After a racist and sexist outburst aimed at the African American players on the Rutgers University women's basketball team last week, radio "shock jock" Don Imus lost his job broadcasting a syndicated daily radio and cable television show, "Imus in the Morning." Both the CBS Radio Network, which syndicated the Imus show nationally on the air, and NBC News, which simulcast the show via the MSNBC cable network, cancelled the show. You can read the CBS announcement here, and the NBC announcement here, and see a Today show video clip with the head of NBC News, Steve Capus discussing this decision, here.
Both Imus and his wife Deirdre were staunch supporters of the Combating Autism Act which Congress passed last year. Don Imus used the soapbox of his radio and television shows to advocate for the legislation -- and especially to decry the efforts of Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who held up the bill in a House committee over the summer before releasing it during a lame duck session of Congress. Imus prompted a flood of phone calls to Barton's office, making the Congressman a target of advocates and additional media scrutiny.
There's no question that the air time Imus used made a positive impact on a piece of legislation that many hope will make a concrete difference in the lives of Americans with autism spectrum disorders. (See related story, "2006 Autism Advocates of the Year," here.) This was not the only cause Imus signed up for, either; in his last broadcast on April 12, Imus raised money for three charities including his cattle ranch which hosts kids with cancer, and another related to sudden infant death syndrome. This was his eighteenth year doing such a radiothon, The New York Times reported.
For people who have followed Imus for years, the hateful speech he spewed against a women's basketball team, calling them "nappy-headed ho's" fit into a long-running pattern. Gwen Ifill, the television journalist and host of Washington Week on PBS, cited Imus' history of racist, anti-Semitic and offensive remarks in moving remarks on television this evening and in a moving opinion article in The Times this week. Her point: why should a middle-aged white guy with a microphone feel the need to verbally beat up a group of young women who look different than he does?
"This country will only flourish once we consistently learn to applaud and encourage the young people who have to work harder just to achieve balance on the unequal playing field," Ifill wrote. "Let’s see if we can manage to build them up and reward them, rather than opting for the cheapest, easiest, most despicable shots."
We would want that kind of attitude for disabled children and adults with autism, of course. To create a country where we applaud and encourage them. And build them up, in spite of the challenges they face. Because we know they are susceptible to their share of cheap shots from people who won't or can't understand them and their disabilities.
I write this not having listened to Imus' show much -- a few times, to be honest -- but it's difficult to reconcile these two portraits of the man: one who chose to use a mass medium to sway a portion of the public that the nation needs a law to help a group of disabled people. And one who developed a legacy of hateful speech which ended up costing him his job, and with it, his platform.