroad in the land who heaped scorn and derision on the I-Man as a result of this controversy.

However it plays out, it is very much to be hoped that the contretemps will not impede or diminish this particular performer’s brilliant – if occasionally irreverent and provocative – mind and tongue.

The guy misfired.  But he should not have been … fired. 

I’ve spent an entire lifetime defending the raucous vulgarity of Howard Stern … and even Bob Grant (after he called Mario Cuomo – the man I most admire in public life – a disgusting name).  One should remember Imus is essentially only a performer, an entertainer  … nothing more … or any less.

As this thing has evolved … many are growing more and more concerned about coercion via economic sanction or boycott which was orchestrated against a performer and his corporate masters.

Censorship which results from corporate timidity in the face of intimidation or coercion is just as dangerous as the stifling of creative and artistic expression by government fiat, decree, sanction or regulation.

That’s just as treacherous as any racism, sexism or bigotry –  real or imagined.




The Undoing of Don Imus


The following is by Jonathan Bush, brother of “41,” uncle of “43,” and father of television and radio star William “Billy” Bush.

Much has been written and much said about the firing of Don Imus.  After the recent appearance of Hillary Clinton at Rutgers, opportunistically pandering away, if a little late, about rising up against those who might disparage minorities or women.  I felt compelled to speak up.  So here goes.

About ten years ago, my company moved from New York to New Haven, and I commended the daily grind of a forty-minute morning drive to work.  In that first year I turned my radio to Don Imus and have listened to him at least two or three days a week ever since.  At times I found his show funny; at other times I would turn off the radio violently as he talked to politicians that did not exactly share my point of view.  The show offered a welcome escape to the caged listener.

From laugh-out-loud funny skits to serious political discussions to interviews with politicians to authors of books to country and western singers, no show presented an attention-getting format remotely close to Imus in the Morning.  Through it all the mercurial Imus rode with effortless charisma, guiding the program with a sure hand and a deft instinct for humor.  His long-suffering support staff stood ever at the ready to bail the chief out if he had gone too far.

Part of the shtick centered around Imus’ fecklessness, such as a recent episode which focused on an invitation to Imus from Brain Williams to join him on a trip to Iraq.  Naturally the cast of characters took up a dialogue around the idea that Imus was afraid to go.  Imus, in a sense, was playing the role of everyman but with one exception:  Imus’ equivocating was delightfully funny.

Occasionally Imus, speaking probably ten million words a year or more, would stray close to the line of decency.  But listeners didn’t particularly care.  They turned in to hear Imus’s wit, Imus’s charm, Imus’s intransigence, Imus’s melodic baritone voice – in short, Imus, warts and all.

Now on Thursday April 5th, Imus, in a brief snippet of humor, let slip a demeaning phrase.  He referred, jokingly, to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as nappy-headed hos.  Could any sensible person think he meant this disparagingly?  Of course not.  However, he immediately apologized, subsequently almost falling over backward apologizing, even going on the radio show of one of the nation’s leading mountebanks, the Reverend Al Sharpton.  (As an aside, has anyone yet heard Sharpton apologize for his hand in the deplorable Tawana Brawley affair?)

So what happened?  NBC turned off the cameras on MSNBC.  Then CBS suspended him for two weeks.  Then, knuckling under to pressure from a few big advertisers, themselves afraid of losing African American customers through a threatened boycott by Sharpton and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Les Moonves of CBS cancelled the entire show.  Poof!  Gone.

One thing amazes me:  that in a country which prides itself on free speech, a gifted performer who brightens the lives of millions of listeners every morning could be snuffed out in an instant.

Of course cowardice gained the victory – cowardice by Mr. Moonves for knuckling under and the cowardice of the advertisers who feared a boycott if they continued to sponsor Imus.  However, far worse seems the cowardice of all those who fed at his table only to abandon him when the tables turned against him.  Where were those men and women whose voices should have spoken out against the firing?

On his program Imus frequently used the term “weasel” to refer to those of whom, for one reason or another, he was being critical.  Little did he know that the term would apply to all those people who toadied up to him, who leapt at the opportunity of appearing on his program, only to run from him when their support was called for.

There exists one vast constituency who would gladly speak up for Imus had they but a voice so to do so, namely, the millions of listeners who have been denied the joy of hearing Imus in the Morning and are wondering what happened to the idea “Let him who is without guilt among you cast the first stone.”