December 3, 2007

Back In The Saddle Again

Don Imus made his return to the airwaves this morning, diminished but mostly unbowed, on WABC in New York City. The radio cowboy returns to the saddle months after his termination for using racially-insensitive criticisms of the Rutgers' women's basketball team, after which CBS Radio and MS-NBC both dumped him. While he says he learned his lesson, Imus also promises that the show itself will not change:

Don Imus returned to the airwaves Monday eight months after he was fired for a racially charged remark about the Rutgers women's basketball team, introducing a new cast that included two black comedians.

As he did several times in the days after his comments, Imus condemned his remarks and said he had learned his lesson. ...

While Imus pledged to use his new show to talk about race relations, he added: "Other than that, not much has changed. Dick Cheney is still a war criminal, Hillary Clinton is still Satan and I'm back on the radio."

His return had been announced several weeks ago, and thus far has produced little protest. No one wants to defend his truly offensive remarks, but at the same time, a sense has coalesced that Imus got treated somewhat unfairly in their aftermath. When radio hosts cross the line in taste, they usually get suspended, not fired. As it turns out, that's what his contract said as well, and CBS had to eat an unspecified portion of it in a post-termination settlement.

I've never been a big fan of Imus, but his return to the airwaves should be seen as a return to common sense. Not every offense needs to result in a firing, especially when taken in the context of long record. The corporate impulse to avoid embarrassment makes everyone a hostage to a vocal fringe -- on both sides -- and that doesn't bode well for the moderating influence of a free-speech market. One offhand, unplanned remark should certainly be criticized and disciplined, but ending a decades-long career over it seems extreme.

Let the audiences decide whether Imus should have this second chance. If people want to listen, advertisers will buy air time, and Imus will prosper. If they don't, he'll be off the air faster than last year's rap single hit.


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