Kudos and consequences


Is broadcast bigotry acceptable?

Stay tuned

The future of a popular personality is in jeopardy following yet another media controversy involving race. Radio ''shock jock'' Don Imus used racial slurs and sexual innuendo against the members of the Rutgers women's basketball team on his April 4 show, ''Imus in the Morning,'' calling the student-athletes ''nappy-headed hos.'' He and his cohorts also engaged in a comparison of the NCAA championship game as one between ''The Jigaboos vs. The Wannabes,'' referring to a 1988 Spike Lee film, ''School Daze,'' a satire in which black college women divide themselves into dark- and fair-skinned factions. More juvenile and unfunny ''chat'' followed.

Imus later issued an apology which seemed to spread the blame around, but the comments earned Imus a two-week suspension without pay from employer CBS Corp. Amid growing public outrage over the perceived slap on the wrist and the departure of several of the show's major sponsors, MSNBC dropped its television simulcast altogether. Imus and CBS continue to receive negative feedback.

Corporate network executives that oversee the program were slow to respond initially; it seemed they hoped no one would notice the flap. No such luck. Pressure from minority and diversity associations has helped keep the fire going, leading to Imus' suspension one full week after the incident occurred.

Kudos for UNITY, a national coalition that represents more than 10,000 journalists of color. The organization immediately condemned the remarks and what it perceived as Imus' inadequate punishment. ''There's something dangerously wrong with the system when a broadcast host demeans and denigrates African-American women and gets away with two weeks of time off,'' said UNITY president Karen Lincoln Michael. The coalition includes the Native American Journalists Association (of which Indian Country Today is a member). We applaud its swift response, and hope it remembers this sentiment the next time American Indians are openly denigrated by the media. When it comes to stereotypes of Indian peoples, the media is too tolerant of bigotry in its news coverage and opinion pages.

Imus' latest antics have been widely denounced by a growing tide of angry voices, including Rutgers University, NCAA, media organizations and women's groups and civil rights advocates. Former NCAAP head Bruce Gordon spoke out against Imus' remarks. ''He's crossed the line, he's violated our community,'' he told The Associated Press. ''He needs to face the consequences of that violation.'' Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the first presidential candidate to speak up, called for Imus to be fired and vowed to never again appear on his show. In typical fashion, other candidates immediately followed suit with similar sentiments but none confirmed they would boycott the program, instead resolving to take a soft ''wait and see'' attitude.

Imus' lengthy record of crossing the line between ''shock talk'' and racist rants is well-documented, and it's time he and others of his ilk face the music. Produced in an atmosphere of open, self-congratulatory male camaraderie, the ''Imus in the Morning'' show spews controversial commentary to more than 70 million listeners. This locker room of sorts for wealthy white males is a major roadblock in the fight for diversity in media.

Unfortunately, the Imus show is a regular discussion forum for all types of popular public figures and issues. High-profile figures have continued to frequent ''Imus in the Morning,'' despite his reputation as an equal opportunity insulter. These powerful voices have been mostly silent on the matter. The consequences of remaining silent when the most under-represented members of society are bashed around by bigwigs are never good for the purse or the soul.

While media executives wring their hands over what to do next, we have a suggestion for them: Take a cue from another Spike Lee joint and ''Do the Right Thing.'' Fill newsrooms and anchor chairs with people who represent the diversity of this country. Promote women and minorities to management positions. Appoint more people of color to executive boards. Until then, suffer the backlash of consumers tired of being the butt of unfunny jokes.