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A talk powerhouse is shut down

The firing of Don Imus by CBS brings an abrupt end to a radio forum that attracted media and political heavies.

April 13, 2007|Robin Abcarian and Meg James | Times Staff Writers

It took Don Imus decades to get to the pinnacle of the radio world, and about a second to utter the five syllables that would ruin him.

After an eight-day media drumbeat and unrelenting pressure from activists, advertisers, a member of CBS Corp.'s own board of directors and its staff, CBS Corp. announced on Thursday afternoon that the "Imus in the Morning" radio program would cease to be broadcast "effective immediately, on a permanent basis." His MSNBC TV simulcast was canceled the day before.

The firing came after a 75-minute meeting Thursday at CBS' headquarters in New York, nicknamed "Black Rock." Civil rights and feminist leaders urged CBS President and Chief Executive Leslie Moonves and four of his executives to take a stand against Imus' sexist and racist comments.

At one point during the meeting -- which was described variously as "very pleasant," "emotional" and "tense and confrontational" -- Moonves was asked whether he or his lieutenants had daughters. Yes, Moonves answered, he has a daughter in college.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Don Imus: An article in Section A on Friday about CBS firing talk-show host Don Imus concluded by quoting remarks Imus made Thursday night on the "Conway & Whitman" show on Los Angeles radio station KLSX-FM (97.1). The comments were not made by Imus but by the program's co-host, Brian Whitman, who was doing an impression of Imus. Imus was not a guest on the program.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was at the meeting, said network executives were also asked, "What are your standards? Is referring to women as 'hos' or to Hillary Clinton as a 'bitch' or saying Venus Williams should be in National Geographic, is this your standard? And if it is, you should declare that, and if not, you have a decision to make."

And when would Moonves make that decision?

"Soon," he replied.

Three hours later, the controversy that began April 4 when Imus called the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos" had culminated with the decision to end Imus' CBS radio career. In an e-mail to CBS employees announcing the firing, Moonves reflected on how the controversy had ballooned beyond Imus and cast a spotlight on demeaning speech in general.

"One thing is for certain: This is about a lot more than Imus," the e-mail read in part. "As has been widely pointed out, Imus has been visited by presidents, senators, important authors and journalists from across the political spectrum. He has flourished in a culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people. In taking him off the air, I believe we take an important and necessary step not just in solving a unique problem, but in changing that culture."

For Imus, 66, it was an abrupt and unexpected end to a career that was beyond successful by any standard.

His was a powerhouse radio show, generating millions of dollars in revenue, reaching nearly 3 million listeners, and in the process turning him into a very rich man. On the air almost every day for several hours, Imus displayed a dual personality -- one minute he could be a foul-mouthed crank dishing insults and the next an erudite student of history, asking politicians tough questions about their stances. He referred to Arabs as "rag heads" and took Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to task for supporting the Iraq war.

Imus always survived his scrapes with the taste police after making offensive comments about Jews, gays, blacks and others. On talk radio, just about any verbal outrage can be forgiven as long as ratings, revenue and the boss' reputation aren't hurt. But this misstep was caught on TV, in the MSNBC simulcast of Imus' show, and in replays it gained a life of its own.

"Imus in the Morning" aired on about 70 stations -- in Southern California, on KCAA-AM 1050 in San Bernardino. It offered a platform for politicians, pundits and authors pushing books on serious subjects. Imus managed, despite his raunchy humor and puerile sensibility, to turn the show into a kind of clubhouse for the Washington/New York politico-media elite who were comfortable with the "I-Man" and did not criticize him for his outrageous conduct.

"He's dying for all our sins," said Talkers Magazine Editor and Publisher Michael Harrison, who did not think Imus should be fired.

Members of the group that met Thursday with CBS and NBC were pleased that Imus was off the air. Besides Jackson, the group included the Rev. Al Sharpton, National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy, Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), Marc H. Morial of the National Urban League, Hazel Dukes of the NAACP, the Rev. Charles Steele Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a Rutgers University psychologist and the father of a Rutgers basketball player.

Sharpton at one point cut off a CBS official who suggested that a meeting between Imus and the Rutgers players might be productive, Sharpton said.

"The girls can deal with personal forgiveness," Sharpton said he told the network executives. "But we can't put the burden on those girls of deciding standards and making policy for the media of America."

Gandy said the meeting was "very emotional at times."

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