By Bill Boyarsky
The “Scooter” Libby scandal revealed an unsavory side of mainstream journalism. But a more telling example of seamy media conduct has been exposed by the tale of Don Imus and his journalistic lap dogs.
In the case of Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, the issue was whether Washington journalists, often too chummy with their sources, got stories from them after promising confidentiality. The stories were not actually news but rather were efforts to further the Bush administration’s political agenda, or, as in the case of Valerie Plame, part of an attempt to punish an enemy.
This was bad. But confidential sources also help disclose corruption and conflicts of interest, and they often shed light on how decisions are made. While journalistic ethicists decry such sources, reporters covering city halls and state capitols around the country can’t do without them. Neither can the public.
The Imus story reflects something else. It shows elite journalists becoming part of a club they shouldn’t join, sharing the values of those they are supposed to cover. It’s a stuffy club composed generally of middle-aged or older white men who, while differing on partisan politics, share a comfortable don’t-rock-the-boat view of the world. In this club, Imus is the loudmouth in the locker room with a gutter style the more refined members probably envy.
As is now well known, Imus, whose New York morning radio show was simulcast on MSNBC (the network has since dropped his show), had a dialogue with his producer, Bernard McGuirk, last week about the predominantly African-American Rutgers University women’s basketball team, which made it to the NCAA finals before losing to Tennessee.
“That’s some nappy-headed hos there,” Imus said to McGuirk. “That’s some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos. ...”
“Some hard-core hos,” McGuirk said.
“That’s some nappy-headed hos there, I’m going to tell you that,” Imus repeated.
Imus is a shock jock, a Howard Stern who is interested in politics. His substantial radio and television audiences have made his show a favorite destination of political guests such as Sens. Joe Lieberman, Joe Biden and John McCain.
That’s fine. Politicians will go almost anywhere for an audience. What I don’t like is the cadre of top journalists who have become Imus regulars, basking, like the politicians, in the spotlight of a popular show. Fellow club members, they came to his defense.
As Imus’ friend Howard Fineman of Newsweek put it, as quoted by the Media Matters website, “all of us who do your show, you know, we’re part of the gang. And we rely on you the way you rely on us.”
When Tom Oliphant, a Boston Globe columnist, appeared on the Imus show the Monday after the racist Imus-McGuirk exchange, he began, according to a transcript on the Media Matters site, by saying, “Good morning, Mr. Imus, and solidarity forever, by the way.” He referred to guests such as himself as Imus’ “constituency” and as members of “your regular posse.”
Then on Tuesday morning, I watched Jeff Greenfield of CBS chat with Imus on the phone, giving the beleaguered jock what amounted to public relations advice on how to get out of his mess.
For journalists, who are supposed to be unbiased, this is getting too close, having too many friends in high places, and, most tempting of all, surrendering to the lure of the spotlight.
It’s easy to do. During a brief moment of fame, when I was writing columns on the O.J. Simpson murder trial, I’d go almost anywhere in town to be on television, fighting the Los Angeles midday traffic on Wilshire Boulevard for a shot on the E! network, getting up early to be on CNN. The anonymity of print life gave way to sudden and satisfying visibility.
Membership in the elite club brings more than exposure on the Imus show. Punditry abounds on the networks’ Sunday shows and on cable seven days a week. From these generally unpaid appearances come lecture opportunities, some of them lucrative, and, if the pundit so desires, book contracts—and, after publication, book sales. Being a part of this club and having such an influential “posse” protecting him was of inestimable value to Imus, especially since this was at least his second strike.
A New York Daily News columnist reported a few years ago that Imus had referred to PBS’ Gwen Ifill, an African-American journalist formerly with The New York Times, as a “cleaning lady.” His exact quote, as reported by columnist Lars-Erik Nelson, was, “Isn’t the New York Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.”
“Why do my journalistic colleagues appear on Mr. Imus’ program?” Ifill asked in a piece in The New York Times on Tuesday. They not only appeared, but they defended him, giving him credibility. Imus escaped with a two-week suspension. If Imus had been a nobody shock jock in a small market, he would have been fired for the same offense or less. Turns out that, this time, he pushed his act too far—Imus was fired by CBS on April 12.
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing by journalism critics about the buddy behavior of the media elite and the political elite, especially with the old-fashioned fraternity-house-style skits during the White House Correspondents dinner. (After Stephen Colbert was truly and viciously funny, he was not invited back.)
That’s bad, but a better example of what’s wrong with the system is the saga of Imus and his “posse.”