Don Imus just went through a massive lambasting and lost his job for his racist and misogynist ‘joke’ about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. I am not going to defend this particular joke or many of the other outrageous statements that he’s made over the years. But I do defend his right to say them and I do believe he deserved better treatment by the press, the public and his bosses in Big Media.
I enjoyed listening to Imus in the Morning when it was broadcast on KINS for a couple years. I enjoyed being shocked by his shock jock schtick. So, it’s hard for me now to suddenly be so outraged by this latest outrage. I also found his interviews with authors, politicians and other news makers often insightful and entertaining. And many millions of others have done the same. Both CBS and MSNBC have been happy making money from the Imus show for many years. So, while this particular bad choice of words might have been especially foul, the indignation over them and the retribution heaped on Imus is hypocritical. It’s unclear to me what has created this ‘perfect storm’ over this particular Imus statement. But even if it was an order of magnitude more insulting and outrageous than others he has made (many have pointed out he has said worse) I don’t think it should have led to his dismissal. After all, he apologized. The Rutgers team accepted his apology. He promised to do better. People apologize all the time for the stupid things they say and do and for the most part they are given the opportunity to continue on with their lives and careers, chastened and perhaps better for it.
I also honestly don’t think Don Imus is a racist, misogynistic, homophobe. He says these things not because he believes them, but because he is playing a character who does. And the true target of his comedy is the actual racist, misogynistic homophobe who is usually too dense to realize these comments are held up as a fun house mirror to his face. At least, that’s how I always understood the act.
On balance, Don Imus has a lot to offer that is good. He has raised millions of dollars for charity. He runs a ranch for kids with cancer. He has championed many causes long before they became popular (autism, the treatment of injured veterans are couple that come to mind) . I think CBS and MSNBC ought to be ashamed at their cowardice for buckling under the fist shaking of the self-righteous.
So, what has this got to do with technology or the north coast? Well, it’s part of a larger conversation about public discourse in general and events that have been going on in the blog world. People have been putting horrible things on the Internet for as long as I can remember (I used to participate in Usenet newsgroups back before there was a web interface). Something about the impersonality of posting comments, sending email or even writing blogs seems to provide some people the cover they need to spew awful things they would not do in person, or certainly not as in the case of Don Imus, on a show heard and watched by millions. Many venues permit such vitriol to be posted anonymously which just further emboldens people to express ugly stuff.
The open nature of the Internet presents a problem for businesses like the Times-Standard that wishes to open up conversations with the public. How do you provide an open platform and not fall victim to idiots who post offensive or hateful comments? Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible. I do think that a business like the Times-Standard has the right to impose some rules about what is or is not allowed on its web site. I would suggest making it clear they have the right to delete any comments they deem inappropriate. This doesn’t curtail free speech. It just controls the speech that appears on that particular web site. The new web makes it easy for anyone to start their own web site and post whatever they like. I am also not a fan of anonymity on the Internet (except where the author’s life could be in danger by revealing their identity). I think it encourages bad behavior. So, I think the Times-Standard should require some personal accountability for comments. Requiring a one time registration with a valid, confirmed email address before posting would help.
But as for rules of speech on the Internet or the rest of the media as whole, I am for as open and free a publishing environment as possible. I am not in favor of even a voluntary code of ethics for bloggers as some have proposed after the Kathy Sierra dust up, mainly because I don’t think it would carry any meaning.
The answer to speech you don’t likeÂ is more speech. Not less. Let the speech flow. Foul or fair.