Imus in the Twilight
How the DJ found his niche—and lost it.
Editor's note: This piece originally published Thursday afternoon, April 12, just before CBS announced it was canceling Imus' show. It was subsequently updated to reflect the news.
As a classic Pinot-swilling liberal snob, the Dilettante didn't find Imus funny but had always been comforted by the thought that, as he listened, the ether was making him a strange bedfellow with people who do. And that conversely, someone who found fart-knocker jokes hilarious was being forced to listen to Doris Kearns Goodwin talk about Lincoln. My affection for the man went deeper. The very same year that WNBC introduced Imus and Stern with a media blitz, Gannett introduced USA Today, a national daily intended as a colorful alternative to the old dullard standbys, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—if by "colorful" you meant "insipid" or "timid" or "pandering." ("This is the only paper in the country," said Homer Simpson, immortally, "that is not afraid to tell the truth: that everything is just fine.") It's no accident that these two phenomena—talk radio and the lifestyling of the news—are coeval. The mediasphere sells you a maddeningly sanitized product with one hand then allows you harmless release with sophomoric japery with the other. It was Imus who, instead of offering a purely puerile alternative to the developing language of pseudo-speak pioneered by USA Today and now favored by politicians, celebrities, and upper-echelon Washington journalists, decided to take on pseudo-speak itself.
As an enemy of pseudo-speaking, of the scripted and the canned, Imus made his career, among other things, by being a racially ambiguous figure. From his speech patterns, which borrow liberally from the great American religion whose deacons include Billy Sunday and Wolfman Jack and Howlin' Wolf, to his love of white blues, he played the cracker who has more in common with the Negro across the tracks than with the Man. As the media critic Susan Douglas has put it in a particularly astute essay on talk radio, "For many of his listeners, Imus turns the tables on money, power, and entitlement"; his show is a place "where polite people in prestigious and influential jobs have to 'suck up' as Imus puts it, to a man who breaks all the rules of bourgeois, upper-middle-class decorum." Here, of course, is how he slipped into troubled waters. To understand his comment, that the Rutgers women's basketball team were "nappy-headed hos," you have to see it in its many dimensions. The comment was witless and dehumanizing, an insult not only to these players but to African-Americans, women, women athletes, and any permutation of the above. But it was not said principally to that effect. It was said on the (false) premise that being "politically correct" is still a cornerstone of "bourgeois, upper-middle-class decorum," and is still a dominant mind-set in the culture at large. Imus was exploiting a cynical confusion, a common one on the AM dial. In talk radio, the P.C. bogey is kept on life support, the better to allow the heaping of abuse on the marginal and disenfranchised to pass itself off as speaking truth to power.
How has this confusion been allowed to perpetuate itself so successfully? Absent a Dear Leader to organize our daily reality, most of us operate within the soft authoritarian embrace of a mostly free society. If we're lucky, we live in homes that are largely under our own dominion. To pay for them, we go to work in places governed by other people's rules. In between is "drive time." Drive time is what the media industry calls the morning commute, during which millions of Americans are captive to their car radios for entertainment. It acts as a kind of aural way station between your living room and the Man. You get the news and scores, mixed in with lowbrow knavery. Drive time is a textbook example of what the anthropologist Victor Turner called the "liminoid"—a crossroads where identity is shifting, and normal rules don't apply. You're in your car, an extension of your home that thrusts you into the public space; you're listening to AM radio, once a dominant medium, now, in the age of FM, podcast, and satellite, a kind of wilderness; and you're tuned to the I-man. Who is this guy? Is he Davey or Goliath? Is he bully or outcast? Is he on the inside, or the outside? Against these ambiguities, drive time has become dark, as its marginal players, its Opies and Anthonys, struggle to establish ever more anti-social bona fides.
His head now on the platter, let's do the I-man some justice. He was both a racial demagogue and white Negro in the age of soft authoritarianism. He ought to have been shit-canned. And he will be missed.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Photograph of Don Imus and the Rev. Al Sharpton on Slate's home page by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.