From the perspective of the media tent, there emerged a true star out of this summer's debt-deal crisis. And no, it wasn't Paul Ryan. For us, rather, it was craggy-faced old Don Imus, who gave Neil Cavuto the perfect interview for News Alert on July 30 -- one that gleefully pushed the debt-ceiling debate from Continental Congress-like July into the dog days of D.C. August.
Cavuto treated him like America's dirty uncle, and Imus played along perfectly. "This is nonsense! It's a television show!" he ranted of the Capitol Hill proceedings. And when asked if he thought the credit-downgrade was imminent, he made a false prediction that seemed perfectly sensible: "I don't think they're going to do it to us. It's not in the spirit of doing business."
Imus in the Morning remains the last great example of the metropolitan American art form of morning radio. It's old-school New York media culture in caricature, with "Cardinal Egan over from the Archdiocese" to read lottery numbers. Imus makes high, bitter comedy out of the tropes of Old Broadcasting. And he does it when city people of all ethnicities are bumping into each other at their most off-the-record: during the morning commute.
Unless he's away "on the ranch," he does his show from the Fox Business Network studios in Rockefeller Center: his home since signing a simulcast deal with FBN in September 2009. On the heels of his "nappy-headed hos" comment and ouster from MSNBC, Imus-to-Fox seemed like one of those Roger Ailes hirings borne of political indignation (like Fox News' later embrace of Juan Williams after he was canned by NPR). The ratings reflect that.
While Imus in the Morning remains one of the ten highest-rated programs in New York morning radio with a 3.5 share (justifying to some degree the $8 million a year Imus currently makes from WABC), his television ratings are sub-test signal. He averaged 65,000 viewers on Fox Business in the first quarter of 2011 (down 45 percent from the same period in 2010, and down from a competitive 361,000 viewers when he was on MSNBC in 2007). From a television perspective, Imus isn't worth his own Rockefeller Center studio, and his show isn't exactly a venue for guests to reach a mass audience.
So there's something else still bringing senators and bestselling authors to Imus' daily boys' club. Something else that makes his show a hotspot for snide male political commentators like Bill Maher and Matt Taibbi. And it might just be that Imus in the Morning, in the absence of ratings, is the most honest depiction of political discourse in all of media.
While cable news trots out young model-anchors and actor-pundits, Imus reminds us that politics is still a game played by cursing old men over cocktails. And he makes them seem like regular guys. Where else can you hear Paul Begala get called a "numbnuts" or someone like Joe Lieberman say, "May all your sabbaths be peaceful" with a coarse, genuine chuckle? Even after all his P.C. trouble, Imus' notable guests didn't abandon him. That wouldn't be in the spirit of doing business.
For the past two years, Imus, 71, has been battling stage 2 prostate cancer. Though September marks Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, Imus will stay tight-lipped on the issue. He hasn't spoken publicly on his condition in over a year -- funny, considering that his on-air staff used to give him such a hard time for talking about it ("Do you think anyone cares about your urinary tract defects?" mustachioed newsreader Charles McCord yelled at him during their Fox Business launch. "You've killed sympathy for yourself!") But the prolonged silence, coupled with the I-Man's age and his younger brother Fred's death on August 10, gives us grim thoughts.
On August 14, former WNBC New York executive vice president and Imus mentor Bob Sherman died of cancer himself. When Sherman joined WNBC in 1979 his first move was to re-hire Imus -- then a New York radio expat serving his exile in Cleveland. With Sherman's blessing, Imus carved out a style all his own, mocking political America with over-the-top characters like evangelist "Rev. Billy Sol Hargus" and a recurring Jesse Jackson impersonator. Imus understood just how middlebrow the political game seems to the average American, and he talked about it accordingly. Even as his profile expanded with national syndication and an off-color Clinton-era Correspondents' Dinner performance, Imus never lost his smirking nihilism. When Charlie Rose congratulated him in 1997 for making a Time shortlist of the most influential people in America, Imus joked that somebody at Time must have a book coming out that they want to promote on his show.
Today, Imus' name is inextricable from the 2007 racial controversy he incited. Author Sophia A. Nelson is currently touring the country with her book Black Woman Redefined, which she claims was inspired by an "open season on accomplished black women" that reached a tipping point with the I-Man's crude joke about Rutgers women's basketball players. As recently as August 15, Huffington Post speech-policer Max Perry Mueller called for some negligible little Cal Thomas quote in USA Today to "move fingers to keyboards to type messages of repudiation for (Thomas') Don Imus-like racial slur." A group of black women has created a Facebook sorority, seemingly in direct belated response to Imus, with the aim of turning the word "nappy" into "happy" and to "educate, inspire, and uplift" by...
Imus doesn't care. Unlike fellow cancerous rogue Christopher Hitchens, Imus is too gruff and formally uneducated to win media redemption in his final years. My only hope is that a young cult audience will tune in to him now and witness an urban American collective unconscious tapped into…before it's too late.
"The only people following this are sitting at home wearing their 'Pinheads and Patriots' T-shirts, mouthbreathers, eating up macaroni in the microwave and waiting for you to tell them what's going on!" Imus yelled at Cavuto during the debt debacle. Though forced to keep the old man at arm's length for the sake of his own reputation, Cavuto nonetheless couldn't stifle a laugh. Ratings or respect aside, even the suits at Fox know deep down that there's no accounting for style.
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