Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Television Critic Examines Don Imus

Alessandra Stanley, television critic for The New York Times, weighed in with her own opinions on Don Imus and provided a useful perspective to one of those controversies that inevitably yields more heat than light. She used, as her point of departure, yesterday morning's Today show, on which Matt Lauer interviewed both Imus and Al Sharpton. The occasion allowed Ms. Stanley to preface her thoughts about Imus with a reflection on this particular forum:

There are no laws to adjudicate racial harmony; morning television is the forum in which grievances are aired and sympathies are marshaled. Politicians weighed in (Rudolph W. Giuliani supports Mr. Imus; Senator Barack Obama does not), but television, or more specifically advertising, is the arbiter. The hosts of “Today” in particular serve as America’s test family, one that reflects many of the veiled tensions about race that exist throughout American society.

I gave up on Today many years ago. I never watched it at home, only in hotel rooms when I was on the road. As the news business grew more competitive, the fluff content grew more tiresome; and there were too many better places to get "straight" news. Nevertheless, I think that Ms. Stanley is on to something important here, even if her following paragraphs push that "test family" metaphor to the point of aggravation. More importantly, she is not afraid to talk about the dead moose on the table, which is that everything comes down to who gets how much advertising revenue.

Furthermore, her first phrase may offer the only viable link, which C-SPAN was looking for yesterday, between the Imus affair and the problem of conduct in cyberspace. Ms. Stanley is not quite right, to the extent that one can prosecute hate crimes in our courts of law; but she is right in that the court can only deal with obeying the letter of the law, rather than its spirit, which is ultimately where racial harmony resides. This is a point that, as far as I can tell, has received no attention on all the exchanges over the draft of a "Blogger Code of Conduct," the idea that any reading of such a text must account for its letter and spirit. More specifically, one cannot adopt such a code without addressing the Tweed question (“What’re ya’ gonna do about it?”) when the code is violated; and if one is going to address that question, one needs to get straight when one is talking about violations of the letter and when the violations are of the spirit. Ms. Stanley is right to point out that courts of law are no place to address questions of violations of the spirit; but, if there is going to be any letter at all, then one has to decide what to do when the letter is violated. This is where I feel it is important to ask about the role of governance in cyberspace.

Going back to Imus and his practices, I think that Ms. Stanley has provided a perceptive summary of what the situation is and how we got into it (the how-did-we-get-into-this-mess question):

In this polite but sometimes strained community [Today as "test family'], Mr. Imus is the cranky, aging neighbor who can be relied upon to shovel snow off the sidewalk but occasionally blurts out words so offensive and insensitive that it makes everyone regret inviting him to the block party.

He tried to explain his remark as a momentary slip, describing himself as a “good person who said a bad thing.” But there is a deeper dichotomy behind his disgrace: Mr. Imus wants to be both a shock jock and Charlie Rose, and the two roles inevitably collide. He is a radio star whose early popularity rested on sophomoric and outrageous humor. But Mr. Imus also staked his claim to gravitas, inviting journalists and politicians on his show and discussing —with considerable skill — news and political affairs.

He told Mr. Lauer that his racist remark about the Rutgers players came out in a comic context. “I’m not a newsman,” he said rather testily from his radio talk-show desk. “This is not ‘Meet the Press.’ ” Actually, it is: “Imus in the Morning” is the place where fans who don’t watch Tim Russert’s talk show get a chance to hobnob with writers for The New York Times, NBC correspondents and Newsweek columnists.

For Ms. Stanley, then, it all comes down to role-playing, which is not an unreasonable perspective for a television critic. However, the role we play is very heavily defined by the language-games we play, which is why I felt it was important to drag Wittgenstein into the conversation. Indeed, Bill Maher's defense of Imus, made when he called in to Imus' radio program (and then rebroadcast on C-SPAN), is that the guy just committed an offensive foul in his language-game; and yesterday I tried to reinforce that position by observing that, where language-games are concerned, the rules (not to mention the referees) are always changing.

One final note on the topic of news sources: The New York Times fell from the top of my list as a result of all the messes they made in reporting on the Bush administration and its "war on terror." Nevertheless, I decided to leave my "Arts" RSS feed intact. Writers like Ms. Stanley do a good job of reminding me why I made this decision!

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