Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson didn’t kill Don Imus’ show. It was a suicide, and that the vultures showed up shouldn’t confuse us about what happened. When Imus took an off ramp and drove forty blocks out of his way to run over the Rutgers women hoopsters –and then backed over them again while turning the car around to get back—he did himself in. It just took a few days for him to bleed out. The vultures always show up, but make no mistake. Imus has Imus to blame: His sponsors wanted nothing to do with his brand once that brand got recognition outside of the relatively small world that watched or listened to Imus. That’s the market, not the P.C. police. Imus could slag any player he wanted to, and probably have thrown down a few race cards in the process and remained untouched. He certainly did so with PBS’s Gwen Ifill. But college kids playing sports who are not within a hundred miles of a political debate –that’s far beyond the limits of what the public can stomach, or at least enough of the public to turn the sponsors’ heads away in shame.
Before one full day had passed, Imus’ former fellow MSNBCer Keith Olbermann was wondering whether the bell was tolling for Rush Limbaugh, who, Olbermann asserted, had been grandfathered in when it came to abusive talk radio.
Mind you this is Keith Olbermann who wrote of colleague Rita Crosby that “Rita’s nice, but dumber than a suitcase of rocks,” and who compared Dean Kenneth Starr to Henrich Himmler –“Facially, it finally dawned on me that the person Ken Starr has reminded me of all this time was Heinrich Himmler, including the glasses.” These comments are not grounds for dismissal, just derision, windows into a head where a few thoughts clatter about in search of a coherent argument. Keith, the scoreboard reader turned radical chic poseur is obviously never going to win the spelling bee, but we can’t put this jump from Imus to Rush down to sheer stupidity. (Well, maybe we can, but let’s assume for the moment that Keith is at a multiplication tables level when it comes to higher thinking skills.) Something else is at work here.
It is a combination of ratings envy and genuine puzzlement. This duo seems to drive all of Keith’s public confrontations and feuds. His frequent attempts to attract the attention of Bill O’Reilly are lame enough, but O’Reilly only has about 10 times Olbermann’s audience. Rush has about a hundred times the audience of Countdown’s party faithful. “How can that be,” Keith must ask himself, “when I’m so good and he’s so bad?”
The fault, dear Keith, is not in their stars (or stats), but in yourself. It goes under the heading good humor, though a few hundred years ago it was called “virtu.”. Rush has it. Imus lost his at a crucial moment. You, at least every time I have seen you, have never had it. Not for a day. Not for a moment. It is what limits your audience to the angry and the envious.
Good humor is the secret of broadcast success in 2007 and forward. It is why Franken failed so miserably, but why conservative talkers thrive and grow, and indeed why O’Reilly and Hannity run rings around their cable competitors, why Larry King is still going strong, why Anderson Cooper and Larry Kudlow are gaining and why Brit Hume and his merry “Fox news all stars all” continue to dominate: They are generally and genuinely happy people. Their teeth do not grind at night. They are not consumed with paybacks and venom venting. They would no more particularize their political agenda into the comparison of a one of the country’s greatest legal minds to a Nazi mass murderer than they would abuse the Rutgers women basketball team. Sure, they play hardball –politics ain’t beanbag, as Mr. Dooley noted. (Look it up Keith, look it up.)
I have blasted Ann Coulter when she has crossed this line into a sort of gangrenous vendetta-lust. It is why I have no sympathy for Imus, no respect for Savage, and why I admire the talkers I do: Rush, Sean and Alan, Bill Bennett, Bill O’Reilly, Laura, Mark Levine and my pals Prager and Medved. (I don’t get to hear Neil Boortz, and have only recently begun to hear the excellent Dennis Miller but suspect they are in this latter group as well.) How I would love to see the charitable giving entries on the tax returns of the group I suspect of chronically generous hearts versus those I believe to be Uriah Heeps of our trade. Those who cross the line into cruelty are, sadly, out of kilter with the good. It is sometimes necessary to be very harsh with political opponents on very important issues. It is never necessary to verbally kneecap noncombatants, or to put opponents in the category of mass murderers.
So, there are good guys and bad guys in the world of broadcast journalism. The good guys don’t end up cancelled because of meltdowns, and they rarely if ever try to diminish the talent of another broadcaster. Keith is never going to get out of the basement for the simple reason that his bitterness has infected every broadcast, and bitter does not attract nearly so many as it repels. It is why Rosie is sinking, and why Katie Couric will not even have a scratch on her after the fiasco this week. We forgive the forgiving, and extend grace to the grace-giving.
Keith should listen to Rush, hear the humor, and learn a thing or two (or twenty.) There’s a smile in every broadcast, and almost every segment. That explains it Keith. You should give it a try.