More than a decade before Don Imus was booted from CBS Radio in April 2007 for calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hoes,” he took a jab at Gwen Ifill, who worked as a New York Times White House correspondent in the ‘90s. “Isn’t the Times wonderful,” Imus said on his radio show. “It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.”
A right-wing shock jock who delighted in bucking the so-called political correctness of a perceived power-class of wealthy snobs, Imus had made his name by spewing slurs and insults at women, Jews, and people of color for years. His proud bigotry was no secret, yet respected, reasonable white journalists and authors regularly filed into his studio to promote their books and run through their talking points. This was a part of Imus’ shtick, not unlike Donald Trump’s use of reporters as “elite”-seeming props at his rallies.
“For many of his listeners, Imus turns the tables on money, power, and entitlement,” media critic Susan Douglas wrote. On Imus’ show, “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.” Sound familiar?
Ifill, who died of cancer on Monday at age 61, was a journalist who refused to play Imus’ game. When Imus directed his racist and misogynist rhetoric at a group of young black women, Ifill wrote an op-ed for the Times that questioned the ethics of reporters who supported Imus’ platform for degradation. “Why do my journalistic colleagues appear on Mr. Imus’ show?” she wrote. “That’s for them to defend and others to argue about. I certainly don’t know any black journalists who will.”
She expanded her argument on Meet the Press a few days later, delivering a sharp critique of her fellow panelists who’d joined Imus on his show. “There’s been radio silence from a lot of people who’ve done this program who could have spoken up and said, ‘I find this offensive’ or ‘I didn’t know.’ These people didn’t speak up,” Ifill said. Then she addressed host Tim Russert and guest David Brooks: “Tim, we didn’t hear that much from you. David, we didn’t hear from you.”
Ifill continued with a rebuke of mean-spirited punching-down disguised as anti-P.C. activism, enabled by bystanders who look the other way or go along with it for their own gains:
What was missing in this debate was someone saying, “you know, I understand that this is offensive.” You know, I have a 7-year-old goddaughter. Yesterday she went out shopping with her mom for high-top basketball shoes so she can play basketball. The offense, the slur that Imus directed at me happened more than 10 years ago. I like to think in 10 years from now, that Asia isn’t going to be deciding that she wants to get recruited for the college basketball team or be a tennis pro or go to medical school and that she’s still vulnerable to those kinds of casual slurs and insults that I got 10 years ago, and that people will say, “I didn’t know,” or people will say, “I wasn’t listening.”
A lot of people did know and a lot of people were listening and they just decided it was okay. They decided this culture of meanness was fine, until they got caught. My concern about Mr. Imus and a lot of people and a lot of the debate in this society is not that people are sorry that they say these things. They’re sorry that someone catches them. When Don Imus [called me a cleaning lady], when I found out about it, his producer called and said Don wants to apologize. Well, now he says he never said it. What was he apologizing for? He was apologizing for getting caught, not apologizing for having said it in the first place.
Today’s journalists should take note of Ifill’s honest, impassioned puncturing of casual right-wing racism, because America needs it now more than ever. Ifill didn’t wring her hands about whether she was telling Imus’ side of the story with as much gusto as her defense of the Rutgers women. She didn’t fall into the trap of false balance that has characterized so much mainstream media coverage of Trump’s rise to power. “I don’t believe in objectivity,” Ifill once said. “I believe in fairness.” Ifill’s work was a bold example of fairness in the face of unfairness, a model of responsible journalism that resists the temptation to laugh off a hateful jester in a position of power.