Don Imus’ fall 

Once upon a time, Don Imus was a local flavor on the New York City-area radio dial. His appeal was an acquired taste, one of those programs where you could eavesdrop on what seems like personal conversation. It was that you’re-one-of-the-bunch, a part of the in-crowd atmosphere: Listen to the I-Man talk to his friends and you became one of the friends.

There’s a great appetite in the culture to make the private public and it was, and continues to be, a market niche in the media: See, that’s what they really think and really say and do to each other. Of course, what happened to Imus recently, the proper battering he has been taking for his racist remarks about the players on the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, shows that the private made public isn’t always a winning strategy. What one would say in the locker room, or the local saloon, won’t necessarily play well on the national stage.

Globalization gets all the press, but there has been a similar nationalization over the last three decades. Regional brands have become national ones. And not just coffee and clothes: nativist media figures, products of urban or rural cultures, have gone coast to coast. Because of the Web, every local paper is a national one today. Imus on MSNBC is a far cry from the naughty frat-boy addicts who made up his early audiences. The promise of cable TV is that every particular audience will be supplied with whatever weird subculture fodder it requires.

Imus made a similar news splash in 1996, but it wasn’t racist, just irreverent. At the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner that presidential campaign year he delivered biting commentary on the Clintons, to the amusement of all present, except for the first lady and the president. That performance served as the whole nation’s introduction to Don Imus.

On the Tuesday before Imus’ denigrating comments about the Rutgers players, I happened to be on the New Jersey Turnpike, driving with my son on a spring break college tour. The electronic boards suspended over the turnpike used for traffic messages had only one: GO RUTGERS!! It was cute — Rutgers is the state university. The championship game was that night. Imus’ offensive remarks followed the next day. He may not have realized he was defaming the entire state.

Of course, if one wants to discuss racism, it was Imus’ Irish-American sidekick, Bernard McGuirk, who introduced the subject, first calling the women “hos.” A white guy using that term is cringe-inducing all by itself. How the 19th century Irish immigrants became white in this country was aided by anti-black bigotry and McGuirk carried on the tradition. Stereotypes abound and a lot of folk fall into such sinkholes daily, including me.

But, Imus’ offensive comments illustrate an aspect of Americans’ long, on-going struggle with free speech and expression. One of the last Supreme Court cases on the subject, Barnes v. Glen Theatre, had similar elements. The offensive behavior in that case was not racist, denigrating remarks, but nudity, or nude dancing. The Rehnquist court in 1991 did not grant nude dancing First Amendment protection as “speech.” Why? Well, in the briefest of shorthand, the case’s nude dancing didn’t contain enough “ideas” to protect it as expression and the 5-4 Rehnquist court decision also denounced nude dancing’s ancillary effects, along with the need to protect societal order and morality.

Had Imus, after making his self-proclaimed “fun” of the Rutgers team, actually said something about the exploitative nature of big-time college sports, how athletes are brought into universities for their skills on hardwood and football fields, mentioned the abysmally low graduation rates for so many highly-ranked sport teams at elite institutions, where black athletes are used to win games for largely white schools, he wouldn’t be abjectly apologizing to one and all and off the air — and, now, out of a job. He would have raised some important social issues.

But Imus didn’t discuss anything. What he said was just mean, demeaning, devoid of ideas and bigoted, even though many in his audience doubtless had said, or would say, the same thing, except they wouldn’t say it to the world on the radio or MSNBC.

William O’Rourke is a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is On Having a Heart Attack: A Medical Memoir.

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