NBC and CBS Rolled Over Once the Advertisers Fled Imus

Media critics and Les Moonves suddenly take the moral high ground.

Now that MSNBC and CBS have dropped the hammer on Don Imus for the sexist and racist remarks he made last week, media machers from sea to shining sea are doing what they do best — making the media itself the center of the story.

While they’re not totally wrong in looking at how the media establishment turned on Imus, the majority of media writers (at least those we’ve seen) are ignoring the more base capitalist motivations behind his firing in favor of crediting the nexus of the Internet, the “24-hour news cycle” and, well, themselves, in getting the blood they’ve been calling for. But then again, if a media critic can’t stand on his or her soapbox every now and again and pretend that he’s found a new paradigm, then he probably needs to find a new line of work.

For sure, Imus has long been a member in good standing of the clubbish mainstream media, and his show is famous for being a place for journalists to spout off (and self-promote) to a large audience. That alone makes him a juicy target, but what about the economic realities being faced by CBS and NBC that led to his firing, namely the exodus of high-paying advertisers like rats from a sinking ship? No one seems to be considering those.

In the New York Times this morning, David Carr begins with a nod to Imus’ age, arguing that he is a creature molded in a different era, before flowing that into an analysis of the “new media” hype that every media critic loves to blame for all modern media scandals:

Mr. Imus is an old-school radio guy caught in a very modern media paradigm. When he started 30 years ago, if he made the same kind of remark, it would have floated off into the ether — the Federal Communications Commission, if it received complaints, might have taken notice, but few others.

But radio is now visible — Mr. Imus’s show was simulcast on MSNBC, and more to the point, it is downloadable. By Friday, reporters and advocates could click up the remark on the Media Matters for America Web site, and later YouTube, and see a vicious racial insult that delighted him visibly as it rolled off his tongue. The ether now has a memory.

Carr is a hell of a fun writer, and while he’s not wrong, it should be noted that although Imus may indeed be an “old school radio guy,” he has also been, for some time now, very much a part of the 21st century cross-platform media apparatus. It’s not like the guy was plucked from 1974 — Sleeper-style — and stuck in a modern radio station, with no knowledge of what kind of language is no longer socially acceptable.

Carr also writes that Imus “never caught a breath because he was in the middle of a 24-hour news cycle that kept him in the cross hairs. It is the kind of media ceremony that generally ends in a human sacrifice.”

Right again, but the 24-hour media circus was a necessary, but not sufficient condition for Imus’ canning. Rather, the constant media attention set the stage for a variety of big-ticket advertisers of the show, namely American Express, Staples, and Procter & Gamble, to bow out. And that, with the implicit threat of more to come, is likely the true force behind Imus’ firing. In the world of corporate media, once you threaten to stop making money (Imus made CBS about $15 million annually), the, um, eccentricities that were swallowed with nary a wince by the suits suddenly stick in the throat like an errant chicken bone.

Despite this harsh reality, a number of media critics are currently tying themselves in sociological knots trying to suss out who can say what, and What It All Means. But mostly, the consensus seems to be that all of these learned critics always knew Imus of full of hot air, and now he has been exposed as that which they always knew he was.

It all sounds good, if overly ponderous, and no doubt legions of suddenly relevant media critics will sleep soundly on the cozy ledge of their moral high ground this weekend, knowing that they have made America a better place. They also provided CBS’ Les Moonves with cover to dress Imus’ firing up in the language of moral outrage, (as opposed to dollars and cents), saying that “this is about a lot more than Imus…He has flourished in a culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people. 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.”

Indeed it does, Les. It’s just funny how you didn’t seem to be so outraged about Imus’ antics a week or two ago. But then again, a week or two ago Imus was a lucrative, marketable commodity. It’s funny how morality and profit make such comfortable bedfellows.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.