The uproar over talk-radio host Don Imus' racially charged remarks about a women's basketball team prompted NBC News and CBS Radio yesterday to suspend Imus in the Morning for two weeks, starting Monday.
The action follows Imus' reference last week to members of the Rutgers University women's team as "nappy-headed hos." CBS, which oversees Imus' daily broadcasts to more than 70 radio stations, said yesterday, "We are disappointed by Imus' actions last week which we find completely inappropriate. We fully agree that a sincere apology was called for."
NBC News President Steve Capus said in a statement that his decision to suspend MSNBC's simulcasts "comes after careful consideration in the days since his racist, abhorrent comments were made." Capus acknowledged that Imus "has expressed profound regret and embarrassment and has made a commitment to listen to all of those who have raised legitimate expressions of outrage."
In addition, Capus noted Imus' promise to "change the discourse on his program," and said the network's "future relationship with Imus is contingent on his ability to live up to his word."
MSNBC announced that it would air the previously scheduled Imus broadcasts Thursday and Friday that benefit several charities.
Imus' remarks about the Rutgers players came during an on-air conversation Wednesday between him and his producer, Bernard McGurk, about the NCAA title game between Rutgers and Tennessee, which Rutgers lost.
Imus spent much of yesterday apologizing and fighting calls for his dismissal. His radio show, which reaches about 2.5 million people a week, originates from New York's WFAN-AM and is syndicated by Westwood One, both of which are managed by CBS Radio. The show is simulcast daily on MSNBC, where it reached an estimated 361,000 viewers in the first quarter of this year, up 39 percent from last year.
The imbroglio erupted when the habitually caustic Imus made the comment while discussing the NCAA women's basketball championship game; most of the Rutgers players are black. Imus apologized on Friday's program and again yesterday, amid mounting criticism.
Yesterday, he suggested that he and his producer had simply been "kidding around" but conceded that the times called for greater sensitivity.
"Here's what I've learned -- that you can't make fun of everybody, because some people don't deserve it," he said on his show. "Because the climate on this program has been what it's been for 30 years doesn't mean it's going to be what it's been for the next five years or whatever because that has to change, and I understand that."
He defended his integrity. "I'm not a bad person," he said. "I'm a good person, but I said a bad thing."
He also apologized on a syndicated program hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is among several black leaders demanding his removal. Imus told Sharpton that "our agenda is to be funny, and sometimes we go too far -- and this time we went way too far."
Sharpton told Imus that if the Federal Communications Commission could fine Janet Jackson over exposing her breast at a Super Bowl halftime, "How can we stand for something like this?"
"I don't think the issue is whether you're a good guy, but whether you can say something racist and sexist and it just be glossed over," Sharpton said.
"Don't think I'm not humiliated," Imus replied. The conversation became heated, with Imus saying, "I can't get anyplace with you people" and "I didn't come here to be slapped around."
Unmoved, Sharpton later appeared on CNN and told newsman Wolf Blitzer, "We want him fired."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson and about 50 people marched yesterday outside Chicago's NBC tower to protest Imus' comments. He said MSNBC should abandon Imus and hire more black pundits.
Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People board of directors, said it is "past time [Imus'] employers took him off the air."
Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said that for Imus to make a joke "in such an insensitive manner creates a wedge and makes light of these classy individuals, both as women and as women of color."
New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine spoke to Rutgers players yesterday and said later that he strongly condemned Imus' words. Rutgers players said they planned to make a public statement today.
Experts yesterday debated the societal standards regarding the use of racially sensitive terms.
Imus' remark is "probably particularly troubling to black women and those of us who love them," said Jabari Asim, author of the recently released book The N Word; Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why (Houghton Mifflin). He said the comment fostered "a pernicious stereotype that's haunted [African-Americans] throughout the history of this country."
The controversy highlighted the extent to which offensive pronouncements have inflamed public discourse lately, most notably in the cases of actors Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and Isaiah Washington, pundit Ann Coulter and former U.S. Sen. George Allen, all of whom expressed racist or bigoted beliefs and were widely castigated as a result.
Allen's use of the term "macaca" to describe a man of Indian descent likely contributed to the loss of his seat in the Senate, while Richards' frenzied rant at a Los Angeles nightclub, directed toward black hecklers, probably did irreparable damage to his career.
Who can say what
These incidents also raise the issue of terms that may be acceptable within a minority culture but almost certainly are not outside it.
For instance, Asim, an African-American who serves as deputy book editor at The Washington Post, does not believe that it is all right for black people to use racial epithets with each other. But he differentiates between casual conversation and intentional satire.
"I defend the right of Mark Twain or Chris Rock to say it, because they are clearly satirizing our own racial preoccupations and neuroses," Asim said. "Imus' remarks appear to capitalize on them rather than to expose their limitations."
William J. Drummond, an African-American and professor at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, also made a distinction.
"The use of a derogatory term within a subculture has always been sort of acceptable," he said. The N-word is "a term of endearment, of teasing, of criticism within the African-American culture, but when it comes from ... outside your cultural and racial group, then it becomes a fighting word."
Referring to the Imus debacle, Drummond said the "level of evolution of our racial sensibilities is surprisingly shallow, even after all these years of legislation and rhetoric."
Richard Prince, an African-American writer and editor who focuses on minority issues in his Journal-isms column on the Web site of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, said yesterday that not everyone "subscribes to the double standard" of allowing slurs within racial groups while rejecting them from outsiders.
"Many African-Americans," Prince said, "believe it's not OK for black people to use the N-word."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.