Tuesday, April 10, 2007


My father used to be an Imus listener back when my family lived in New Jersey, so I’m aware of him, though I was never a fan. Referring to “nappy-headed hos” should be a ticket to the unemployment line and permanent Media Untouchable status, in my opinion. What I find most interesting is the fact that people like Howard Fineman and Tom Oliphant—people with standing in the political punditocracy, people who are old enough and smart enough to know better—refuse to cut Don Imus loose. Indeed, they go out of their way to commiserate with the I-Man, Fineman bemoaning the fact that guys can't get away with telling racist jokes like they used to. (This Digby post pointed out the raw economic motivation for many pundits to appear on Imus: he can really help sell a book. At one point Cokie Roberts swore she would never appear on Imus’s show again, and her promise held up for a few years, until she had a new book to promote.)

Being "in" with Imus's zany crew is pretty intoxicating, evidently. It occurs to me that the appeal of Don Imus for some people is pretty similar to the appeal of George W. Bush for some people, even supposed skeptical and jaded reporters and columnists. Both Imus and Dubya come off as confident, tough-talking, shoot-from-the-hip Westerners. Just looking at Tom Oliphant (slight, bespectacled, visibly part of the East Coast intelligentsia), I can envision his being star-struck in the presence and good graces of a Don Imus. And maybe even a little intimidated, afraid to risk falling out of those good graces.

The appeal of frat-house camaraderie, the pleasures of “talking shit”—you’d think people would outgrow it. Not all of us do. Lately I find myself flashing back pretty often to college days and the needling conversations we used to have in my predominantly male circle. For better or worse, I miss that stuff. The inside jokes, the private language, “just kidding” (but not really), “just between us” (but not really). The political incorrectness of it is not the part I most miss, but it is a part of it that I used to accept, back in the day.

Imus tries to have his cake and eat it too, along a number of dimensions. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post points out that being a shock jock and being a respectable political commentator are incompatible. Imus’s show gives listeners the ingratiating feeling that he’s saying something shocking, something that shouldn’t be repeated outside present company—forgetting for a moment that it’s being broadcast live to hundreds of thousands of listeners. And many have pointed out how, repeatedly, Imus has transgressed, then grudgingly repented, then transgressed again. He occupies a no-man’s land between nice and naughty, reliable and volatile. (Again, like Dubya, who for all his righteousness likes to play the semi-reformed rogue occasionally.) Even this week, he apologizes with one breath then makes veiled threats with the next.

More from Eugene Robinson—I found this a compelling description of the appeal of talk radio:

Drive-time radio has become a free-fire zone, a forum for crude and objectionable speech that would be out of bounds anywhere else. There's an intimacy about radio. The medium creates the illusion of privacy -- it's just the jock and his or her entourage speaking to you, the listener, alone in your car where nobody else can hear.

Maybe, in your heart of hearts, you think some of those stereotypes are true -- about black people, or white people, or Latinos or Asians. Somewhere on the radio dial you'll find some jock who not only agrees but is willing to say so out loud, willing to ridicule those "others" and thus cut them down to size. You can have all your prejudices confirmed on your way to work. It's almost like putting on a suit of psychological armor. [emphasis mine]

Two months ago when I was writing about FM radio, I thought about the power of radio as a medium, the sense of intimacy that it carries. I also thought about the advent of shock jocks reflecting a movement in which that intimacy was exploited for unfortunate ends. (I had in mind Howard Stern as well as the Greaseman, a Washington-area DJ who eventually met a premature career death due to his fondness for racist jokes.)

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