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Columnists React to Don Imus’ Remarks About Rutgers Players

April 9, 2007 at 5:40 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Every weekday morning, Don Imus holds forth on the air, mixing interviews and opinions, on the news, politics and whatever grabs him that day.

Millions tune in on the radio. Imus’ show is broadcast on more than 70 stations nationwide. Another 350,000 or so watch as the program is simulcast on the MSNBC cable network.

But a racially charged exchange with one of his on-air sidekicks last week has sparked outrage and calls for his ouster. The subject: the almost-entirely African-American Rutgers University women’s basketball team, which played in the NCAA championship game.

DON IMUS, Radio Host: That’s some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos and

BERNARD MCGUIRK, Radio Co-Host: Some hard-core hos.

DON IMUS: That’s some nappy-headed hos there, I’m going to tell you that now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Imus initially downplayed the comments as typical of his morning show banter, but by Friday he was apologizing. And this morning, with criticism growing, he made a much longer statement.

DON IMUS: I wasn’t drunk. I’m not some angry, raving nut on a nightclub stage, and I’m not a bad person. I’m a good person. But I said a bad thing. But these young women deserve to know that it was not said with malice.

JEFFREY BROWN: There have been many calls for Imus’ firing, among them the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who said this incident was not the first for Imus and crew.

REVEREND JESSE JACKSON, Civil Rights Activist: They’ve made these kind of racist statements about Maya Angelou. They’ve made them referring to Venus and Serena Williams as the animals, they should be in “National Geographic.”

JEFFREY BROWN: In another often quoted incident, Imus is reported to have said of the NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill, when she worked at the New York Times in the 1990s, “Isn’t the Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.”

Imus today denied ever saying that.

This afternoon, Imus appeared on the Reverend Al Sharpton’s radio program. Sharpton had also called for Imus to be fired.

DON IMUS: Don’t you think I’m humiliated? Don’t you think I’m embarrassed?

JEFFREY BROWN: Over the years, Imus has cultivated not only a large radio following, but an influential audience among high-profile politicians and journalists. He often hosts the people making and covering the news.

DON IMUS: Jim Lehrer is the executive director…

Imus' future

JEFFREY BROWN: The NewsHour's Jim Lehrer and Judy Woodruff have made appearances on the program.

As it happens, two of our own NewsHour regulars have different takes on this story. Clarence Page, one of our essayists, is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He stopped appearing on the Imus program in 2000.

And Tom Oliphant, who often sits in on our Friday political wrap, is a columnist for the Boston Globe. He appeared with Don Imus just this morning.

Welcome, gentlemen.

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Clarence, why did you stop appearing on the Imus program?

CLARENCE PAGE: Well, it's easy. He stopped calling. The last time I was on the show, I elicited a pledge from Don and listing about six or seven different offenses at that time, including the Gwen Ifill episode, and elicited a pledge from him, without any resistance, that he would avoid that sort of behavior.

He denied making half of them, but made the similar kind of statement about, you know, "I'm not a racist, blah, blah, blah." And I took him at his word. And we went on with the interview, and then he hasn't called me back since.

And so it makes it very easy for me to say now that I wouldn't be comfortable being on his program now, considering his falling off the wagon, if you will, from the pledge he took.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think should happen to him now? Should he be fired?

CLARENCE PAGE: I think he ought to be treated like any other shock jock in America. Don likes to have it both ways. He likes to be a shock jock for 20 minutes and then a reputable interviewer of pundits and we members of the chattering classes, and then he goes back to the shock jock material, with Brian McGuirk and other folks there, yukking it up.

And that's how they go off the rails every so often, with statements like this "nappy-headed hos" business. I know other stations -- everybody know by now, some shock jock who lost his job for less than this, or been at least suspended for a month or two. Why does Don, a repeat offender, keep getting away with it? I want to know.


TOM OLIPHANT, Columnist, Boston Globe: You know, actually, Clarence doesn't do himself justice. I mean, you made Don Imus raise his hand and swear, "I will not."

CLARENCE PAGE: It was an ambush.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, but he swore, and then he did what he did. And you went on his program today.

TOM OLIPHANT: Right, and I don't think he should be fired in the absence of clear and convincing evidence of animus, because unless we have standards for our culture, if we get into this area, I worry that almost automatic "screw up and you're fired" ideas will not teach the country anything.

And the most important thing is that people, if we have an opportunity through this, to teach people just how inexcusably horrible what Don said was. And one of the things that I take hope from is that the person who is most chagrined, down to his tootsies, I'd say, is Don Imus himself.

The show's impact

JEFFREY BROWN: So you think, if he goes out and he apologizes...

TOM OLIPHANT: No, that's not enough.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's not enough?

TOM OLIPHANT: And I don't think he thinks that's enough. I told him this morning -- I think he had to realize two things.

