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“Don Imus in the Morning” was one of the most popular morning radio talk programs in the U.S., broadcasted by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) television on 70 radio channels. The program reached more than 3 million listeners and viewers daily. The fact that Imus did not fit neatly into a specific type of talk radio was part of his appeal. “Shock jocks” present their listeners with “Sexually explicit references, cultural and ethnic attacks, off –color listener telephone calls, and sexually based interviews and antics” (Hilliard & Keith 62).
Some of the offensive comments by Don Imus which raised concerns are “the cleaning lady” referring to the African American journalist Gwen Ifill and referring to Palestinians as “stinking animals”. However, serious talks including national and international politics are also part of the show. Many political and media personalities have appeared on the show including former and current presidential candidates, like Senator John McCain, Senator Joseph Lieberman, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John Kerry, Senator Barak Obama and Senator Chris Dodd.
On the morning of 4th April 2007, Don Imus and his colleagues were discussing the results of the National Collegiate Basketball Association (NCAA) women’ championship that had taken place in the preceding night between the Rutgers University Scarlet Nights and the University of Tennessee Wolverines. The conversation that took place between Imus and his executive producer described the Rutgers as some rough girls with tattoos. Imus went on to describe them as “nappy-headed hos” and McGuirk compared the two teams to the “jigaboos versus the wannabes” featured in Spike Lee’s film, School Daze. The exchange was apparently referring to the differing appearances of the two teams with “nappy headed hos” and to the hair borne by African American girls and describing the Tennessee girls as cute.
An outrage followed these comments with a score of people calling for Imus’ dismissal. The comments were referred to as “abominable”, “racist”, and “sexist” by Al Sharpton on his syndicated talk show, ‘Keeping it Real with Al Sharpton’ who called for Imus’ firing. Some felt that the issue was used to further divide America along with racial lines, while others argued that Imus had developed a pattern of using offensive comments. Chicago tribune columnist Clarence Page, an African American, had confronted Imus before on the characterization of some black athletes where Imus pledged to stop.
With the outrage over these comments, Don Imus was suspended. MSNBC also announced its decision not to simulcast the program on April 11, 2007, through the president of NNC news. This was effective immediately and on the same day, a few advertisers left Imus. In announcing the decision, the president described the comments as hurtful and unallowable on air. Several top ranking NBC African -American personalities including Senator Barak Obama (at the time presidential candidate) and other previous guests on the show also opposed the Imus’s return.
Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) radio cancelled Imus show as the outrage of his comments heightened. The CBS president, Leslie Moonves, termed the statements as deeply upsetting and a discouragement to developing young people. In announcing the decision, Moonves said that there had been much discussion on the effects of language on young peoples’, and especially young women’s’ of color who were working hard to make their way in the society. He further said that such consideration had weighed very heavily in their minds as they came to their decision.
In an internal memo, Moonves also cited employee concerns as a factor in the decision to cancel Imus’s show. He emphasized that it was necessary to take Imus off air in order to reverse a culture that allows the use of objectionable remarks “that hurts and demeans a wide range of people”. However, some criticized CBS as being too harsh in Cancelling Imus’s show and felt that a long suspension was appropriate to correct the mistake instead of total dismissal from airing a program on air. As this was happening, seven sponsors had either stopped their adverts or suspended advertising on the Imus Morning show-to-show discontent in his remarks-General Motors (Imus’s biggest advertiser), GlaxoSmithKline, Staples Inc., PetMeds, American Express, Sprint Nextel and Procter & Gamble.
Stringer’s pastor and former New Jersey Secretary of State, Buster Soaries, arranged a meeting between Imus and the team. Imus attended the meeting in spite of the fact that it took place just hours after the announcement of his firing. The team’s coach, Stringer, said that they had accepted Imus’s apologies and that she would be saddened by anyone loses their job. She also pointed out that the team’s discontent had not called for Imus to be sacked. Imus hired an attorney by May 2, 2007 to pursue a lawsuit on wrongful termination against CBS concerning the remaining $40 million on his contract of five years. Three months later, CBS announced a settlement with Imus on his contract. One of the Rutgers basketball players, Kia Vaughn, filed a suit against Don Imus, CBS Corporation, CBS Radio, MSNBC, NBC Universal, Viacom, Westwood One Radio and Bernard McGuirk on August 14, 2007, the same day the settlement on Imus contract was announced. She cited slander, defamation of character and libel. She was the only player among the women involved in the controversy to pursue legal damages caused by the controversy. She later dropped the suit on September 11, 2007 (Ifill 40).
