Newsweek: Imus Flap Shows Media 'In White Hands' Still Enables, Tolerates Racism

April 16th, 2007 3:56 PM

Newsweek’s cover story on Don Imus this week carried a confessional tone, offering penance from Newsweek bigwigs for enabling the I-Man due to their hunger to be a part of the "in crowd." Weston Kosova’s story lectured about how the Imus incident compares to Hurricane Katrina and the O.J. Simpson verdict in showing "media power is still concentrated largely in white hands and, as a result, racism is sometimes tolerated and enabled in ways that many white Americans are unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge."

Newsweek is also contrite this week its coverage of the wildly mishandled Duke lacrosse rape allegations, but they offered no broad Big Picture moral about how that shows a media too willing to believe in racism in every legal case. In fact, the story  has a strange subheadline, with the notion of "innocence" in quotes, as in you shouldn't quite believe it, and it prides itself that all the injustice done to the three accused white boys wasn't just a nightmare: "It was also maturing."

The money quote -- or the news magazine's outbreak in liberal editorializing -- came a few paragraphs in, as Kosova insisted:

The remark and its aftermath brought renewed attention to a perennial fissure in American life: the starkly different ways in which blacks and whites can see the world. (The Imus saga now joins the O. J. Simpson verdict and Hurricane Katrina as vivid chapters in the story of race in America.) Thirty-nine years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis, racism remains a central issue in our national life. The story of Imus's long career sheds light on an uncomfortable fact: media power is still concentrated largely in white hands and, as a result, racism is sometimes tolerated and enabled in ways that many white Americans are unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge.

Kosova continued that Imus might have been spared in another time, but now we’re in the era of Obama and Hillary, when diversity is king and bullies are out of favor:

A crucial lesson of Imus's fall, however, is that power is a fluid thing. In earlier eras he would almost certainly have withstood the storm, but 2007 is a different time. A woman and a black man are the front runners for the Democratic presidential nomination. The country is growing ever more diverse. This is not Dr. King's promised land, but it is a changing land—a truth Don Imus, and his court, just learned in the hardest way possible, as the grace and dignity of female scholar-athletes toppled one of the media powerhouses of the age.

The story on "What Really Happened That Night At Duke" explores the feelings of horror the three accused players and their families went through, but also highlighted how they were still guilty of distastefully hiring strippers and being unhappy they weren't white girls. That might explain the quote marks around the "innocence" part:

They spent a year accused of kidnapping, assault and rape. Now, though, the three Duke lacrosse players were told they were 'innocent.'

Susannah Meadows and Evan Thomas even congratulate themselves that all this injustice has made the white boys more mature:

For many months, they had lived in an alternate universe. There was the "reality" that endlessly replayed on cable TV: that some loutish, vicious, pampered jocks had raped an exotic dancer. Then there was the tawdry but mundane truth: that some foolish and crude college boys had hired two strippers and reaped nothing but shame. For young men accustomed to success, the feeling of helplessness, of powerlessness, was lonely and isolating. It was also maturing.

So who does Newsweek award the credit for knocking Imus off his powerful perch? Kosova hailed the leftists at Media Matters for their role in getting the anti-Imus bandwagon rolling – "a liberal group whose sole purpose is rooting out and ‘correcting conservative misinformation in the media.’" So Don Imus is a conservative, according to Newsweek? Or racial slurs define you as a conservative? But the liberal media watchdog apparently helped convince two liberal networks that they were letting down their fellow liberals, with liberal employees melting the ears of their bosses:

Young black journalists were among the first to demand that Imus be ousted. Thursday evening, one day after Imus's comments, Jemele Hill, an ESPN reporter, posted the Media Matters link on the National Association of Black Journalists' e-mail list. Greg Lee, a Boston Globe reporter, spotted it right away. "I couldn't believe Imus would pick on people he had no right to pick on," he says. Lee forwarded the story to other online forums. In a matter of hours, black journalists in newsrooms across the country were clicking on it, and getting angry. The next day the NABJ demanded an apology from Imus, then called for him to be fired.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the article were the breast-beating confessions from Newsweek's Howard Fineman and Evan Thomas and other media bigwigs that they had tolerated Imus and his attempts at humor: 

– "I wanted to be where the action was on my beat," says NEWSWEEK's Howard Fineman, an Imus regular. "The show, however unsavory it could be, was one of those places. I thought, or perhaps only imagined, that being on the show gave me more clout on the beat."

– NEWSWEEK's Evan Thomas, another regular guest on the show, sometimes wondered if Imus went too far. "But I rationalized my appearances by pointing to other prominent journalists and politicians who did it, too," he says. "I was eager to sell books, and I liked being in the in crowd."

– He occasionally accused me of being drunk or being queer," says NBC chief White House correspondent David Gregory, a frequent guest on the show. "Imus was living in two worlds. There was the risqué, sexually offensive, sometimes racially offensive, satire, and then there was this political salon about politics and books. Some of us tuned in to one part and tuned out the other ... Whether I was numb to the humor that offended people or in denial, I don't know."

– He once called Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz, a regular on the show, a "boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jew boy." Kurtz considered it part of the game. "I wasn't thrilled, but I just shrugged it off as Imus's insult shtik," says Kurtz, who has said that Imus helped make one of his books a best seller. "I don't believe for a second that he doesn't like Jewish people." Like the coolest bully on the playground, the outlaw kid others wanted to be seen with, Imus made his guests feel honored to be insulted by him. He tempered the abuse with just enough ego-stroking flattery to keep them coming back for more.

Kosova balanced the piece a tiny bit with some quotes from the Imus camp, and this note that Imus could skewer the powerful pretty effectively with facts, not just insults:

Imus may have come off as your deranged, half-addled uncle (he kicked booze and drugs years ago), but he also came to the microphone each morning carefully prepared for battle. He read more books and newspapers than most of his guests and was a formidable interrogator who could cut the powerful down to size. On a recent show, Imus badgered Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, a frequent guest, about the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed hospital. Schumer tried to go for the high-and-mighty approach, castigating Republicans for failing the troops. Imus pounced. When was the last time Schumer visited the troops at Walter Reed? Deflated, Schumer haltingly admitted he hadn't been there in years.