Shock Jock Don Imus Loses His Radio Show over Sexist and Racist Remarks Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

On his morning radio show, notorious shock jock Don Imus referred to members of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos” after his cohost said they were “hardcore hos,” creating a national furor. The scandal cost Imus his job, temporarily, and prompted a nationwide discussion of racist and sexist speech on the radio.

Summary of Event

Don Imus, one of the most notorious radio hosts in the United States, is best known for his syndicated radio and television show Imus in the Morning. The show began as a local broadcast in New York, where it reached about one-half million listeners on the radio station WFAN. The show became nationally syndicated in 1993 and began simulcasting on paid television—on MSNBC—in 1996. The radio show was broadcast on more than sixty CBS Radio stations across the United States and had generated millions of dollars in revenue. [kw]Imus Loses His Radio Show over Sexist and Racist Remarks, Shock Jock Don (Apr. 11, 2007) Imus, Don McGuirk, Bernard Talk shows;Don Imus[Imus] Basketball;college Rutgers University women’s basketball team Imus, Don McGuirk, Bernard Talk shows;Don Imus[Imus] Basketball;college Rutgers University women’s basketball team [g]United States;Apr. 11, 2007: Shock Jock Don Imus Loses His Radio Show over Sexist and Racist Remarks[03760] [c]Racism;Apr. 11, 2007: Shock Jock Don Imus Loses His Radio Show over Sexist and Racist Remarks[03760] [c]Radio and television;Apr. 11, 2007: Shock Jock Don Imus Loses His Radio Show over Sexist and Racist Remarks[03760] [c]Sports;Apr. 11, 2007: Shock Jock Don Imus Loses His Radio Show over Sexist and Racist Remarks[03760] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 11, 2007: Shock Jock Don Imus Loses His Radio Show over Sexist and Racist Remarks[03760] [c]Women’s issues;Apr. 11, 2007: Shock Jock Don Imus Loses His Radio Show over Sexist and Racist Remarks[03760] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Apr. 11, 2007: Shock Jock Don Imus Loses His Radio Show over Sexist and Racist Remarks[03760] [c]Popular culture;Apr. 11, 2007: Shock Jock Don Imus Loses His Radio Show over Sexist and Racist Remarks[03760] Sharpton, Al Stringer, C. Vivian Vaughn, Kia

Don Imus.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

On April 4, 2007, the morning after the Rutgers University women’s basketball team lost to the University of Tennessee in the finals of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) championship series, Imus commented on the appearance of the Rutgers basketball players, most of whom were African American, and called them “rough girls,” apparently in reference to their tattoos. Imus’s executive producer and sidekick, Bernard McGuirk, referred to the players as “hardcore hos.” Imus continued the derogatory conversation and described the young women as “nappy-headed hos.”

Leaders from women’s groups and, most particularly, the African American community were outraged. The National Association of Black Journalists called for a national boycott of the show. Imus responded by dismissing the incident as nothing more than amusing. Two days later, following a barrage of calls demanding that he be fired, Imus issued an apology, but his expression of regret for his words was not enough. His many critics pointed to a pattern of insensitive remarks voiced on his network show over the years.

The Reverend Al Sharpton, a leader in the African American community, called Imus’s comments abominable, racist, and sexist and demanded that Imus be fired immediately. In an attempt to remedy the situation, Imus appeared on Sharpton’s syndicated radio talk show on April 9 to address the controversy and provide a more complete apology for what he said. Despite the appearance on Sharpton’s radio show, a growing number of black leaders called for Imus’s dismissal and continued to threaten to organize a boycott of his show’s sponsors. Critics also called upon the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take action against him and radio stations that carry his program. As a result of intensifying public pressure, numerous sponsors of his morning show, including American Express, Sprint Nextel, Staples, Procter & Gamble, and General Motors General Motors, pulled their advertising. The FCC would not get involved in the matter.

