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Back in the day, Don Imus’s radio show was local flavor on the New YorkCity-arearadiodial.Itsappealwasan acquiredtaste,oneofthose programs where you could eavesdrop on what seems like personal conversation. It was that you’re-one-of-the-bunch, a part of the incrowd , atmosphere: listen to the I-Man talk to his friends, and you became one of the friends. There’s a great appetite in the culture to make the private public, and it was, and continues to be, a market niche in the media: see, that’s what they really think, and really say and do to each other. Of course, what happened to Imus recently, the proper battering he has been taking for his racist remarks about the players on the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, shows that the private made public isn’t always a winning strategy. What one would say in the locker room, or the local saloon, won’t necessarily play well on the national stage. Globalization gets all the press, but there has been a similar nationalization over the last three decades. Local brands have become national ones, and not just coffee and clothes; nativist media figures, products of regional cultures, have gone coast to coast. Because of the web, every local paper is a national one today. Imus on MSNBC is a far cryfromthenaughtyfrat-boyaddictswhomadeuphisearlyaudiences. Imus 136 137 The promise of cable TV is that every particular audience will be supplied with whatever weird subculture fodder they require. Imus made a similar news splash in 1996, but it wasn’t racist, just irreverent. At the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner that presidential campaign year, he delivered biting commentary on the Clintons, to the amusement of all present except for the First Lady and the President. That served as the whole nation’s introduction to Don Imus. On the Tuesday before Imus’s denigrating comments about the Rutgers players, I happened to be on the New Jersey Turnpike, driving with my son on a spring break college tour. The electronic boards suspended over the turnpike used for traffic messages had only one: GORUTGERS!!Itwascute.Rutgersisthestateuniversity;thechampionship game was that night. Imus’s offensive remarks followed the next day. Of course, if one wantstodiscussracism,itwasImus’sIrish-Americansidekick,Bernard McGuirk, who introduced the subject, first calling the women “hos.” White boys using that term is cringe-making all by itself. How the Irish immigrants became white in this country was by name-calling and worse bigotry, and McGuirk carried on the tradition. Stereotypes abound, and a lot of folk fall into such sinkholes daily, including me. But, Imus’s offensive comments illustrate an aspect of Americans’ long struggle with free speech and expression. One of the last Supreme Court cases on the subject, Barnes v. Glen Theatre, had similar elements . The offensive behavior in that case was not racist, denigrating remarks, but nudity, or nude dancing. The Rehnquist court, in 1991, did not grant nude dancing First Amendment protection as “speech.” Why? Well, in the briefest of shorthand, the nude dancing at hand didn’t contain enough “ideas” to protect it as expression, and the five- 138 to-four Rehnquist court decision also denounced nude dancing’s ancillary effects, along with the need to protect societal order and morality. Had Imus, after making his purported “fun” of the Rutgers team, actually said something about the exploitative nature of big-time collegesports ,howathletesarebroughtintouniversitiesfortheirskillson hardwood and football fields, the abysmally low graduation rates for so many highly-ranked sports teams at elite institutions, where black athletes are used to win games for largely white schools, he wouldn’t be abjectly apologizing and off the air. ButImusdidn’t discussanything.Whathesaidwasjustmean,demeaning ,devoidofideasandbigoted,eventhoughsomuchofhisaudience doubtless had, or would say, the same thing, except they wouldn’t say it to the world on MSNBC. First appeared as “Acquired Tastelessness: Don Imus’ Fall” in NUVO, vol. 18, no. 8, April 18–25, 2007; © 2007 NUVO, Inc. ...


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