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Unknown Unknowns


Unlike most weeks, this week I’m gonna talk about what everybody else has been talking about: Imus and Seung-Hui Cho.

Imus first. There was a time when I loved Don Imus. Rob Bartlett’s song parodies. Charles’ furtive straight-man routine, always trying to calm Imus down. Bernard’s constantly going over the line, only to be pulled back and dismissed by Imus. Mike Breen’s or Patrick McEnroe’s sports reporting. Breen, reporting on a World Cup soccer match once, announced blithely “Italy defeated France yesterday by a score of 2 to 1, in a contest that was much closer than the score would indicate.”

Then there was the skewering of public figures, usually grandly deserved. And some skewered themselves. During the O.J. trial, then-New York Sen. Alphonse D’Amato tried to be funny while a guest on the show, and affected a phony Asian accent while criticizing trial judge Lawrence Ito. Good night, Alphonse. Imus’ interviews with public and media figures—silly, cajoling, ribald and irreverent—were often the most revealing in all of journalism. There was no posturing, no sloganeering, no talking points allowed. To try to be anything but real at the altar of Imus was to risk being labeled, forevermore, as a “lying weasel” or a “two-faced phony” or even a “two-faced phony lying weasel.”

The show was smart and aware and an anecdote to the pee-pee-doo-doo banality of Howard Stern.

I stopped listening when I stopped commuting a couple of years ago. Even then, the show seemed to have lost something—maybe it was the dip that all humor took in the post-9/11 period; maybe it was Imus’ inexplicable coddling of Bush during the same period; maybe it was the too-frequent visits of the execrable Bo Dietl, the celebrity private-investigator/buffoon, who was never funny, and often just plain embarrassing.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Imus screwed up. What was supposed to happen, what normally happened, was that Bernard would make some shockingly rude remark (take your pick of sexist, racist, ageist, whatever) and Imus would break in and say dismissively, like a schoolmarm, “Bernard, that’s fine.” An overly polite way of saying shut up. Bernard would then continue with another remark, usually even more disgusting, and Imus would explode, this time telling Bernard for real to shut up, and branding him a “bald-headed stooge.” It was a time-tested ritualistic routine, and they had it down, and it worked.

But this didn’t happen this time. Instead of shutting him down, Imus merely parroted Bernard, actually enhanced the disgusting comment, endorsing it. Who knows why he did it? Maybe his mind was a couple steps in front of his mouth, maybe he was tired, maybe he’s getting old. It really doesn’t matter; he said it. When you walk on a speech tightrope like Imus, you’ve got to accept getting hurt when you fall off. There’s no net for that brand of speech.

I suspect Imus’ firing by CBS and MSNBC had much less to do with his bosses’ revulsion over what he said than the fact that advertisers were bolting in droves. The show was no longer going to be profitable, so he got the boot. I hope, after the requisite quiet period, Imus returns to broadcast radio, and doesn’t follow Stern to satellite. Stern went to satellite because he couldn’t do what he wanted on broadcast radio; this isn’t the case with Imus. Imus does what he wants on broadcast. And he screwed up.

As to the Seung-Hui Cho tragedy, there’s so much to ponder, from his troubling lack of meaningful mental-health care, to his easy access to guns, to the broadcast by NBC (and subsequently every other media outlet) of the strange videos and photos he mailed to NBC in the middle of his murderous spree. I’d hate to be a parent of a college kid right now.

What will happen, to be sure, is that eccentrics, especially those who gravitate toward the morose, are going to have a harder time than they already have now. I guess this is normal reaction from individuals, but I fear it will get institutionalized. Colleges, mortified over what happened in Virginia, will encourage students’ reporting on aberrant behavior by classmates, and follow up these reports with a hyperactive “counseling” program. Erring will be on the side of caution, and not on the side of leaving people alone.

The college years are a time to experiment, to be weird (often to one’s future embarrassment), to be rebellious, to figure out which boundaries work and which don’t. It would be a shame if one legacy of this awful, awful thing turns out to be the turning of students into rats in the pursuit of safety through enforced conformity.

And no, I don’t have any answers either.

—Paul C. Rapp

Paul Rapp is an intellectual-property lawyer with offices in Albany and Housatonic, Mass. He teaches art-and-entertainment law at Albany Law School, and regularly appears as part of the Copyright Forum on WAMC’s Vox Pop. Contact info can be found at Comments about this article can be posted at rapponthis

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