First of all, the incredible pain he inflicted on those amazing athletes from Rutgers and their coach. I mean, getting almost to the NCAA championship, and then being dissed like that is a horrible thing. The reaction to it has been great hurt and shock in New Jersey. And that's number one.

Number two is I think he has to understand -- I tried to get him to imagine an 8-year-old kid in the car being driven to school by his mom or dad and hearing this on the radio, and turning to mom and dad, and asking, "What's that?" And that's how it starts. That's how a kid feels the sting of this first.

So there's a lot to understand. But the reason that I think he's worth it is that there's a person in there whose place in the public square is worth struggling to save.

JEFFREY BROWN: But if you go on the program...


JEFFREY BROWN: ... are you not giving some legitimacy to, as Clarence said, the other side of Imus?

TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, I don't think there's any question that that's true.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's true.

TOM OLIPHANT: And it is a responsibility that I feel. And it is why you try, you know, in any setting you're in, in the public square, you try to conduct yourself -- yourself -- in as honorable a way as you can.

I don't consider myself an enabler. But I recognize -- and one reason I feel that it's possible to be this tough on him is that I think he understands that those of us from politics and public affairs and whatever who work with him are going to be seen as enabling. And if that's the case, then his conduct is of interest to me as much as it is to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, our director just told me in my ear that MSNBC suspended Imus' simulcast, the television program, for two weeks.

TOM OLIPHANT: Now, you understand, that doesn't even touch his impact. This is a 70 radio station mega-show. We're talking about 300,000 people, largely in New York and Washington, who talk to each other.

The real impact of this program is radio syndicated nationally. And while I take Clarence's point about shock jocks, in Don's case, I think it's more accurate to say "schlock" instead of "shock."

JEFFREY BROWN: "Schlock"? So where do you draw the line, Clarence?

CLARENCE PAGE: You know, I was where my good friend is here up until about Sunday. When I first gave Don the pledge, I was saying, "Should I go back on this show or not, you know?"

And when I was called, I said to Bernard McGuirk, the producer and codefendant here in this controversy, "Well, I'll come back on, but only if we clear the air about these statements that Don has made that I've heard about." And they agreed to that.

And so I thought like you did, you know, that I'm not a P.C. person. Anybody who reads my column knows I've defended numerous folks and said, you know, give people a chance to be educated when they have offended.

But, you know, let me say, Don and I have history now. And that was how many years ago? And he still keeps doing it. And the same defense. He said the same thing when I talked to him about then. He said, "I'm not a racist. I have kids of all colors at my summer camp for autistic kids." And he does.

And Don's my friend. He did a wonderful job in endorsing my book on the air 10 years ago, the kind of publicity every author craves.

And other folks, Harold Ford, he has walked the plank right out there with Harold Ford. So now Don thinks that gives him license to refer to a ladies basketball team as "nappy-headed hos"?

And my 17-year-old son, who I used to drive to school listening to Don Imus but only after he got out of the car -- I didn't know what Don was going to say next -- nevertheless, you know, my dad said, after I was interviewed by another reporter, he says...


CLARENCE PAGE: I'm sorry, my son says, "Dad, what did you tell him?"

Is an apology enough?

JEFFREY BROWN: You used the word "enablers," though. You used the word "enabler." I mean, who are the enablers here? There's a big viewing audience.

TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, there is.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are prominent politicians and journalists who go on the program.

TOM OLIPHANT: There are our friends in politics who like to talk to us about what we do. I mean, you know, it's a locker-room atmosphere. And for the record, we all do happen to come from perhaps the foulest-mouthed profession in the history of the world anyway.

TOM OLIPHANT: But I was with Clarence right up until the last point, about he thinks he can get away with it. That's where I think maybe the opportunity for epiphany has arisen.

CLARENCE PAGE: Today, not Friday though.

TOM OLIPHANT: And this is why how you view Sunday or what your feelings and your thought process Sunday really are important, I think, as it turned out. And in this case, I have experienced this guy's shock and his conduct. There is no denying it, as far as I'm concerned.

I am stuck because I can't vouch for conduct that has yet to occur. And in the aftermath of what Clarence got him to do seven years ago with his hand up, there's a pretty big sin on the record.

But I'm convinced off my experience directly with him that the animus that ought to be required, before you take the extreme step of ending a career, and especially given the garbage that occurs on so much of radio and television, and it doesn't reach Don.

JEFFREY BROWN: We only have a minute here. But do you think that other journalists and politicians should take a similar pledge that you've taken and...

CLARENCE PAGE: I'm going to give all of my good friends -- and they are all of my friends, you know, Tim Russert, Chris Matthews, Jim Lehrer, et cetera -- you know, everybody has made the same journey I made, because I didn't come to this right away, because, I agree with you, you know, the first thing I want to do is to help to educate people about what offends other people.

You know, Don's not a baby. He's been around awhile. And I think it's gotten to the point now where, because he's gotten away with it so many times, he think he can just continue to do so, just a little apology is not enough.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Clarence Page, Tom Oliphant, thanks a lot.