CBS fired Don Imus from his radio program Thursday, the finale to a stunning fall for one of the nation’s most prominent broadcasters.
Imus initially was given a two-week suspension for calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos” on the air last week, but outrage continued to grow and advertisers bolted from his CBS radio show and its MSNBC simulcast, which was canceled Wednesday.
“There has been much discussion of the effect language like this has on our young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this society,” CBS President and Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves said in announcing the decision. “That consideration has weighed most heavily on our minds as we made our decision.”
Imus had a long history of inflammatory remarks. But something struck a raw nerve when he targeted the Rutgers team — which includes a class valedictorian, a future lawyer and a musical prodigy — after they lost in the NCAA championship game.
Imus reportedly met with the Rutgers team members and coach on Thursday night. New Jersey governor Jon S. Corzine was on his way to attend the Rutgers-Imus meeting, held at the governor's mansion, when his motorcade was . Corzine reportedly suffered several broken ribs and a broken leg in the crash.
The cantankerous Imus, once named one of the 25 Most Influential People in America by Time magazine and a member of the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame, issued repeated apologies as protests intensified. But it wasn’t enough as everyone from Barack Obama to Oprah Winfrey joined the criticism.
The Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson met with Moonves on Thursday to demand Imus’ removal, promising a rally outside CBS headquarters Saturday and an effort to persuade more advertisers to defect.
Jackson called the firing “a victory for public decency. No one should use the public airwaves to transmit racial or sexual degradation.”
Said Sharpton: “He says he wants to be forgiven. I hope he continues in that process. But we cannot afford a precedent established that the airways can commercialize and mainstream sexism and racism.”
Losing Imus will be a financial hit to CBS Radio, which also suffered when Howard Stern departed for satellite radio. The program earns about $15 million in annual revenue for CBS, which owns Imus’ home radio station WFAN-AM and manages Westwood One, the company that syndicates the show nationally.
The news came down in the middle of Imus’ Radiothon, which has raised more than $40 million since 1990. The Radiothon had raised more than $1.3 million Thursday before Imus learned that he lost his job.
“This may be our last Radiothon, so we need to raise about $100 million,” Imus cracked at the start of the event.
CBS announced that Imus’ wife, Deirdre, and his longtime newsman, Charles McCord, will host Friday’s show.
Volunteers were getting about 200 more pledges per hour than they did last year, with most callers expressing support for Imus, said phone bank supervisor Tony Gonzalez. The event benefited Tomorrows Children’s Fund, the CJ Foundation for SIDS and the Imus Ranch.
Imus, whose suspension was supposed to start next week, was in the awkward situation of broadcasting Thursday’s radio program from the MSNBC studios in New Jersey, even though NBC News said the night before that MSNBC would no longer simulcast his program on television.
He didn’t attack MSNBC for its decision — “I understand the pressure they were under,” he said — but complained the network was doing some unethical things during the broadcast. He didn’t elaborate.
Sponsors that pulled out of Imus’ show included American Express Co., Sprint Nextel Corp., Staples Inc., Procter & Gamble Co. and General Motors Corp. Imus made a point Thursday to thank one sponsor, Bigelow Tea, for sticking by him.
The list of his potential guests began to shrink, too.
Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham said the magazine’s staffers would no longer appear on Imus’ show. Meacham, Jonathan Alter, Evan Thomas, Howard Fineman and Michael Isikoff from Newsweek have been frequent guests.
Imus has complained bitterly about a lack of support from one black politician, Harold Ford Jr., even though he strongly backed Ford’s campaign for Senate in Tennessee last year. Ford, now head of the Democratic Leadership Council, said Thursday he’ll leave it to others to decide Imus’ future.
“I don’t want to be viewed as piling on right now because Don Imus is a good friend and a decent man,” Ford said. “However, he did a reprehensible thing.”
Imus’ troubles have also affected his wife, author Deirdre Imus, whose household cleaning guide, “Green This!” came out this week. Her promotional tour has been called off “because of the enormous pressure that Deirdre and her family are under,” said Simon & Schuster publicist Victoria Meyer.
People are buying it, though: An original printing of 45,000 was increased to 55,000.
Imus still has a lot of support among radio managers across the country, many of whom grew up listening to him, said Tom Taylor, editor of the trade publication Inside Radio.
Yet he’s clearly became a political liability for CBS. (General Electric Co. owns NBC Universal, of which MSNBC is a part.) NBC News said anger about Imus among some of its employees had as much to do with ending the MSNBC simulcast as the advertiser defection.
Bryan Monroe, president of the National Association of Black Journalists and vice president and editor director of Ebony and Jet magazines, met with Moonves on Wednesday. It seemed clear Moonves and his aides were struggling with a difficult decision, he said. He urged them to take advantage of an opportunity to take a stand against the coarsening of culture.
“Something happened in the last week around America,” Monroe said. “It’s not just what the radio host did. America said enough is enough. America said we don’t want this kind of conversation, we don’t want this kind of vitriol, especially with teenagers.”
Rutgers’ team, meanwhile, appeared Thursday on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” with their coach, C. Vivian Stringer.
At the end of their appearance, Winfrey said: “I want to borrow a line from Maya Angelou, who is a personal mentor of mine and I know you all also feel the same way about her. And she has said this many times, and I say this to you, on behalf of myself and every woman that I know, you make me proud to spell my name W-O-M-A-N.”