MSNBC was the first to act. On April 11, NBC News announced that MSNBC would no longer simulcast Imus in the Morning. In announcing the decision, NBC News president Steve Capus said Imus’s “comments were deeply hurtful to many, many people.” The next day, CBS Radio canceled Imus in the Morning as well. Leslie Moonves, CBS Corporation president and chief executive officer, said the network made the decision to help change a media “culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people.”

Several days after the incident, Rutgers players held a news conference attended by players’ parents, coaches, Rutgers administrators, religious leaders, and Imus himself at the New Jersey governor’s mansion in Princeton. The three-hour meeting was arranged by Buster Soaries, a former New Jersey secretary of state and the pastor of Rutgers basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer. New Jersey’s governor, Jon Corzine, was injured in a car accident on his way to the meeting, so he could not attend.

Players were deeply hurt by Imus’s words. Team captain Essence Carson said Imus had “stolen a moment of pure grace from the team.” At the New Jersey news conference, Coach Stringer said Imus’s words affected not her team alone but all women and all persons of color. Several days after the news conference, Stringer said her players had accepted Imus’s personal apology and that the team was in the process of forgiving.

Prior to his termination from the airways, Imus had signed a five-year, $40 million contract extension with CBS Radio. Upon notification of his firing, Imus hired a prominent attorney, Martin Garbus, to pursue a wrongful termination lawsuit against CBS, threatening to sue for $120 million. On August 14, he reached a settlement with CBS for an undisclosed amount of money, leaving him free to pursue other media opportunities.

Imus also faced a lawsuit from one of the Rutgers players. Kia Vaughn sued Imus for libel, slander, and defamation. The lawsuit alleged that his use of the slanderous terms was intentional and motivated by greed and financial gain. The lawsuit claimed that the insults were made purely to increase ratings for Imus and his show. Vaughn requested monetary damages of an unspecified amount, but she decided to drop the lawsuit because she wanted to focus on her university studies and basketball.

Impact

The scandal caused by Imus’s racist and sexist comments proved that such behavior is facing growing condemnation, yet such vulgar talk is widespread in American popular culture, including in the lyrics of rap, hip-hop, rock, and other musical genres. Imus’s derogatory remarks, scandalous as they were, also reignited the debate over freedom of speech, a debate that moved the focus from racism and sexism—the primary reason for the scandal—to individual rights. Imus’s supporters argued that it was within his First Amendment rights to express his opinions on the air, regardless of how controversial, and that he should not have been fired. The FCC determined that Imus had been fired by a private employer who believed his remarks were objectionable, and thus the case was not technically one of censorship or a violation of free speech rights.

In the end, Imus’s career suffered little after his dismissal. Eight months after being fired, he launched a return to radio. On November 1, Citadel Broadcasting announced it had agreed to what was reportedly a multiyear syndication contract with Imus. The new Imus in the Morning program was distributed nationally by ABC radio networks and was based at Citadel, which owned WABC in New York City. It started broadcasting in December. Imus introduced two African American comedians, Karith Foster and Tony Powell, as cast members of his show. Imus, Don McGuirk, Bernard Talk shows;Don Imus[Imus] Basketball;college Rutgers University women’s basketball team

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldstein, Hilary. “Tuning into Democracy: Community Radio, Free Speech, and the Democratic Promise.” Alternate Routes 20 (2004): 59-106. Investigation into the connection between free speech and democracy using case studies of two radio networks.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leets, Laura. “Disentangling Perceptions of Subtle Racist Speech: A Cultural Perspective.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology 22, no. 2 (2003): 145-148. An experimental study that examines how racist slurs made by dominant groups in society cause harm to others.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reed, James. Everything Imus: All You Ever Wanted to Know About Don Imus. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1999. A profile of one of radio’s most controversial personalities. Covers more than thirty years of the career of the shock jock. Includes discussion of his propensity to use racial and sexist slurs and his battle with drugs and alcohol.

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