As the I-Man Turns: Ifill and Kurtz Offer Differing Views of Imus Debate
But eventually, Washington Week host Gwen Ifill decided to talk to me about an issue she hasn't spoken about publicly very much: the racial insult hurled her way by Imus 14 years ago.
"When i was working at the New York Times (in 1993), his producer would call and ask me to come on the show. And I wouldn't return the calls, because I wasn't interested. Shortly after that, I would get questions from people asking, whatever happened with you and Imus. I didn't know what they were talking about. And they'd go, 'Oh, nothing.'
Turns out, what they were talking about was a insult she wouldn't learn about until New York Daily News writer Lars-Eric Nelson decribed it in a story five years later: "Isn't the Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House." (Imus insists the line was said by a fictional character on his show; former media critic Philip Nobile says he heard the shock jock himself say it)
Ifill has written a pretty amazing column about this issue for her former employer in today's edition. When we talked, she pointed out one reason why Imus has gotten away with such remarks for years -- until the age of YouTube and his MSNBC show's growing popularity, there weren't many objective records of what he said.
"How do you prove it?" said Ifill, who was working at NBC when Nelson's column ran, and immediately asked her boss -- Washington bureau chief and Meet the Press host Tim Russert -- to allow her to stop appearing on Imus' show. "Who has a copy of a tape from a 1995 show -- except maybe him?"
She couldn't say why her old boss, Russert, still appears on Imus' show, given his history of such comments. "I have lots of thoughts, but no insights. I don't know any black journalists who appear on the show, and that should speak for itself."
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, who Imus reportedly called "a boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jew boy" years ago, had a different reaction. In an email to me yesterday, Kurtz said he didn't think imus was a bigot.
"He engages in locker-room humor that sometimes goes over the line or, as in this case, obliterates it. What Imus said about the Rutgers women was offensive, insensitive and stupid, as he now recognizes. I've been watching a chastened man on the air who seems to understand that he must clean up his act, and his apologies seem to me to be sincere. He should be held accountable for his comments but they should also be weighed against his career and charitable fundraising."
And as for the boner-nosed comment? "I wasn't offended by what he said about me nine years ago, during a trumped-up feud, because he was trying to be funny and I'm fair game. The Rutgers women aren't fair game for that kind of abuse, which is what makes this much more serious."
Nobile, a former media critic for New York magazine who spent years chronicling Imus' racial humor, said the shock jock hasn't been honest in his apologies -- denying the Ifill comment and other insulting comments, while trying to use his charitable work and friendships with the powerful to minimize the damage.
Nobile said he contacted many black journalists who once appeared on Imus' show, including columnist Stanley Crouch and CBS News legend Ed Bradley, to convince them not to appear, given the humor Imus often applied. Now, he hopes Sharpton and officials from the National Association of Black Journalists who have spearheaded the protests against Imus, demand a meeting with executives from NBC and CBS Radio to gain assurances they will rein in the shock jock.
"If we can document his lying in the middle of his apology, then there's no reason to accept it," said Nobile. "He's trying to hide behind his charities and saying that this is humor."
Critics remain skeptical about the two-week suspensions imposed by NBC News and CBS Radio, concerned that the corporations are just hoping the whole controversy will blow over. Imus himself remained relatively contrite on his radio show this morning:
"I'll serve my suspension with as much dignity as I can," he said. "Am I trying to save my job? No. I also don't want this to be the final note -- it's been a pretty good career."