Only ABC Addresses Broader Context of Imus Firing Adequately

Is the story of the firing of radio shock jock Don Imus only about racism, or is it also about hatred and incivility in hip hop culture?

For the most part, the major news networks seem to be interested only in racism.

On his April 4 radio and cable television show, Imus described the Rutgers University women's basketball team as “nappy headed hos.” Within eight days MSNBC TV and CBS radio fired him. 

In the broadcast network coverage of the firing of Imus on April 12, only ABC's World News Tonight gave any significant time to the issue of vulgar and misogynistic language in rap music, arguably part of the broader cultural discussion that should be taking place after Imus' disgusting remarks.  

This coverage contrasted sharply with NBC's Nightly News, which only reported that CBS had fired Imus. 

After reporting on Imus' firing, CBS Evening News trotted out analyst Jeff Greenfield for a brief Q&A.  Greenfield made the point that Imus is not the first media personality to lose his job because of racist statements, and he posed the question of how to address the racist and demeaning lyrics in rap music. To his credit he put CBS owner Viacom on the hot seat by saying Viacom “puts out a lot” of that kind of music.

But only ABC examined the Imus firing in its broader cultural context. After David Muir reported on the firing, ABC's Deborah Roberts took an in-depth look at the African American entertainment culture, interviewing magazine editors and a filmmaker about the “nagging question” of sexist and exploitative lyrics in gangsta rap songs.  

Roberts, an African American female, began by asking why Imus was perceived as going too far with language many see as “being tolerated in the gangsta rap culture.”  Roberts' piece cut to a music video of rapper Snoop Dogg, with lyrics saying:  “I'm a bad boy, with a lot of hos, drive my own car, wear my own clothes.”

Vibe magazine editor Danielle Smith said the difference is that rap lyrics are “artistic expression” and that there is a “difference in a black person saying something about another black person, than a white person saying something about a black person.”  Footage of civil rights protests overlaid her comments. 

But Roberts' piece didn't let that argument go unchallenged. The next interview was with African American filmmaker Byron Hurt, who said it was time for record executives to stop exploitation.  He was quoted saying record executives and corporations have “condoned it for a long time” and “have not come down and said they have a zero tolerance against rappers who use sexist and misogynistic lyrics in their music.”

Roberts' story concluded with an interview of Angela Burt Murray, editor-in-chief of Essence magazine, who said the Imus controversy may finally help her and others concerned about demeaning lyrics to stand up to the corporations and producers that support the gangsta rap culture. 

The firing of Don Imus raises many questions. What is considered permissible speech on the broadcast airwaves?  Where is the line between “offense” and “art”?  The dialogue should extend well beyond the issue of racism, and ABC is helping to get the conversation started.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.