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Under pressure, CBS drops Imus' program

The Baltimore Sun

After days of mounting pressure from civil rights advocates, advertisers and the public, CBS Radio fired Don Imus from his nationally syndicated radio show yesterday.

Imus' ouster came a day after his dismissal from MSNBC, which had simulcast three hours of Imus' 4 1/2 -hour show. It originated from CBS' flagship WFAN in New York and was beamed to some 70 radio stations via the network's Westwood One arm.

The rapidly unfolding developments in the Imus saga were driven by increasing outrage over his April 4 reference to the Rutgers University women's basketball players as "nappy-headed hos," a term embedded with pejorative racial and sexual undertones. Although the remark passed largely unnoticed for a couple of days, it was sufficiently disseminated by the weekend to prompt indignation across the country.

"From the outset, I believe all of us have been deeply upset ... by the statements that were made on our air about the young women who represented Rutgers University in the NCAA Women's Basketball Championship with such class, energy and talent," Leslie Moonves, CBS' president and CEO, said yesterday.

Moonves acknowledged that his decision was driven by the many people who had urged CBS to cancel the Imus show, despite the radio host's public apologies.

"Those who have spoken with us the last few days represent people of goodwill from all segments of our society - all races, economic groups, men and women alike," said Moonves, whose radio network and its affiliates stand to lose more than $40 million annually in advertising and syndication revenue with Imus gone from its airwaves.

"There has been much discussion of the effect language like this has on our young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this society," Moonves said. "That consideration has weighed most heavily on our minds as we made our decision."

On Wednesday, after MSNBC announced it would end its relationship with Imus, CBS said it would take a wait-and-see approach.

What it saw was troubling. Advertisers, including Sprint Nextel, Procter & Gamble Co., Ditech.com, General Motors and American Express Co., began to drop out. So did some guests, including Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Newsweek reporters Jonathan Alter, Howard Fineman and Michael Isikoff.

The Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse L. Jackson met yesterday with Moonves to push for Imus' removal and threatened to hold a rally tomorrow outside CBS headquarters in New York to drive home their point.

They didn't have to. The news that the 66-year-old radio host was to go came in the middle of a broadcast charity drive, through which Imus has raised more than $40 million since 1990.

"This may be our last radiothon, so we need to raise about $100 million," Imus said, presciently, at the start of the event. The broadcast had raised more than $1.3 million before Imus learned he had lost his job.

Since making the remarks, Imus has apologized on his talk show and has repeated the apology on other shows, including an emotionally charged exchange with Sharpton on his radio show. "This is what the public clearly has demanded," Donna Brazile, an African-American political strategist and the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute, said on CNN's Situation Room minutes after news of CBS' move broke in late afternoon.

"What a tremendous victory for the guys and gals in the white hats," said Richard Prince, who writes about minority issues for the Web site of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, which promotes diversity in newsrooms.

Prince, who immediately posted the news on the Maynard site, said that while the outcome of the controversy was positive, more needed to be done in the arena of public racism.

"The conversation this is starting is heartening," said Prince, who pointed out that the National Association of Black Journalists had called for Imus to be fired. "How coarse is coarse enough in our culture? What about those shock jocks and rappers and the people who enable them? And finally, what about all those journalists and others who have been making excuses for Imus and looking the other way all these years?"

Imus, who has long attracted a high-profile roster of guests, including politicians, journalists and authors, was initially given a two-week suspension that was to have started on Monday. But after the 10 members of the predominantly black Rutgers team appeared at a news conference in Piscataway, N.J., this week and showed the nation how deeply they had been offended, calls for Imus to be fired increased in volume and frequency.

The team met with Imus for about three hours at the governor's mansion in Princeton, N.J., last night. The players had earlier agreed to meet with him to hear his explanation and apology personally, and Imus seemed to hold out hope that the meeting would redeem him in the eyes of his critics. Imus left without comment, and the team did not immediately issue a statement.

Speaking about the firing, the general president of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, which has fought for black citizens' civil rights since its founding in 1906 and whose alumni include the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and Duke Ellington, said, "This serves notice to those who have the trust of the public airwaves that it is time for right-thinking and decent people to uplift the cultural morays of our country."

"I'm not a censor, but we ought to be more discreet about what we allow to go over the public airwaves," Darryl R. Matthews said. "The pendulum has swung as wide as America is willing to allow it to go."

David Brock, president of Media Matters for America, a watchdog group, said in a statement: "I applaud CBS for listening to reason and cancelling Imus in the Morning. Viewers and listeners sent the clear message that they would no longer tolerate bigotry on America's airwaves."

Rhoda Weiss, chairwoman of the 32,000-member Public Relations Society of America, rejected Imus' defense that he was an equal-opportunity offender who spread his barbs across races and genders.

"His reality differs from that of others, particularly those who have been on the lifelong receiving end of diminishing messages," Weiss said yesterday. "In this day and age, you can't make demeaning remarks about other human beings."

Not everyone supported Imus' firing. Shawn Wasson, a radio host in West Palm Beach, Fla., wrote in an e-mail that, while not a fan of Imus', he was "ashamed as an American that the freedom of speech only protects speech we all deem unoffensive."

"Nothing has been solved here except a 30-plus-year broadcast veteran has been stripped of not one but two jobs in a 48-hour window."


The Associated Press and The New York Times contributed to this article.

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