The Media-driven Imus Prosecution
Wednesday - August 22, 2007
Upon the firing of Don Imus recently I commented that it was his fault. He is responsible for what he says, and when an employer believes an employee becomes a liability, it should be able to terminate anybody it deems necessary.
However, in this particular case, there is one very important word that supersedes opinion - contract.
You are all aware of the Imus flap. In a moment of misguided jocularity, I-Man referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy headed hos.” If I have to explain what this means, then you might as well turn the page because you won’t get the rest of this column.
When Imus uttered the slur heard ‘round the world, nobody said a word. There was no outrage in real time. The studios were not inundated with calls of protest. As a matter of fact, the delivery of the line was so matter of fact the audience didn’t even notice, let alone care, what Imus said. It wasn’t until a self-described left-wing media watch-dog, upon hearing the comment, transcribed, recorded and blast e-mailed the offending soundbite to other media outlets. It was then the attention and teeth gnashing began.
The rest is, as they say, history. Imus hears the criticisms and swiftly apologizes on the air. However, that’s not good enough for the good Rev. Al Sharpton. His shrill and histrionic calls for Imus’ head continued.
In an attempt to show his contrition, Imus goes before the entire Rutgers team and apologizes in person. Although they deplore his comments and society at-large, the team accepts his apology.
In a misguided attempt at damage control, a well-placed MSNBC executive (where Imus’ show was simulcast) prodded Imus to do a round robin of media apologies, including an appearance on Sharpton’s own radio program where he continues his, “I’m Sorry” world tour. None of it is good enough.
Finally, MSNBC announces it will no longer broadcast the Imus program and CBS, after announcing his two-week suspension, fires Imus.
The Imus termination was met with self-righteous nods of approval from those who believe he was racist evil incarnate. Others shook their heads in disappointment, bemoaning the glaring double standard of selective social prosecution. While one side tried to convince the other of just how wrong they were, Imus went about trying to find some justice in this unjust situation. His salvation would be found in the language of his employment contract with CBS.
As a radio talk show host, I can tell you our primary responsibility is to generate a premium listening audience in order to generate the greatest possible revenue. In order to achieve both objectives, we must cut through the cacophony of other radio programs. In the talk format, you achieve this through polarizing, provocative and informed opinion. This is exactly what Imus did - and CBS wanted it.
Imus signed a five-year, $40 million contract in January 2007. Some of the language says his services are of “a unique, extraordinary, irreverent, intellectual, topical, controversial and personal character,” and that programming containing these elements “are desired” by CBS and “are consistent with company rules and policies,” according to the Washington Post. The contract with CBS also provided a “warning” mechanism to be issued before termination and a “second-chance” clause upon this warning. Neither of these provisions was executed by CBS.
Although CBS challenged the Imus suit with its own interpretation of the contractual language, the company lost and a settlement of $20 million was awarded to Imus.
Is this a victory and vindication for Imus? Not quite.
By either design or cruel coincidence, one of the aforementioned Rutgers players has filed a defamation lawsuit against Imus, his sidekick, CBS and MSNBC. Kia Vaughn maintains Imus’ comments have damaged her character and reputation. Give me a break.
This action against Imus, et al. is exactly as it appears - an overtly opportunistic money grab. This suit does more to damage the character and reputation of Ms. Vaughn than anything Imus said. Remember, nobody knew or cared about Imus’ comments until it was packaged and promoted to other media. That individual and those media outlets are as much charlatans as Imus.
Don Imus will return to the air-waves and he deserves to be there. You may not like him and, if you have heard his show, he probably doesn’t like you much either.
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