Idol Chatter

The question, to me, is not whether Imus should have been fired for his comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball players; it’s why he was fired for these comments in particular–or rather, why he, and countless other shock-jocks like him, weren’t fired sooner for any number of other immoral comments and “jokes.”

Let’s be clear: spewing insensitive and hateful invectives was Imus’ job. The tools of his trade are comments that are focused on race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc., etc., etc. You almost feel bad for the guy. I’m guessing he genuinely has not clue why these comments were over the line when everything else he’s said a million other times were somehow OK. I suppose the consequences this time had to do with his targets–inspiring student athletes, rather than reviled politicians or trashy tabloid starlets–and the way the media works and how stories get picked up and amplified. But that doesn’t change the fact that Imus represents a part of our culture of which we should all be ashamed. The truth is that our talk radio waves are no place for decent human beings–and yet we’ve turned those voices of indecency into megacelebrities.

And the problem is not just the Howard Stern-wannabe morning shock jocks like Imus. Perhaps more insidious are Rush Limbaugh and his political talker ilk, people who can hide behind the veneer of focusing on high-minded public-policy and values issues while dehumanizing and degrading their targets. The careers of these political shock jocks are no less based on insult and hate than Imus’ and Stern’s. Both groups are paid to provoke–one to provoke laughs, the other to provoke indignation–but nowhere is there a value on provoking thought, dialogue, and curiosity. In her Idol Chatter piece, Nicole Symmonds blames rap music for ruining the minds of a generation of children, making vulgar talk and crude behavior mainstream among young people; I’d blame (in part only) talk radio for helping to similarly damage a generation of adults.

I am most definitely not opposed to art, or even discourse, that is edgy, potentially offensive, or unpopular; not everything needs to be affirmations and lollipops. But crass has moved from the margins to the mainstream; it is the default, the expected, and that’s where the problem is. Edgy has no edgy anymore and we are desensitized to the supposedly shocking. Imus’ show was a popular forum for respectable, mainstram politicians. There was a time in this country when political discussion was not an oxymoron; when crassness was edgy (when done cleverly) and something to be a bit embarrassed by; when members of a political party could hold diverse views–even disagreeing with their party leaders–and not be derided for it; when we could talk about the issues that divide us without painting the other as evil, resorting to distortions to put down those with whom we disagree.

The end of civility is not only the fault of talk radio, to be sure. I hate to shoot fish in a barrel by blaming the media, but the endless drivel on cable television–just a visual version of talk radio–and the noxious lawlessness of the blogosphere play their roles, along with a million other factors. But talk radio–in its political and its shock-jock forms–seems to be the granddaddy of them all, paving the way for its TV and web-based cousins to push the line even further away from anything recognizable as decency.

The defense is always that free speech protects their comments–true enough, no argument there–and that the marketplace, the money-making massive popularity of these shows is its own proof of acceptability. But our lowest common denominators shouldn’t be bar for judging community standards, nor does surrendering to our bases instincts define our morality. Now that Imus’ show is history, let’s stop the holier-than-thou condemnations and look within at the ways we’ve all contributed to the atmosphere that took the shock out of shock jock and allowed Imus–and Stern and Limbaugh and so many others–to thrive. And let’s use this moment to start a national dialogue–a real one, not a talk-radio insult-fest–about what we really want from our media.

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