Over the past week, I have participated in several debates about Don Imus, and there were, naturally, two clear camps: those who believed his firing was the right reaction and those who believe that free speech was dealt a blow by MSNBC and CBS. Though I am a free speech zealot, I fall firmly into the former camp. The firing was proper and just.
First, nobody is denying Mr. Imus the right to say anything. He is not being muzzled — do you doubt that he’ll find another media outlet to host his program? In this day and age, Imus has more options than ever before to broadcast his show. His freedom to speak about what he wants, when he wants, how he wants remains untouched.
However, his freedom to speak on MSNBC and CBS has been cancelled. Choosing not to carry Imus was their right as well. In doing so, they sent a clear message of values to their customers. It is rather funny that after after two national elections that hinged on “values” voters that we’re seeing true expression of values…and major corporation are behind them.
What the broadcasters are telling their customers is quite clear: Imus’s words do not reflect the values of our companies. These two businesses believe that the image they present to their customers and employees was compromised by the presence of Imus. He has a history of crossing the line between funny and hatred — this time, his corporate backers said enough is enough.
I do not naively believe that straight-up values shifted corporate stances. It was clear that major advertisers decided that they did not want their products associated with Imus. This may be the first time that black consumer dollars were deemed more valuable by a swath of companies. Even the most insulated CEO in the highest corner office could tell that the black community was not mildly miffed — they were angry. Women, black and white, were angry. Having your brand associated with Imus was corporate suicide.
Still, MSNBC and CBS could have chosen to stand by their man. Finding sponsors could have happened. They could have restructured Imus’s deal and made it work. They chose not to go that route. Imus did not reflect the values that these businesses want to reflect.
The women who play basketball for Rutgers were innocent bystanders, not public figures who chose to be part of a debate — that is where Imus made his fatal error. They couldn’t rebut the comments, they couldn’t fight back. They were attacked for their appearance..and then Imus and his producer took their comments even further. These two men, in the interest of who knows what, destroyed the achievements of two teams: the Rutgers basketball team and the team that beat them. Do you know who won that game?
Their victory was obliterated by Imus — their accomplishments brushed aside because the Imus team couldn’t think before speaking. Didn’t realize that the words coming of their mouths were hateful and wrong. That they treated their words as a joke was as much a part of their downfall as anything.
This isn’t about the freedom of speech, this is about values. Don Imus can say what he wants, just as I can. Normally I take the stance that if I don’t like it, I can change the channel. All of us can — I believe that special interest groups often take offense where none can be perceived. But this was too much, even for me. The victims were attacked without provocation, without justification. These are not the values that MSNBC nor CBS wants to project to its constituency.
Though we do have to give Imus credit for one thing: he has reinvigorated the national discussion on race and misogynistic lyrics in rap songs. What was previously excused as fringe behavior is now being re-examined. I think it’s about time.