NEW YORK - Al Sharpton, surrounded by a phalanx of microphones and cameras, stood on 52nd Street, just off Sixth Avenue. It was 6:05 p.m Thursday. The temperature felt more November than April. The backdrop of CBS’ corporate headquarters, known as Black Rock, made it feel colder.
But not as cold as the timing of CBS boss Leslie Moonves’ decision to fire Don Imus. Moonves delivered Imus’ cowboy hat to Sharpton on a silver platter. Delivered it only hours after Imus was raising funds for WFAN’s Radiothon, which benefits kids of all races, colors and creeds.
Moonves had a blocking back here - Steve Capus, president of NBC News, who provided the opening by dumping MSNBC’s simulcast of the “Imus in the Morning Show” Wednesday night on the eve of FAN’s Radiothon.
That evening, Capus came off as a tortured soul, but also played the media - and anyone else watching - for fools, saying the exodus of advertisers, in the wake of Imus referring to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed ho’s,” was not the primary reason for getting rid of him.
Even if you think Imus deserved to have the book thrown at him, it could have waited until after the Radiothon, which ended Friday morning. The timing of Moonves’ and Capus’ decisions hurt the kids who benefit from the charities more than it hurt Imus.
Of course, Imus’ racist/sexist line hurt the Rutgers women as well. Yet, throughout this controversy, the corporate cowardice and ineptness pretty much matched the way Imus bungled his defense in the wake of his comments.
NBC suits’ initial reaction was to condemn Imus’ words, but blame WFAN, which produces the radiocast. At CBS, there was an initial condemnation, but - like MSNBC - no punitive action.
If either Capus or Moonves was really offended by Imus’ “nappy-headed ho’s” line, utterly appalled and concerned about the impact, they would have - at the least - immediately suspended him. This would have been the righteous thing to do. It also would have defused the controversy.
Instead, the wound was left open, giving critics - and Imus - time to pour more salt in it. All of Imus’ I’m-a good-guy lines came off as nothing more than a weak some-of-my-best-friends-are-black defense. Every time Imus opened his mouth, he provided more ammunition for those calling for his ouster.
Imus was operating in uncharted territory. Through all the years, when he got in hot water for racist or homophobic or anti-Semitic or misogynistic comments, he would simply turn on the charm, say he was doing a “comedy” show, apologize and promise never to do it again.
“Then, the parachute always opened for Don,” a radio industry executive said. “This time it didn’t.”
The crash resulted from Imus’ warped characterization, and pressure from Sharpton and groups like the National Association of Black Journalists. It also came because of the economics of Imus. Every advertising dollar he brought to WFAN and MSNBC was important, but Imus was not the earner he used to be.
His ratings have been headed south for quite a while now. He brought in about $13 million to $15 million in annual advertising revenue, a figure matched by FAN’s “Mike and the Mad Dog” afternoon drive-time show. The fact that Imus was syndicated in 70 markets is far less impressive because they are, with the exception of Boston and New York, small markets.
Imus had become solely an image draw. His ability to attract A-list guests from the world of media and politics gave his show an exclusive cachet, sustaining his career despite his shrinking audience. When the economics were measured against potential damage to the “image” of CBS and NBC, it became an easy decision to pull the plug.
The past few days, Imus, and some of his supporters, expressed anger over people who did not stay loyal. People who bailed on Imus when the heat was turned up. This line was funnier than any of Imus’ bits. The media types and politicians who appear on his show are loyal to their own self-interest. Of course, this applies to the suits at MSNBC and CBS, who once genuflected in Imus’ direction.
Imus would refer to the lot of them as “transparent phonies.” Did he really think any of them would come to his defense when their corporate butts were in a sling? After all, Imus was not above hammering a freshly fired executive. Loyalty? It does not exist in this business.
The suits and Imus know this. They all deserve each other.