Monday, April 23, 2007

Stanley Fish: Why Was Imus Fired? Just Do the Math

Early on in the Don Imus firing controversy I took an abstinence pledge, vowing never to write anything about it. I now go back on that pledge, not because I have anything to say, but because there isn’t anything to say, although almost everybody in the world has been saying a great deal. What I mean is that there are no serious issues that might be appropriately – as opposed to opportunistically – attached to this incident. The story should not be filed under “free speech” or “racist speech” or “the culture of indecency” or “double standards”; it should be filed under “blunders with unexpected consequences,” the subject of an earlier column about men and women who say or do something apparently small and even casual and find, sometimes within minutes, that their public lives are over.

In Mr. Imus’s case, what followed his disparaging of the Rutgers women basketball players was unanticipated not because he had intended no insult, but because intending insults has always been his line of work, and he had no reason to believe that this five-second instance of his ordinary practice would bring everything crashing down. Many commentators have said that Imus should have distinguished between his usual targets – Hollywood celebrities, politicians, sports icons – and 10 innocent and vulnerable young women. But this criticism assumes that behind what Imus said over the years was some kind of social or moral or philosophical calculation. There was nothing at all behind his daily performances; he was just occupying a professional niche – Don Rickles with a network – and doing exactly what he was paid to do.

If calculation had nothing do with his remarks, miscalculation had nothing to with their effects, which were, quite literally, incalculable. Mr. Imus could not have known (no one could have) that Rutgers University would be capable of mounting a press conference of stunning impact. (Whoever orchestrated it should be snapped up by a presidential candidate; he or she is a genius.) No one could have anticipated the e-mail and Internet frenzy that led in a few days to a level of news coverage usually reserved for presidential elections or national disasters. And no one, in advance of the event, could have connected the dots in a way that led – now it seems inevitably – to Sumner Redstone, the chief executive of CBS’s parent company, Viacom, who dropped Tom Cruise because he jumped up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s couch. A guy who is willing to cut loose the biggest star in the world is going to have no trouble ordering the dismissal of an over-age enfant terrible who wears long hair and cowboy boots. (When Redstone told Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, to “do the right thing,” everyone knew what he meant.)

In retrospect – the perspective from which all the moralizing and hand-wringing has proceeded – the only thing that could have saved Mr. Imus would have been if the Virginia Tech shootings had occurred 12 days earlier, for then no one would have been paying attention to anything else. (You can bet that Alberto Gonzales would have loved to have kept to his original schedule and testified before the Senate on Tuesday rather than Thursday.)

So what really happened? The most succinct account was given by a headline in The Chicago Sun-Times: “Advertisers go – and so does Imus.” That’s it. It was a business decision no more momentous or philosophically weighty than the decision to dismiss a salesman who is not meeting a quota or an office manager who can’t keep track of what her subordinates are doing. A Washington Post-ABC poll asked those interviewed if Imus “should have been fired for making racially insensitive comments.” (Fifty-one percent said yes.) But he wasn’t fired because he made racially insensitive comments. He was fired because his employers took stock – minute by minute according to a riveting story in The Wall Street Journal [$] – of the way his remarks were playing before various constituencies, and at some point they came to the conclusion that he had to go. It was a cost-benefit analysis, not a moral analysis. The only “should” involved was a bottom-line should.

There is certainly no First Amendment “should” in the picture because no First Amendment questions were implicated. Imus’s freedom of speech was not restricted in any way that is prohibited by the First Amendment: Congress did not abridge his freedom of speech; a corporate entity determined that his free speech – for which it was paying – wasn’t worth the trouble.

Nor is it to the point to contrast Imus’s fate with the generally better fates (at least so far) of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Bill Maher and various rappers, and pose dark questions about “double standards.” Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and a presidential candidate who has less chance of being nominated than I do, declared that if Imus is going to be fired, “there’s a number of other people who need to go out the door.” Only if their employers are measuring their performance by a First Amendment yardstick rather than the yardstick of the usual employment measures (revenue, effectiveness, popularity), and why would they do that unless they mistook themselves for law professors? Invoking the mantra of “double standards” makes sense only if people in similar situations are being judged by different standards. But if the situation is, as I believe it to be, commercial and professional, Imus and Maher and all the rest are being judged by exactly the same standards – good old-fashioned economic ones and not manufactured abstract ones – and are subject to exactly the same risks.

And then there are the supposed “benefits” of this tempest in many teapots of which the chief, we are told, is the benefit of finally having a national conversation about race. I hadn’t noticed that conversations about race were lacking in the public sphere, but if you are hankering for one, and a really sophisticated one, you could do worse than watch the Geico commercials in which a bunch of cave men challenge the marginalization and disrespect they suffer at the hands of the majority population. I hear the cave men may be getting their own show. If so, there may be something to satisfy the needs of both deprived Imus admirers and deprived Imus haters.

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