Shock jock has plentiful company in casting slurs

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CBS radio host Don Imus does not have a monopoly on racial slurs. Loose cannons are a fixture in broadcasting, though most survive to either slur again or re-emerge chastened and reinvented.

Gaffes have varying shelf lives.

In December, Rosie O’Donnell used a mock Asian-sounding language while co-hosting ABC’s “The View,” to describe world reaction to an episode of public drunkenness by actor Danny DeVito. Despite protests from the Asian-American Journalists Association and other ethnic groups, Miss O’Donnell continued to host even as she criticized fellow ABC personality Kelly Ripa for “homophobic behavior.”

It was not quite as easy for New Jersey shock jocks Craig Carton and Ray Rossi, who called Asian-Americans and Arab-Americans “fringe groups” and mimicked ethnic accents in 2005, infuriating more than 100 minority associations. The pair issued apologies and agreed to cultural-diversity training, and their station broadcast free promotional announcements for the offended groups. The two remain on the air.

It took Doug “the Greaseman” Tracht years to recover from a jarring comment he made in 1999 about a brutal black murder, prompting employer WARW-FM to fire the $1 million-a-year morning host almost immediately. Mr. Tracht repeatedly apologized, went silent for a spell, then eventually returned to the air on an AM station.

Whether a celebrity survives isolated or repeated forays into boorish behavior is a tricky business.

“We get tried in the court of law; celebrities get tried in the court of public opinion,” said Ronn Torossian of New York-based 5W Public Relations, a crisis-management firm that has handled assorted complications for entertainers Sean “Diddy” Combs, Lil’ Kim, Pamela Anderson and Snoop Dogg.

Mr. Imus should not have appeared Monday on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio program, he said.

“He should have chosen a softer audience, a more controlled environment, like a morning news show. That appearance was a mistake. Still, it’s really too early to tell if Imus will recover,” Mr. Torossian continued.

“Celebrities get away with things. Americans are very forgiving, and they have a fairly short attention span. So, stars apologize and go into rehab, or they apologize and go into sensitivity training and anger management. But none of it works unless the celebrity believes in the process,” he added.

“An apology issued with even a hint of insincerity, lacking in acceptance of responsibility and — worst of all — casting blame on other parties can do more harm than good,” agreed Rhoda Weiss, chief executive officer of the Public Relations Society of America.

Shock jocks, such as Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge, have left the public airwaves for unregulated satellite radio.

“Had the Federal Communications Commission been doing its job, the Imus incident might have been prevented because radio stations would have long ago curbed hard-core rap lyrics with sexual comments about African-American women that Imus was apparently imitating at least in part,” said Robert Peters of New York-based Morality in Media.

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