Monday, December 10, 2007

Imus vs. Hip-Hop

The following article was one that I wrote right around the time that Don Imus was fired. Now that he is back, I thought that some reflection would be good.

Once and for all: DO NOT equate the disparaging words of fallen radio/TV host Don Imus with the disparaging words emanating from SOME of the lyrics in Hip-Hop music. They are NOT the same animal. As Russell Simmons recently indicated on Oprah Winfrey’s show, the rappers in the Hip-Hop community are poets who depict the world that THEY come from and their censorship ought not even be discussed. I DO have issues with the misogynistic and race-deprecating lyrics prevalent in Hip-Hop songs, but I will address that in a different discourse that I can hopefully share with you shortly.

Parallels have been drawn between the comments of other “shock jocks” and Imus’ comments. They have been drawn between Imus’ comments about Rutgers’ women’s basketball team and other comments made by Imus. There was even an example given of some journalist calling Barbara Walters a “mind slut”. None of these comparisons hold water. They don’t compare because none of these other comments open up the speaker or their employer to slander and defamation of character lawsuits. The comments Don Imus uttered about the Rutgers basketball team DO expose Imus, MSNBC, and CBS to such a lawsuit -- one the plaintiffs could easily win.

Journalists and radio/TV talk show hosts/commentators are allowed to give their opinions about public figures/celebrities rather freely -- even when such remarks are somewhat disparaging. The legal rationale is that these public figures/celebrities depend on media exposure for their livelihood and thus have to take the bitter with the sweet. The media helps them make money and so the media is also allowed to cost them money via the opinions of these media personalities. All exposure for them isn’t going to be good and they just have to grin and bear it. The additional rationale is that they have access to other media outlets by which they can and do give their side of the story -- as with Barbara Walters, for example.

Don Imus uttered slanderous and defamatory remarks about non-celebrities/public figures. They may enjoy some notoriety because of their athletic accomplishments, but their livelihood does not depend on public exposure. They are not professional athletes. They are student-athletes. Therefore, MSNBC and CBS fired Don Imus because his comments opened them up to legal liability that could cost them -- and Imus -- millions of dollars. If they had let him stay on they would be showing tacit approval for his antics. Letting him go shows that such defamation is not condoned by them. And yet, they still could be held liable simply because Imus has a history of making similar racist statements on air. This means that it could be found by a court of law that they “knew or should have known” that he had the potential to expand his comments to specific non-celebrities -- especially if there exist no written prohibitions in this area that Imus could be deemed well aware of at the time of his defamation.