Stakeholders in the Crisis
The Rutgers Women’s Basketball Team
Imus chose unfair target to direct his comments to the basketball team, especially after their outstanding efforts to continue to the basketball championships. The comments describing these women have been termed as unfair to them since they were only based on their appearance, not on their talent and abilities. Some of the team players expressed their outrage over Imus’ statements. Team Captain Essence Carson said Imus’ offensive remarks had “stolen a moment of pure grace from us”. Don Imus’ remarks were inappropriate and unacceptable and this feeling was created by the personalization of the victims (Brennan 73). Text articles from different papers around the nation mention the players concerning their term and or individual accomplishments and circumstances.
Many share the belief that in this instance, Imus’ choice of targets was unfair and that he went too far. Don Imus has a well-established history of inappropriate humor, but this situation was represented as different since the targets were considered to be “out of bounds”. Brennan says that the Rutgers women faced the “most withering media firestorms any athlete, male or female, pro or amateur will ever have to face”. Ifill continues to say that the team experienced the “biggest moments of their lives” turn into the “biggest disappointment”.
The situation also triggered an outrage from women in general. A score of journalists has termed the comments “sexist” in nature by referring to the basketball players as “hard core hos”. The concern and discussion regarding the treatment of minorities and women can be an indication of changing social values and may have contributed to Imus’ firing (Ifiil 23). The comments were inappropriate, and the broadening discussion resulting from the crisis has shifted its focus from Imus to the larger picture of intolerance in the society.
Many people saw the Rutgers incident as a foundation of the greater issue surrounding the treatment of women, and especially black women (Darnell and Wilson 444). However, the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times present the situation about as one that requires correction from inside the black community first. Articles in these papers point out the use of abusive rap lyrics as an example of the larger problem in the black community. This has also brought up criticism on national black leaders for not speaking out against rappers depiction of women “with the same vehemence that was directed toward Imus”.
Several sponsors of “Imus in the Morning” either pulled out or suspended advertising in the program to protest the remarks. Boggs and Dirmann (55) commented that “talk radio derives its lifeblood from advertising dollars” and this explains why both NBC and CBS decided to end their syndication of Imus show. Withdrawal of sponsors may not have directly influenced the decision to fire Imus, but it provides a clear image that helps to understand why Imus was fired as well as the existence of a public sphere on radio. Imus inconsistent nature is evident from his history of inappropriate humor as well as hosting serious discussions with journalists, politicians, authors and activists.
Public Sphere on the Radio
“Imus In the morning” has a history of sexist and racist remarks, with sponsors and advertisers seeming to support it. Imus contract with CBS contained a clause indicating that he was hired and supported to exhibit “irreverent” and “controversial” programming. The show even has someone designated to do “nigger jokes” creating an atmosphere where “listeners expect racist and sexist banter”. The outrage stemming from Don Imus’ comments was justified. His dismissal was the price he paid, though some media commentators have termed it as extremely harsh. Correcting the situation was necessary, particularly because the target group did not have the strength to fight back and this may have accelerated the effects (Darnell & Wilson 19).
However, the acceptance of demeaning hip hop lyrics has attracted criticism. A change in speech is necessary precursor to a change in attitudes, especially towards minorities. Focus should shift from only how whites treat Africans, to how the white majority treat minorities and what the African Americans must do among themselves (Ifill 54). Women and minorities are generally excluded from the public sphere of talk radio, an indication that they are not treated as equal participants in the discussion. Talk radio is not providing open access to debate, but rather it is used as a platform for masculine hegemony, where men use the airwaves to demean and degrade those seen as a threat to their superiority (Darnell & Wilson 86). Radio talks should instead give an opportunity for listeners to learn and contribute considering their ability to reach a large audience.
The management of CBS and that of MSNBC were forced to take action against Imus and save the image of their organizations. The rationale behind their actions was to retain their viewers and listeners, as well maintain sponsors for other programs. The Rutgers women’s basketball team was depicted as victims who deserved sympathy, thus making Imus statements appear more inappropriate. The team captain description of the team as composed of teenagers who were neither old enough nor established enough continues to illustrate the team as unfair target who deserve sympathy (Caroll and McCombs 86).
Theories of Organization Crisis
A crisis is a sudden and critical occurrence that can cause negative financial and reputational consequences to an organization if not properly handled (Dowling 37). Crises can result to financial, physical and emotional harm to stakeholders. A wide range of stakeholders including community members, customers, employees and stockholders are adversely affected by organizational crisis. Crises give the organization a bad image and threaten to damage an organization’s reputation. Shift of reputation from favorable to unfavorable changes how stakeholders interact with an organization. The organization may also lose the benefits it used to enjoy before the shift occurred. Furthermore, some stakeholders may sever ties with the organization as some sponsors did in the case of Don Imus.
