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
And no, I don’t have any answers either.
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 www.paulrapp.com. Comments about this article
can be posted at rapponthis .blogspot.com.