I must confess I did not expect CBS and MSNBC to stop broadcasting the Don Imus show. But, that is what both have now done.
I think I didn't expect it, because although I assumed that this culture would find what he said inappropriate but not feel that he has crossed a line. I was wrong.
So, the question is: what line did he cross?
It wasn't a sexism line. As one of my students pointed out "ho" is said all over popular culture. I am resigned to the reality that although we don't think we're a sexist society, we still are at some very basic levels, and in this culture it is A-OKto use derogatory terms against women and not get censured for it.
Was it a race line? There's a children's book about "nappy hair," which suggests that the term can be viewed as a straight-up description (without the negative connotations). But, maybe it's because a white guy said it? Certainly, as another one of my students pointed out, there is an "insider"/"outsider" phenomenon at work. If I am gay, I can call myself and others who share my orientation "queer," but if I am straight and I call someone who is gay "queer," I might be in social trouble. The same may be at work here. But, we are still a racist society, and Imus has said racist things in the past which have never met with this sort of furor. So, I'm not sure that's it.
Was it a genre disconnect? By that I mean that the Imus show is mostly an elite show. Major politicians, journalists, pundits, and others who are opinion setters and policy makers appear on his show talking about the current events and latest ideas they're selling. Its mass appeal is in the political parodies and uncouth exchanges that draw in the masses who enjoy the "shock jock" aspects of the show (not that the elites didn't, even if they weren't supposed to publicly). Perhaps such a boundary-crossing show can't be both mass and elite without eventually alienating one of those two groups. [The problem I have with this analysis, at least as I've been able to articulate it so far, is that this assumes that the masses are base and quite happily revel in racist and sexist language, and although I think that's true, I don't think the elites are exempt from this. So, perhaps someone out there can make this argument work.]
Was it the subject of the "humor" that crossed the line? The people he claims he was just trying to make a joke about, the Rutgers women's basketball team, were a group of athletes who had made their university, their families, and the state proud by doing something extraordinary and worth commendation. Imus seemed not to joke about them but instead to attack them for no good reason, simply because they had done something extraordinary.
Quite simply, whom he picked on for humor turned out not to be a set of people who could serve as being an acceptable butt of a cruel joke. We have no qualms making jokes at the expense of Bill Clinton (Still! I enjoy it every chance I get). But, he deserves it. The women's basketball team did not. Thus, he joke not only failed as a joke, but it didn't even *seem* like a joke. Instead, it seemed like an attack, and an attack on a group of people who in no uncertain terms did not deserve it.
Now, perhaps Imus would still be on air if it weren't for the pulling of advertisements of major corporations from CBS and NBC. In the world of broadcasting, money is the bottom line, and the threat of a loss of revenue gets the executives listening. But it says something that advertisers said they did not want to be associated any longer with what Imus was dishing out.
So, perhaps, this signals a shift in our culture. The FCC is now regulating indecency more aggressively than in the past. And, perhaps, broadcasters are starting to get the feeling that Americans are not as inclined as perhaps we once were to be subject to morally depraved programming. I'm not quite ready to grant this, but I would like for it to be true. I don't want to see the morality police determining what we should watch, and I love a naughty joke as much as the next person, but there is a point when a society stoops too low, and perhaps we're there? Imus the first casualty.