Organizations are composed of bounded rational individuals who are continually met by different challenges such as missing information that can lead to crises, which can potentially lead to poor performance. All organizational activity arising from organizational decisions is based on the way information is gathered, processed and communicated by individuals (Dowling 63). Factors hindering proper processing of information lead to wrong decisions and therefore, less accurate decisions by the organization and as a result, poor performance. Lack of accurate decisions, especially in the crisis situations, can have devastating consequences.
Chaos theory is a field of study in mathematics, but is applied in several other disciplines such as philosophy, biology, economics and physics. The theory studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to original settings (Edward pp 130-141). This effect is generally referred to as the butterfly effect. In explaining the butterfly effect, a tiny change of the atmosphere is produced by the flapping of a single butterfly’s wings. The atmosphere diverges from what it would have been over a long period of time. In a month’s time, a tornado that would have occurred does not happen, or one that would not have occurred does (Ian 141).
Changes in initial conditions yield outcomes that are widely divergent, thus making predicting the long term outcomes impossible in general. This happens even though the future behavior of these systems is fully determined by the conditions existing initially, with other conditions remaining constant. This means that these systems are rendered unpredictable by their deterministic nature, a condition known as deterministic chaos or simply chaos (Edward, 130–141).
Sensitivity to initial conditions
Sensitivity to initial conditions means that altering current conditions may lead to significantly different behavior in the future. Small changes in the initial setting of a system trigger a chain of events that lead to large scale phenomena (Stephen 32). The outrage of Imus comments was a disruption of the initial conditions in his show. Directing his inappropriate comments to a team of young women resulted to chaos, the consequences of sensitivity to initial conditions (Kiel and Eliot 400). His remarks raised weighty issues bordering on a wide range of concerns, many of which were addressing what was and was not permissible to say on air, and more critically, by whom. Many viewed the controversy as the results of the deplorable state of discourse in the broadcast media, which is more pronounced in radio.
The controversy seemed to awaken the nation and many media observers on the lack of civility in public discourse. This phenomenon drastically changed the views of many people. Using “shock jocks” to explain inappropriate speech appeared as lack of civility in public discourse (Boggs & Dirmann 69). This situation is common in chaos theory, and is also referred to as sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Just a small change in the initial conditions can result in differences in the future behaviors of a system. As proposed in chaos theory, the popularity of “Imus in The Morning” was affected. Even after his return, some media commentators and political personalities who frequented attended the show before the controversies were conspicuously absent.
Calls to correct the national discourse prompted concerns about preserving free speech. This phenomenon can be explained well using butterfly effect in chaos theory. Removing Imus permanently from air was opposed by some people, though they agreed that use of racially prejudiced remarks in shock jocks was inappropriate. Michael Meyers, executive director of New York Civil Rights Coalition argued that space should be provided for dialogue and racial impoliteness on radio. He proposed that censors and activists should respond when shock jocks veer off the allowed limits, but should not be allowed to silence talkers altogether (Boggs & Dirmann 65). However, this view was countered by others who felt that free speech has responsibility. They also argued that it is freedom of speech that is protected, and not freedom of a radio show. Another point that was strongly emphasized was that crude and insulting speech should not be defended.
The debate of free speech and its limits, and when the speech turned offensive, though, is one that few on either side were interested in tackling. The issue on the content of rap songs is one of those that arose strongly in the wake of Imus’ remark. Imus was the first to point out that rap music and the hip hop culture surrounding it allowed the use of offensive language. He said that the phrases he used did not originate from the white community, but from the black community. He also went on to say that he knew that young black women all through the society are demeaned and disrespected by their own black men and are called by that name. He acknowledged that this did not give him or the black men any right to use the phrase.
Combining the phrase “nappy headed” and “hos” was widely viewed as derogatory when used in reference to blacks, explaining why the effects were so pronounced. As put forward by chaos theory, all systems have an underlying order through which they function. This explains why some observers felt that even the most popular rap artist could not get away by calling black women “nappy headed hos”. The word “ho” attracted great attention to Imus’ remark especially because its pervasiveness had made it familiar to many.
Though rap music and hip hop culture has its origin in black urban street in the 1970s, it had become a worldwide phenomenon by the end of the 20th century. By this time, music had generated billions of dollars and a culture force among youths in white as well as black communities. “Gangsta rap”, a strand of hip-hop, was seen as a glorification of “thug” culture and had long been viewed as controversial. Strong words were commonly used and its lyrics were liberally laced with words like “bitch” and “ho” and sexual or violent imagery was also common. Following Imus’ remarks, a number of commentators dug up some of these lyrics, some of which were printed incomplete and filled using dashes or asterisks to meet decency standards. Their argument was that the use of some of these words has been mainstreamed.
