Imus was no surprise. We’ve walked this road before and we’ll walk it again. This time, however, a good thing happened in America. That thing was corporate social responsibility taking shape. It was about putting money in its proper place—behind decency and the dignity of human beings—and about repairing the global image of a country that has squandered the esteem in which it once was held.
The week of April 9, 2007, decent Americans said “enough is enough” and some of the world’s biggest companies joined them. Ask any CEO—and we asked a few—and they will tell you that they would not have wanted to be in the position of CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves, or of Jeff Zucker, Moonves’ counterpart at NBC Universal, which owns MSNBC. “He has flourished in a culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people,” Moonves said. “In taking him off the air, I believe we take an important and necessary step not just in solving a unique problem, but in changing that culture, which extends far beyond the walls of our company.”
Firing shock jock Don Imus for calling Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos” on his CBS Radio show and its MSNBC simulcast was a hard decision to make from a financial and ratings point of view. It meant turning down the nearly $15 million in annual revenue that Imus in the Morning brought in. Maybe it would have dwindled to a lot less than that, since some of the program’s heavy-hitter advertisers, including American Express, Sprint Nextel, Staples, Procter & Gamble and General Motors, already were bolting from both the radio show and its television simulcast. Even so, CBS Radio was still reeling from the departure of Howard Stern, Imus’s fellow filth-spewing shock jock, to Sirius satellite radio. It’s said that Stern’s syndicated radio show was a cash cow for Infinity Broadcasting, now the CBS Radio unit of CBS Corp., raking in about $100 million in annual advertising revenues. So firing Imus—bets are on that he, too, will surface on Sirius—took the spunk of a different mind-set.
All this comes on the heels of the decision in March by the Nevada State Democratic Party to pull out of the presidential debate that it was to co-host in August in Reno with Fox News Channel, Fox News Radio and the Western Majority Project, citing comments by the network’s chairman and CEO, Roger Ailes. Ailes reportedly was at a broadcasters’ event to receive a First Amendment award when he joked in a speech, according to a Fox transcript: “It is true that Barack Obama is on the move. I don’t know if it’s true that President Bush called Musharraf and said, ‘Why can’t we catch this guy?’ ” Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) is running for president; Pervez Musharraf is Pakistan’s president.
In the unforgiving world of ratings, ads and profits, the decisions of Moonves and Zucker may well come back to haunt them. Be that as it may, corporate social responsibility took a bit more shape in America the week of April 9. It is now our responsibility to hold ourselves to the dignity standard. If Imus is what it took to start taking race and gender degradation out of popular culture, then so be it.
By Rosalind McLymont