Sunday, April 15, 2007

Burning Imus:

I've got a tough piece to write here, because my wife and daughter strongly disagree with me. Please withhold judgment while I try to make my point.

The question in the Imus vs. Rutgers case is whether a person on the radio should be able to make an abominably stupid remark, make a heartfelt apology, and move on. In this case the answer is no, he has to be severely punished. This case will have a chilling effect on radio, TV, newspaper reporting and entertainment venues in general. We'll all lose because of the pablum we're getting when people are more afraid to make a tough remark and lose their jobs.

The good news about the Imus case is that everybody in the public eye now knows better than to say the exact three words that Imus said. The bad news is that no one knows what kind of shocking remark, or nasty witticism, or general comment it IS safe to make and keep your job. You may find that statement hard to believe, in which case I refer you to Randy Kennedy's opinion piece in the NY Times, april 15: Hey, that's (not) Funny. In this piece, he tries to explain what Imus did that was unacceptable, and it turns out that this isn't easy. In particular, Les Moonves, who congratulated the empire he works for, for sending a message by getting hard on Imus, works for a glass house empire. The same conglomerate also produces South Park, a thing created by two white guys whose program wallows in (acceptable!?) racial slurs.

Kennedy concludes that Imus's problem is trying to be serious. His show has serious commentary, serious guests. When he becomes a shock jock for a moment, people are confused. (I know YOU'RE not confused, and I'M not confused; but “people” are confused.) If you like this distinction, please note that it's the OPPOSITE of an established reason for deciding a first amendment case. (The Imus case is NOT a first amendment case, he works for a skittish business.) In the law, an utterance is protected if it has redeeming social merit. If Imus were a shock jock all the time, he would have practically no social merit, and his utterance would have less legal protection; but the way Randy Kennedy works it out, he has less protection BECAUSE he has social merit. I'm sure every TV reporter will easily understand how to apply this reasoning.

Please try to imagine yourself a radio or TV host, trying to avoid getting fired the way Imus was for anything you say on your program. Do you know exactly what to avoid? No. Do you know how to play it safe? Yes. Or sort of.


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