On Imus

I would have fired Don Imus years ago. Because he’s boring. And if he should have been fired as a racist, that, also, should have occurred years ago. Howard Stern has been exposing his racism for more than a decade (odd, by the way, that few if any news reports went to Stern for this perspective). I’m no fan of Imus. I panned him in TV Guide years ago. I won’t miss him now that he’s gone. I think what he said was as stupid as it was offensive — that is, colossally on both counts.

But I do think we need to stand back for a moment, just a moment, and examine the process of public scalpings in media, on the internet, and in politics today. This was Don Imus’ macaca moment and it was amplified to an 11 by the piranhaesque repetition of it on cable news (and, in this case, less so on the internet) and then by the calls for his execution from all the usual executioners.

Imus? Good riddance. Sen. George Allen? Bye-bye now. Trent Lott? He got his proper drubbing. Those are deserved departures from center stage. These public figures were caught at their worst, being themselves, and so they got their justice.

But my fear is that as we see more of each other in ubiquitous video ubiquitously played, we will see more moments of humanity — that is, screwups — and so we need to decide, rationally, what deserves a scalping and what does not. And we should not be held at the hands of ransom demands from our publicity-crazed, self-appointed guardians of righteousness — in this case, as in many, Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson — who will hold a press conference and demand a firing if they can get airtime or money out of it.

So what is the standard? I think Duncan Black of Atrios explained it very well when I asked him just this while moderating a panel at the Museum of Television & Radio about the new age of video and politics, shortly after the macaca election, when that word cost Allen his seat and, likely, the Republicans their majority. I asked whether we needed to become more forgiving of mistakes — and which mistakes would those be? — as we are bound to see more of them, now that they will all be recorded and can all be broadcast to the world and repeated again and again. Duncan said that the macaca moment confirmed what was suspected and known but not necessarily demonstrated publicly about Allen. In that moment, with that one word, he showed his essence and the internet and then cable news allowed it to spread so we could all see that more broadly and more efficiently than was ever possible before.

At the Online Politics conference a few weeks ago, Joe Trippi said, “Every one of these candidates is going to get caught in a macaca moment.” They will mess up. They will say something in an unguarded moment. Yet we want them to be unguarded. We want them to be human. So when they are human and they do mess up, we can’t demand their scalp for every screwup. We have to judge whether this was merely a mistake or whether it revealed a fatal flaw in their character. And we need to be make that judgment ourselves, not under the threat and deadline of the press-conference piranha. We cannot run politics and the nation by the tyranny of the gotcha moment. I will also warn of the danger of life in the age of offense.

But that’s why Imus is a good case for discussion because what he said was truly offensive, it did reveal his essential character, and he met his justice beyond the sin of that one moment. But that won’t always be the case and even in the fast-forward society of internet and cable, we need to be able to judge thoughtfully and independently which are macaca moments and which are merely mistakes.

: LATER: I was just passing a bank of monitors here at CUNY and heard the parade of cable blather on the topic. Tom DeLay was calling for Rosie O’Donnell to be fired because she has said things that have offended him. This is what I mean about the dangers of the piranha pool in the age of offense. Just because someone offends someone, that is not cause to fire them make them resign from a show or a campaign. It means you can disagree with them. In fact, today, you have more means to state that disagreement and be heard than ever before. But we can’t fire everyone somene wants fired; we’ll be left with no more stars and no more politicians. And as tempting as that may sounds, it’s no way to run the world. The reason to fire Don Imus in my book is because he was boring. If you think he’s a racist for what he says today, then he said things in the past that should have told you the same thing. A channel has every right to hire and fire whom it pleases. It should do that for good reason — and racism and stupidity are good reasons — but not because someone somewhere played the offended card and called for a scalp.