I am a First Amendment absolutist. I believe the five rights contained within the amendment -- the rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion to redress grievances against the government -- are the core freedoms that make democracy possible.
So my response to the Don Imus affair -- by now, a forgotten blip on the national media radar -- may be a bit surprising.
Imus was fired by his corporate sponsors at CBS radio and the MSNBC cable network after a public backlash against ugly comments he made in early April about the Rutgers' women's basketball team. The comments -- I won't repeat them -- were broadcast the day after the team lost to Tennessee in the women's championship game, lighting a slow-burning fuse that eventually erupted into a massive media firestorm that featured cameos by the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and ended with his firing.
Initially, I struggled with the Imus controversy, trying to balance my discomfort with the notion that anyone, even someone like Imus who regularly spouts garbage, might be denied a forum for their views with my outrage at his cheap use of racial and misogynistic slurs to garner a cheap laugh.
The conclusion I've drawn is that this was not, as some have attempted to characterize it, a case of censorship. The government isn't shutting down speech. Nor is it a case of corporate censorship, which I'd define as the powerful shutting down critics. Think of the cancellation of Bill Maher's show in 2001 because he pricked the sensibilities of the Bush administration by characterizing the 9/11 terrorists differently than the president and his minions liked. The Maher incident was driven by an administration who told Americans they had to watch what they said.
The Imus incident, however, grew from a different seed.
CBS and NBC (MSNBC's parent company) were reacting to the larger community. It was a case of repugnant speech being met with more speech, it was the bigot being shouted down and ultimately chased from his pulpit. It was the powerful -- a morning radio host earning a reported $10 million a year, a host who has been rubbing shoulders with presidential candidates and other power-brokers, a host who has made his reputation primarily by shocking for shock's sake and belittling the powerless in the process -- being held to account for tangling with the wrong bunch.
Let's be honest about this. Imus was not fired for what he said -- if that were the case, he would have been fired a long time ago -- but because of the response. He wasn't fired because Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton spoke up, but because a large cross-section of the black community did, because women did, because they and so many others made it plain that the kind of denigrating language that Imus made a regular part of his very tired act was no longer acceptable.
That's another way in which it differs from Bill Maher's firing by ABC in 2001. There was no grassroots groundswell -- on either side of the issue -- just a conservative media firestorm. Maher was left to hang for what was a rather innocuous comment at a time when deviating from the patriotic party line was unacceptable.
And let's be clear about something else. Imus has not been silenced (Bill Maher wasn't). There are other potential outlets -- Web-based radio, satellite radio, other pay services, print -- for his brand of shock and guffaw.
So Imus is gone. The question is what will his firing mean in the long run? Will it signal a narrowing of public discourse, a victory for the PC crowd? I don't think so. This is not the banning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because of its use of the N-word. This was a radio host trafficking in ugly stereotypes in an effort to generate cheap laughs being met by a public so angry at his gratuitous attack that it turned a historical hierarchy on its head (rich white man v. black women) and punished the host. This was, as I said, speech being met with speech.
I'm hopeful that this signals a growing awareness that people like Imus -- and Howard Stern and so-called political commentators like Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage -- add nothing to the discourse and, in fact, do nothing more than poison the atmosphere.
My hope is that more and more people will challenge these hate-mongers with more and better speech, that the audiences will shrivel and the hosts will find themselves battling a well-deserved irrelevancy.
Now that would be the First Amendment in action.
Hank Kalet is a poet and the managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. See his blog, Channel Surfing, at www.kaletblog.com.
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