Don't think twice: Media inured to subtler smears, pervasive sexism
Now that MSNBC and CBS Radio have both dropped Don Imus, and the Rutgers basketball team has accepted his apology, Imus himself is no longer the most interesting thing about the controversy he touched off with his racist and sexist comments about the team -- if he ever was, that is.
One of the more interesting aspects of the controversy is whether (and why) Imus' guests -- some of the most influential and respected journalists and public figures in America among them -- have, by their appearances on his show, tacitly endorsed his behavior. Time.com Washington editor Ana Marie Cox, a frequent Imus guest, explained this week how she came to overlook the "casual locker-room misogyny" of Imus' show:
As the invites kept coming, I found myself succumbing to the clubhouse mentality that Imus both inspires and cultivates. Sure, I cringed at his and his crew's race-baiting (the Ray Nagin impersonations, the Obama jokes) and at the casual locker-room misogyny (Hillary Clinton's a "bitch," CNN news anchor Paula Zahn is a "wrinkled old prune"), but I told myself that going on the show meant something beyond inflating my precious ego. I wasn't alone. As Frank Rich noted a few years ago, "It's the only show ... that I've been on where you can actually talk in an informed way -- not in sound bites." Yeah, what he said!
My giving up the show, I acknowledge, is too little and too late. I doubt that I'll be missed. It's depressingly easy to find female journalists who will tolerate or ignore bigotry if it means getting into the boys' club someday. (If only I were the only one.)
To her credit, Cox announced she would no longer appear on Imus' show, writing, "I'm embarrassed to admit that it took Imus' saying something so devastatingly crass to make me realize that there just was no reason beyond ego to play along."
One quibble with Cox's account: As she surely knows, it's depressingly easy to find male journalists who tolerate or ignore bigotry, too.
Imus' comments, though shocking and unusually blunt, are also a reminder that bigoted and hurtful commentary is all too common in even the most reputable mass media outlets.
The reference to "bigoted and hurtful commentary," rather than to "bigots," is intentional. As Geoffrey Nunberg has explained, it is the commentary itself, not the speaker, that matters:
Imus's beliefs and character are completely irrelevant here. When a white person calls somebody a nigger or describes a women's basketball team as nappy-headed hos, he or she has committed a racist act. As with redskin, the words trail their own sordid history behind them, and their power to hurt is independent of the intentions of the person who utters them. And my own view is that the broadcast media should have a zero-tolerance approach to this kind of language -- "use an epithet, you're out of here." To do anything less is to implicitly sanction a racist act.
And, like Imus, other media figures have a long history of comments that any reasonable person would understand carry the "power to hurt," as Media Matters has detailed:
- CNN Headline News host Glenn Beck, also a "regular commentator" for ABC's Good Morning America, has called Hillary Clinton "the stereotypical bitch" and Rosie O'Donnell a "fat witch" with "blubber ... just pouring out of her eyes." He has referred to Katrina survivors as "scumbags" and declared that "I didn't think I could hate victims faster than the 9-11 victims." He has also said on-air that he was "thinking about killing Michael Moore" and told the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, "what I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.' "
- Syndicated radio host Neal Boortz has claimed that "at its core," Islam is a "violent, violent religion," and said, "[T]his Muhammad guy is just a phony rag-picker." Boortz asserted that "[i]t is perfectly legitimate, perhaps even praiseworthy, to recognize Islam as a religion of vicious, violent, bloodthirsty cretins." Boortz also described then-Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA), who is African American, as looking "like a ghetto slut," like "an explosion at a Brillo pad factory," like "Tina Turner peeing on an electric fence," and like "a shih tzu."
- Bill O'Reilly told a Jewish caller to his radio show "if you are really offended, you gotta go to Israel." O'Reilly routinely makes sexually suggestive comments about his radio co-host, Lis Wiehl, including his suggestion that she might want to learn to become a stripper, to which he added, "You're a good-looking girl. I mean, if you haven't seen Lis on TV, she's a good-looking blonde."
- Michael Savage, who lost his own MSNBC show after he told a caller he hoped he would "get AIDS and die," recently called Barbara Walters a "double-talking slut" and said of Melissa Etheridge, "I don't like a woman married to a woman. It makes me want to puke." He also told listeners that gay people "threaten your very survival" and said that the "average prostitute" is "more reliable and more honest than most U.S. senators wearing a dress."
- And Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter ... well, they are Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. If they aren't insulting women or minorities, they're probably asleep.