To some critics, the use of this phrase by Imus was a reflection of the assimilation of the hip-hop culture among the Americans. The argument of some observers, however, was that contemporary culture encouraged more relaxed attitudes toward social distinction that were previously taboo. According to Poniewozik, “racially and sexually edgy material is often –legitimately- considered brilliant comment, even art’. He further argued that young people often feel free to borrow cultural signifiers from one another. Comics or TV shows deal with racially charged materials, and the public does not call for the ouster of the involved parties. This situation becomes complicated and implies that people may not know what speech is transgressive, what satire is and what perfomative speech is, as in the case of rap music. David Remnick, hypothesized that Imus’ listeners perceived themselves as beyond such talk and thought those were beyond race jokes.
The feeling was that the remark may not have produced such a great stir had it been made by a “black disk jockey”. Butterfly effect can be used to explain this occurrence (Stephen and Kellert 32). Getting a white male like Imus making such a comment, and considering the weight of history and the weight of race in the country, the level of scrutiny was bound to change. Imus’ age and his race were also conspicuous aspects in this controversy. Though the mainstream white culture has appropriated the use of “ho” and other lingo from hip-hop music, critics argue that Imus was not the right person to indulge in that sort of cultural larceny. In addition, many rappers disagreed with the notion that Imus’ misguided appropriation could be compared to their use of provocative language. However, critics argued that while Imus had received his due, rappers using equally repugnant language that had escaped the kind of scrutiny he endured.
The responses of the “politico-media elite” to the controversy were varied. Most politicians who had appeared on Imus show condemned his language, but seemed ready to forgive. Media commentators and pundits were divided on his fate, though they generally agreed that the comments were inappropriate (Alexandra 2). The mainstream media and activists like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were criticized for remaining silent about racial epithets in rap music, yet they had been very vocal in the debate on Imus.
The Return of Imus
Acknowledging the use of demeaning remarks to describe the Rutgers University Women's Basketball Team was the first step for Imus to correct the damage that had been inflicted on the women’s emotions. Going on to further deliver an apology was also a positive step that reassured the team that efforts were being made to help them deal with the psychological stresses that accompanied the crisis. A very strong emotional appeal was created that could not be ignored by either the public or Imus syndicators (Caroll and McCombs 32). The fact that Imus held serious discussions in his show was very critical during the fallout from his remarks (Jacques 33). The positive reputation he had managed to build for himself before the controversy played a key role in rebuilding his credibility.
Imus was able to return on radio later in 2007. To help cushion racially insensitive remarks he might make on the air, Imus had to look for a black comedian to join the show. Along with Bernard McGuirk, two other African- American comedians, Karith Foster and Tony Powell were added. Critics and activists did not oppose the move, but said that they would monitor him and make sure that the previous occurrence would not happen again. The appearance of Jesse Jackson on “Imus in the Morning” on April 4, 2008 to discuss the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King went a long way to rebuild the program’s credibility (Jacques 33). At this point, many commentators felt that Don Imus rehabilitation was complete.
To help raise funds for sick and dying children, as well as to debunk the perception that Imus was a racist, Little Richard appeared as a guest on “The Imus Ranch Record” in 2008. Imus signed a contract with Fox Business Network in September 2008 to simulcast “Imus in the Morning” radio show. It is necessary to change the negative hip-hop culture, especially among black youth that is eating the society. The media should lift up the level of discourse and change talks about sexism, race, tolerance and diversity.It is ethically recommended that the psychological and physical needs of stakeholders be the priority in a crisis. In Don Imus and The Rutgers University Women's Basketball Team crisis, it was necessary to address the emotions and perceptions of women, especially because they were viewed as an unfair target of such remarks. The organizations would then address the issue of Imus’ employment in order to maintain the reputation of the organizations and the programs they air (Ifill 15).
There are numerous reasons why Don Imus was fired for his remarks, all surrounding the need to limit hurtful speech in order to promote equality within society. Although the decision to fire him may seem too harsh to some, the damage caused by his remarks cannot be underestimated. However, other forms of demeaning comments especially in hip hop lyrics should also be addressed. It is necessary to change the negative hip-hop culture, especially among black youth that is eating on the society. The media should lift up the level of discourse and change talks about sexism, race, tolerance and diversity. This crisis provided a base upon which other issues in the society similar to Imus’ could be addressed. Discrimination against minorities, African Americans as well as women should be highly discouraged in the society (Danell & Wilson 51).