Monday, May 14, 2007

Bye-Bye, Mr. Imus

By now, everyone who has been within 50 feet of a television over the past month has heard the news about longtime radio personality Don Imus being fired after making a hurtful, racist remark about Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team. He paid a steep price for his actions, thanks in no small part to trashing a very classy group of young women at what should have been a special moment in their lives.

The Imus flap should have never, ever happened. But now that it did, perhaps some greater good can come from it, starting with what you and I watch and listen to every day.

Nearly a quarter century ago, the airwaves in major cities where I lived became increasingly dominated by “shock jocks” who built their reputations around a barrage of crude sexual, racial and ethnic jokes. As they made a career of dancing along the edge of the cliff, trying to push the boundaries of good taste, a few would inevitably fall off, often as a result of racial jibes similar to Imus’s. But for a far greater number of these people, their reward was fame and riches.

Fast forwarding to the present, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the airwaves are now dominated by rudeness and incivility, because it sells. We watch cable news hosts who berate and interrupt their guests, listen to radio personalities who make a career of chortling and demeaning everyone who disagrees with their narrow partisan viewpoints, and create bestselling authors from people whose sense of humor borders on hate speech. We eat it up, because it’s much more fun to watch a train wreck than the banality of positive human fellowship.

Most of us laugh, and cringe, and then laugh some more. And we keep watching, listening, and reading, because at some level they entertain us. But the darker issue is that they are also educating us. For example, if you look at the comments that people post on-line in public forums nowadays, this rude, dismissive view of people and their differences has become the new vox populi, and doesn’t show any sign of changing soon.

But now we have a real opportunity to change all of this. In the wake of the Imus affair, people are starting to pay more attention to how we treat our fellow human beings. There is a dialogue unfolding, even on some of the offending cable news shows, about what we can learn from a situation with such a clear and obvious bad guy. Perhaps most important, we learned that we all have real economic power to decide what stays on the air: Imus was ultimately fired because many of his advertisers abandoned ship, driven by pressure from people like you and me.

So let’s keep the momentum going. Stop seeking your entertainment from people who make a career of mocking and degrading other human beings. Start getting your news from objective sources. Hold advertisers accountable for the programs they sponsor. Then, perhaps someday, we can all thank Mr. Imus for galvanizing us to stop our media – and our society – from its current death spiral into partisanship and disrespect.