BROOKE GLADSTONE: Every morning Don Imus reaches hundreds of thousands of listeners on 90 stations. He is simulcast on MS-NBC. In one part of his show, Imus hosts high brow discussions of politics and culture with America's media elite. In the other part he revels in sex and potty jokes and routinely offends, blacks, gays and women.
MAN: Matter of fact both teams played most of the game like a polio-stricken bitches last night! [LAUGHTER] Matter of fact the Knicks got booed more in their own house than Rosie O'Donnell in a live sex show, I understand. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Taken all together, the I-Man is a gold-plated paradox. He is a tastemaker completely lacking in taste. Back in May of last year, something remarkable happened on Imus in the Morning. Clarence Page, the Washington columnist for the Chicago Tribune and a regular guest on the classy part of the show asked Imus to take a pledge.
CLARENCE PAGE: Are you raising your hand, right?
DON IMUS: I have it up.
CLARENCE PAGE: Okay. Okay, number one -- I, Don Imus--
DON IMUS: I, Don Imus--
CLARENCE PAGE: -- do solemnly swear--
DON IMUS: Do solemnly swear--
CLARENCE PAGE: -- that I will promise to cease all simian references black athletes--
DON IMUS: That I will promise to cease all simian references to back--black athletes--
CLARENCE PAGE: -- a ban on all references to non-criminal blacks as thugs, pimps, muggers and Colt 45 drinkers--
DON IMUS: I promise to do that.
CLARENCE PAGE: Very good! How about an end to Amos 'n Andy cuts, comparison of New York City to Mogadishu, and all parodies of black voices unless they are done by a black person, cause you're really not very good at it.
DON IMUS: I think Bernard should be doing this. [LAUGHS] [LAUGHTER]
CLARENCE PAGE: Bernard where are you?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The pledge was inevitably and immediately broken. But for Page, that wasn't the point. The point was to make his position clear. He liked being on the serious part of Imus in the Morning, but he didn't want his presence to imply endorsement of the outrages committed in the other part.
CLARENCE PAGE: I personally feel that I and other pundits should not go on if we have serious objections to some of the show's material unless Don does give us the opportunity to address those concerns, as he did with me! Now why I haven't been invited on the show since, I don't know! [LAUGHS] I haven't troubled myself to call and ask.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:No, Page hasn't been invited back. He no longer, at least for the time being, stands with his peers, Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Jeff Greenfield, Cokie Roberts and Mike Wallace and Frank Rich and all the other stars in the journalistic firmament who regularly talk to the I-man.
PHILIP NOBILE: It appears that Don Imus owns the media establishment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: PHILIP Nobile is a man with a mission. With a nod to the relentless police inspector in Les Miserables, he calls himself Don Imus's Javert. He seeks not only to capture Imus --he conceived the pledge administered by Page -- but to indict the pundits who make Imus respectable.
PHILIP NOBILE: The journalists who are members of Don Imus's entourage obviously have too much at stake to join me in calling Imus on his vicious bigotry. They sell their books. They announce their project. They play the Imus game.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They appear on a program that makes fun of Janet Reno's Parkinson's disease and refers to Oprah Winfrey as a fat, flatulent cow -- and it doesn't seem to bother them.
FRANK RICH: The reason I go on his show is very -- very simple.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Frank Rich is a New York Times columnist and a regular on Imus in the Morning.
FRANK RICH: It's the only show I know of in commercial broadcasting that I've been on where you can actually talk in an informed way -- not in sound bites -- about the issue of the day with someone with whom you can match wits and who really knows his stuff. For the space when he's talking to a journalist or, or a politician or, or an author, you know, it plays to me like Terry Gross, quite frankly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If the serious parts are Terry Gross, then the satire, according to Rich, is closer to Alfred E. Neuman.
FRANK RICH: It plays as-- sometimes juvenile speech at the level of say, Mad Magazine or Paul Krasner's [sp?] The Realist which is what it aspires to and hits and misses. I don't feel by appearing on the show that I'm endorsing the worst offenders, but also I feel in the context of entertainment to me it plays -- in context, in the show -- it doesn't play as hate speech.
MAN: [SINGING] LICK ON A LADY TONIGHT LICK ON A LADY TONIGHT
MAN: The wanton lust of an attorney general for a secretary who provided human services.
MAN: [SINGING] LITTLE DITTY ABOUT JANET AND DONNA--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Earlier this summer one of Imus's second bananas, Sid Rosenberg, made a joke in shockingly bad taste about tennis players Serena and Venus Williams. Imus fired him. And then promptly re-hired him. He explained that back in the bad old days of his own drug and alcohol abuse, people gave him about 50 second chances. Imus is all about forgiveness. But he admitted in an interview with Mike Wallace a few years back that he hired his staff to make racist jokes.
MIKE WALLACE: You told Tom ANDERSON, the producer, in your car coming home that Bernard McGuirk is there to do "nigger" jokes.
DON IMUS: Well I've n-- I never use that word.
MIKE WALLACE: Tom?
TOM ANDERSON: I'm right here.
DON IMUS: Did I use that word?
TOM ANDERSON: I recall you using that word.
DON IMUS: Oh, okay, well then I used that word, but I mean-- of course that was an off the record conversation-- [LAUGHTER]
MIKE WALLACE: The hell it was!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It drives PHILIP Nobile to distraction that Imus can admit to using that word on 60 Minutes and Larry King's show and suffer no consequences.
PHILIP NOBILE: You can never under-estimate the lack of intellectual honesty of America's media establishment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The media establishment might counter with the charge that Nobile under-estimates Don Imus. It's not just Imus's audience that's so appealing; it's Imus's attitude -- liberating to both the beer before breakfast set and the political elite. This bad boy has a big tent. Mike Wallace.
MAN: There's a lot, lot more to Imus than sophomoric and bigoted talk. A lot more! As I said, he reads, he thinks, he has an audience in Washington - I know - of all manner of -- I hate to use the word important people but, but in effect they are people in the establishment there - and-- they listen! It's a kind of club, in effect. It's early morning shaving in the mirror, taking your mind off your troubles talk. What you're doing when you listen to that kind of thing or go on -- you're not going after votes!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What are you going after?
MAN: Public recognition of a sort. That's the world we live in Miss Gladstone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And especially the public recognition of his elusive audiences of sportsminded men. Nobody with the exception of Nobile seems to want to carry the flag on the Imus issue. Hardly anyone would speak to us, including Imus.
Mr. Wallace says that the I-Man has an extraordinarily thin skin. He's very lucky then to be surrounded by such a thick phalanx of powerful friends.
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers; engineered by Scott Strickland and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Sean Landis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large; Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. [THEME MUSIC UP & UNDER] This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.