- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2007

As she faced the world’s television cameras to respond to a gross insult by radio and television showman Don Imus, a member of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team spoke volumes with one sentence: “I’m not a ho,” she said in the team’s first news conference after the incident that history may remember as the Don Imus “nappy-headed hos” eruption. “I’m a woman and … I’m somebody’s child.”

Indeed, she is. So are the rest of the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers. Anybody who would make them out to be anything else should be ashamed. Unfortunately, shame is in short supply in the field of shock radio.

Just before the Easter weekend, Mr. Imus apparently thought he could get away with a brief apology at the beginning of his program for referring to the team as “nappy-headed hos” while chattering on-air with his producer. But by Monday the controversy percolated up to the boiling point. Civil rights activists called for him to be fired. He was apologizing all day long, including on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s syndicated radio program. By day’s end, Mr. Imus’ employers CBS Radio and MSNBC suspended him for two weeks. Then MSNBC dropped the show yesterday.

The Imus controversy was not a big surprise to me, although the punishment was. Back in 2001, I led Mr. Imus in an on-air pledge in which he promised to avoid humor that relied on inflammatory racial or gender stereotypes, including “simian references to black athletes” and other abuses of which he had been accused.

I had been part of his stable of journalists and commentators for more than five years. We were invited to offer political views on the show, just like various politicians and other newsmakers. He took the pledge and we continued with our usual interview. Interestingly, I have not been invited back in the years since.

He has done well enough without me. For more than three decades Mr. Imus has been one of America’s most popular radio personalities by combining some of the shock jock elements of a Howard Stern, for example, with the irreverent political sense of, say, a Bill O’Reilly.

But when you dance along the edge, you run the risk of slipping over. What made the backlash from the Rutgers statement more serious than his previous dust-ups? First, it was such an obvious cheap shot. The rich and famous like Paris Hilton or Whitney Houston might be fair game, but why pick on a group of college women basketball players? Second, it was a slow holiday news weekend, which only brought additional attention, spurred by insatiable 24-hour news cycles. And third, I have a theory based on the impact of bloggers, YouTube and other Internet-era phenomena that all types of mass anger have new ways to grow farther, faster and hotter than ever.

The result, after years of surviving controversies that have cost other shock jocks their jobs or at least a month’s pay or more, Mr. Imus and those who profit from his talents finally feel a pinch in their pocketbooks and their reputations.

Now in full damage-control mode, his cleverest move may have been to go immediately to the confessional that the Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show has become for racial transgressors. What could make Mr. Imus look more sympathetic than to be berated for an hour or more by a man widely despised by Mr. Imus’ core audience of mostly white males.

And the ironies don’t end there. After all, if Mr. Imus offended blacks by using words like “ho” and “nappy head,” today’s black popular culture gave him the vocabulary. He used words that would have been bleeped off the air by most hip-hop radio stations.

Nonetheless, I understand those who ask whether it is fair to condemn Mr. Imus for using language that gets a pass when black rappers use it. Actually, I have condemned the demeaning language of rap. So have Rev. Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and innumerable other black commentators. Still, their protests are not enough. We must condemn the language of hate most passionately, not only when others direct it against us but also when we direct it against ourselves.

If anything good came out of this episode, it is the opportunity it gave us to see the women of Rutgers’ basketball team. In contrast to the negative images of raunchy radio, they showed the world grace, intelligence, determination and dignity. They have given their best to the world. They deserve better than what Don Imus sent back to them.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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