Limbaugh, Coulter, Savage, Boortz, and others regularly make bigoted comments not unlike those that cost Don Imus his job. And those comments, regardless of their intent, carry the power to hurt, as Nunberg explained -- and lack any redeeming value to offset the pain they can cause.
But these statements not only insult and hurt those they directly and indirectly smear. They also make other troubling comments seem tame by comparison, to the point that most people don't even blink when mainstream journalists make casual, offhand comments with deeply sexist or racist implications.
With Rush Limbaugh ranting about "femi-Nazis" and Don Imus calling people "hos" and Ann Coulter calling people "faggots," few speak out when three separate CNN reporters -- including Emmy Award winners Wolf Blitzer and Tom Foreman -- describe the first woman to serve as speaker of the House of Representatives by referring to the Girls Gone Wild video series.
Or when Chris Matthews compares Hillary Clinton to a stripper and refers to her as an "uppity" woman. Or when he says she looks "witchy." Or when he regularly asserts that "Midwest guys" are "not up to modern women as president" -- an assertion which, given his other comments about Clinton, one can only assume is a classic case of projection.
Or when countless mainstream journalists dismissively refer to John Edwards as the "Breck Girl." Forget for a moment the propriety of journalists' repeating GOP talking points in order to derisively describe a Democratic presidential candidate. What do these journalists imply about women when they use "girl" as a pejorative description?
And when the likes of Limbaugh and Imus have used words like "bitch" and "femi-Nazi" so much that mainstream journalists -- male and female -- consider it perfectly acceptable to use the word "girl" as an insult, who even notices more subtle problems, like Charlie Gibson asking Hillary Clinton if she "would ... be in this position were it not for your husband?" A perfectly reasonable question -- except that it's a question that could just as easily be asked of, say, John McCain, whose path to Congress (and, thus, a presidential run) was paved by his marriage to a wealthy and politically connected woman. It's a question that could just as easily be asked of McCain -- but it isn't.
And then there's the matter of who the media turn to for interviews, analysis, and commentary. As Adele Stan has noted at Tapped this week, even as cable news programs have devoted extensive coverage to Imus' racist and sexist comments, they have often done so without the benefit of women among their panelists. Stan described the panels MSNBC hosted to discuss their decision to dump Imus:
[F]or the rest of the night, MSNBC show hosts discussed the channel's decision with panel after panel of experts, populated, with one exception, entirely by men. (Thank goodness that Joe Scarborough likes to fight with Salon.com's indomitable Joan Walsh or, out of a total of about a dozen commentators, there would have been no women featured on Imus segments of the cable channel's three major evening shows: "Hardball," "Countdown," and "Scarborough Country.") And while the producers did a pretty good job maintaining a racial mix on the panels, they apparently couldn't find a single African-American woman to comment on Imus's firing -- despite the fact that, just miles from MSNBC headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey, New Jersey NOW staged a rally that was led by African-American leaders in the women's movement. Until more women hold major positions of behind-the-scenes power in mainstream media, things will likely remain as they are: a bunch of guys debating whether or not another guy who verbally assaulted a group of women in a sexualized manner deserves to be fired for having done so.
(Full disclosure: Stan previously worked for Media Matters for America.)
In the midst of a torrent of comments about "femi-Nazis" and "bitches" and "hos," these more subtle problems are rarely even noticed, and even more rarely discussed among the media elite and those who appear on their shows.
And that may be the most damaging effect of the kind of commentary that we routinely hear from the likes of Imus and Limbaugh and Coulter: Rhetoric that should be unacceptable becomes merely outrageous; that which should be outrageous becomes merely controversial; and that which should be controversial is barely noticed, if at all.
That's why we at Media Matters hope the Imus incident prompts the nation's media -- both individual journalists and the organizations that employ them -- to consider whether they can and should be more responsible in their role as stewards of the national discourse.
Not just Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage and the people who enable them. Charlie Gibson and Wolf Blitzer and Maureen Dowd (one of the foremost practitioners of the "Breck Girl" insult) and the bookers and producers who assemble woman-free panels to discuss sexist comments and countless others who, intentionally or otherwise, write and say things that, in ways large and small, have the power to hurt.
As Media Matters president and CEO David Brock said in response to Imus' firing: "It is our hope that this incident will begin a broader conversation about the responsibility that news corporations, journalists, and media figures have to the American public. This is an opportunity for the media to truly raise the bar to a higher standard and return to the fundamentals of journalism."