The tidal wave of outrage that had already cost Don Imus his TV show swept him off the airwaves altogether Thursday, eight days after the radio pundit used a racial slur to describe the Rutgers University women’s basketball team.
CBS president Leslie Moonves announced that the network was immediately canceling “Imus in the Morning.” The show, which originated from New York, is heard on 61 radio stations around the country.
CBS had said Tuesday it would suspend Imus for two weeks, but delayed the suspension so Imus could host a two-day on-air Radiothon for charity Thursday and Friday. But as public ire continued to build and advertisers began to bail, the network decided to pull the plug early, despite Imus’ repeated apologies. The fundraiser will go on as planned with sidekick Charles McCord and Imus’ wife, Deirdre, hosting Friday.
A CBS spokesman declined to say whether the network was buying out Imus’ contract. Imus, 66, was paid a reported $8 million a year under a recently renewed five-year CBS contract. His deal with MSNBC was estimated at an additional $2 million a year.
Imus referred to the Scarlet Knights as “nappy-headed hos” during his broadcast on April 4, the day after Rutgers lost to Tennessee in the NCAA championship game.
In the same segment, his executive producer Bernard McGuirk referred to the championship games as “the Jigaboos vs. Wannabes.”
Imus met Thursday night with Rutgers coaches and players at the governor’s mansion near Princeton, N.J., to apologize, according to MSNBC.
Before the meeting, Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer, who had resisted calling for Imus’ firing, said in a phone call from her home in New Jersey: “I don’t know anyone who wants to see someone else’s life disrupted like this. We shouldn’t gloat.”
Both CBS and MSNBC, which announced Wednesday that it was dropping its cable simulcast of the show, had been under pressure from advertisers, African-American leaders and women’s groups.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said it was “interesting that (the firing) happened as late as it did. It should have happened the moment they were aware the statement had been made.”
Jamieson wondered why mainstream journalists and politicians have continued to make appearances on a program that “almost has ritualized ridicule as a subtext.”
Moonves told CBS employees in an internal memo that the decision to fire Imus was made “after a period of thought, discussion, listening to you, and the pursuit of due process in this painful matter.”
“From the outset, I believe all of us have been deeply upset and revulsed by the statements that were made on our air about the young women who represented Rutgers University in the NCAA women’s basketball championship with such class, energy and talent,” Moonves said in announcing the decision. He also offered an apology to Stringer and the Rutgers squad.
Moonves said in his announcement that CBS “wanted to take the time necessary to listen to the many diverse voices that were raised on this issue. In so doing, we have been trying, as best as is possible in such a complex and emotional environment, to determine what is, indeed, the right thing to do. I believe that in taking this action, we are doing the right thing.”
A CBS spokesman said the “Mike and Mad Dog” show would assume Imus’ slot for two weeks starting Monday.
Imus had been syndicated since 1993 by Westwood One, CBS’s syndication division, which paid many stations to air it.
Westwood One, the nation’s largest radio syndicator, has a stable of other talk shows, including “Don & Mike,” “Jim Bohannon,” “Bill O’Reilly” and “Larry King.”
Imus, who has been fired at least twice in his nearly 40 years on the air, is no stranger to controversy. The crusty broadcaster, who usually affected a cowboy hat, battled alcohol and drug problems earlier in his career.
Radio insiders suggested Thursday that his career was not over.
“He’ll go the way of (Howard) Stern - satellite radio,” said Philadelphia talk-show host, Michael Smerconish, who replaced Imus in the morning 3 ½ years ago on CBS-owned WPHT (1210). “If he wants to work, he will find work. You are not dead until you are really dead.”
But Tracey G. Riese, president of T.G. Riese and Associates, a branding and public relations firm in New York City, wasn’t so sure about an Imus comeback. “This was a terrible mistake that you almost cannot recover from,” she said in a phone interview Thursday night.
“The best thing Imus could have done would have been to apologize immediately to the team and the listeners after uttering the offensive words,” Riese said. “He should have said, `I can’t believe what I just heard come out of my mouth.’”
“There’s a big double standard going on out there,” said Joel Denver, president of the radio trade publication All Access, adding that “people sing about worse things on the radio.” In the days leading up to his firing, Imus frequently tried to defend his offensive language by pointing out that it is common in the hip-hop community.
Smerconish - who has made the rounds of talk shows this week defending Imus, while calling the remarks “stupid, deplorable and despicable” - termed the firing “a mistake. It’s a capital sentence for what wasn’t a capital crime. ... I believe the public flogging and humiliation and a two-week suspension was appropriate punishment.”
The turmoil over Imus was the biggest thing to happen in radio in years, said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, an industry magazine.
“Imus is a guy who said the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time, at precisely the moment the African-American community said `Enough of these racial stereotypes.’”
Harrison’s judgment of Imus? “He’s not a racist. He’s a 66-year-old guy who was trying to be hip.”
(Philadelphia Inquirer correspondents Claire Smith and Gail Shister contributed to this report.)