The Untold Story Behind Shock Jock Don Imus

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As sparks continue to fly in every direction over the racist and sexist commentary of radio host and shock jock Don Imus, another and more important story is emerging from the shadows of media wonderland.

It is the obvious nonsense of any network or advertiser’s attempt to feign righteousness when it has already decided its highest value is fiscal profit.

After meeting behind closed — and supposedly separate — doors to decide what to do about the firestorm of controversy surrounding their respective radio and television host’s rant against the Rutgers Women’s basketball team, CBS and NBC executives have emerged with a united voice to announce a whopping two-week suspension of Imus’ on-air duties beginning … well, next week.

It was the perfectly logical corporate sentence. By sending their host on a delayed two-week vacation they have skirted the appearance of ethical ambivalence, and have done so without forfeiting the immediate prize money a controversy like this always provides … a ratings spike. Even more shrewdly, they have given themselves time to evaluate if Imus’ “unacceptable behavior” — as they put it — will, in fact, prove to be a net financial gain (read “acceptable behavior”) in the long-term.

So far, the strategy has not disappointed corporate interests. Yesterday, Imus’ show, broadcast on MSNBC, soundly beat CNN’s “American Morning” (a rarity) and there is good reason to believe Imus will churn out big numbers for the rest of the week.

The outcome of the networks’ long-term bet is now in the hands of two unsuspecting players. Up to this point Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have done the country a service by levelling sharp criticism against Don Imus. They have reminded media personalities that one single day of inappropriate behavior can threaten an entire career. I’m afraid, however, that if Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton continue to gobble up media attention by asking for Imus’ head, as they have promised, they will inadvertently turn the now-wounded and seemingly repentant Don Imus into a victim. If this happens, we can expect Don Imus to come back fighting like never before, justified by an enraged and bigger audience hungry for revenge.

And sadly, if history repeats itself and if the numbers look good, Mr. Imus will be supported by networks whose values system is only as shallow or deep as their pockets. Network executives will offer a press release with a plethora of platitudes and promises to check the behavior of their foul-mouthed host, while behind the scenes encouraging him and his producers to push the envelope as far as advertisers will allow.

And how far will advertisers allow? For those whose highest value is fiscal profit, it will depend on numbers.

A spokesperson for Procter and Gamble confirmed yesterday they had pulled — for the time being — all advertisements from MSNBC daytime programming and gave this explanation:

“Any venue in which our ads appear that is offensive to our target audience is not acceptable to us."

I think the spokesperson meant to say that their sense of right and wrong is completely relative to fiscal profit. He implies his company is completely unconcerned about doing the right thing for the sake of righteousness, exercising social responsibility, sticking up for minorities, or anything of the like. According to this spokesman, the only thing unacceptable to Procter and Gamble is that their target audience might feel offended.

Dennis McGuire, vice president for Carat USA, a media-buying agency, sang a similar song to Reuters.

“Clients have asked us to pull their advertising because it’s controversial and offensive”

I suppose the moral shallowness shouldn’t surprise us. But it should make us think. Now would be the time for news outlets and advertisers to dust off their corporate mission statements, amend them if necessary, and remind their employees that in their company’s particular hierarchy of values a legitimate search for profit is always subject to decency, honesty and respect.

But then again, this would require moral leadership, a virtue hard to come by in the world of stardom and bright lights. If any network dares to stand out in the crowd, we will notice.

God bless, Father Jonathan

P.S. On Friday, I will post your responses to this article.

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