NEW YORK - Don Imus tried Monday to put out the firestorm of criticism that’s been raging ever since he insulted the Rutgers women’s basketball team by calling them “nappy-headed hos.”
But he just threw more fuel on the flames.
By nightfall, Imus’ reign as the cantankerous prince of political radio was in peril after CBS Radio ordered his radio show suspended for two weeks starting Monday - and MSNBC also put the show’s simulcast on ice.
The Rev. Al Sharpton said that wasn’t good enough.
“What he did was a public, racist act,” he said. “He should be fired.”
Imus was slapped with the suspension after a testy, two-hour exchange on Sharpton’s radio show during which Imus managed to infuriate his host, antagonize African-American listeners and undermine his attempts to paint himself as “a good man who did a bad thing.”
Visibly frustrated that Sharpton would not back off his demand that he resign for his remarks, Imus put his foot in his mouth several times in his futile fight for forgiveness.
“I can’t get anyplace with you people,” he said at one point.
“What do you mean by you people,” Sharpton barked back.
When the interview was over, Imus stalked off without having won redemption - or even a handshake - from Sharpton.
“I think he made it worse,” Sharpton said before CBS and MSNBC lowered the boom on Imus.
Imus and Sharpton will tangle again when they appear on the “Today” show. He will also find out Tuesday whether his request to personally apologize to the Rutgers players will be granted.
Aja Ellington, the mother of Rutgers center Kia Vaughn, said Imus “can keep his apology” and wants him fired.
“I agree with Al Sharpton,” she said. “His apology really proves nothing.”
Imus, who offered his first apology on Friday two days after making the crack, began his own show Monday with another mea culpa.
“Here’s what I’ve learned: that you can’t make fun of everybody, because some people don’t deserve it,” he said.
Imus also touted his involvement with the Imus Ranch in New Mexico, where at least a tenth of the kids with cancer and blood disorders are black. “I’m not a white man who doesn’t know any African-Americans,” he said.
But when Imus tried to make that same point with Sharpton, he was immediately shot down.
“This is not about whether you’re a good man,” he said. “What you said was racist.”
Then Sharpton asked his daughter Dominique to come over and - while she glared at Imus - he said, “She’s not a nappy-headed ho. She’s my daughter.”
Imus tried to change the subject. “Why isn’t there that kind of outrage in the black community when rappers” demean black women?
Sharpton would not be deterred. And he made Imus squirm in his seat when he asked the radio jock what he was thinking when he made the comments.
“At the time I said it, I didn’t think it was racial,” Imus said. “I wasn’t even thinking racial. I was thinking `West Side Story.’ ... One team is tough. One team is not so tough.”
Sharpton told Imus that not firing him would set a bad precedent and that he should not be allowed to “walk away from this unscathed.”
“Unscathed?” Imus said. “Are you crazy? How am I unscathed by this? Don’t you think I’m humiliated?”
The longer the interview lasted, the testier it became, prompting Imus at one point to object, “I didn’t come here to get slapped around.”
There was no small talk between the two men during the commercial breaks. While Sharpton walked away to get some air, Imus sat and could be heard muttering under his breath.
Others weighed in on the dispute, including Democrat presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama who called Imus’ comments “offensive to Americans of all backgrounds.”
“With a public platform, comes a trust. As far as I’m concerned, he violated that trust,” Obama said.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson led a demonstration outside the Chicago headquarters of NBC, which owns MSNBC, shouting, “Imus must go.”
But industry experts said it’s unlikely CBS Radio will cancel Imus’ influential show, which has long been a favorite stop for big-time politicians, pundits and reporters.
“If I had to put down a bet, I’d say he’ll survive,” said Tom Taylor, editor of the trade sheet Inside Radio. “But there will be consequences.”
(New York Daily News correspondents Richard Huff, Marisa Guthrie and Ebenezer Samuel contributed to this report.)