Thursday, April 12, 2007

I-Man's joke testing limits of free speech

A racial slur uttered by the US well-known radio host and comedian Don Imus also known as the I-Man is causing national outrage.

The controversy began when Imus characterized the Rutgers women's basketball team, one of the two best women's basketball teams in America as "nappy-headed hos."

Imus spewed the racist remarks on his radio show. Imus' radio show originates from WFAN-AM in New York City and is syndicated nationally by Westwood One, both of which are managed by CBS Corp. (MSNBC, which simulcasts the show on cable, is a part of NBC Universal, which is owned by General Electric Co.)

Imus, 67, is a hard-core shock jock and has gone past the edges of propriety many times during his long career. He makes a living by spreading verbal insults disguised as humour, once calling Colin Powell a 'weasel' and another time referring to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as a 'fat sissy.'

His comments about the Rutgers women crossed the line and several prominent advertisers announced plans to distance themselves from the talk show host.

The fallout from the comments continues to build momentum. Office supply chain Staples Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co. said they pulled advertising from Imus' show, and Bigelow Tea said the remarks have 'put our future sponsorship in jeopardy.'

Calls for the radio host's dismissal have been growing, including from groups such as the National Organization for Women and the National Association of Black Journalists.

Imus has apologized repeatedly for his comments. He said Tuesday he hadn't been thinking when making a joke that went 'way too far.' He also said that those who called for his firing without knowing him, his philanthropic work or what his show was about would be making an 'ill-informed' choice.

Amidst the chorus of voices getting louder to fire him or take action, some legal experts say that Imus engaged in parody and there was no ill-intent on his part to demean anyone.

Freedom of speech and parody are First Amendment rights and the The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the independent United States government regulatory agency may not intervene as Imus has not demonstrated malice or broadcast obscene or indecent programming.

Imus’s friends say that he is not a racist in his heart. But what is or is not in the heart of a radio talk show host is much less important than what comes out of his mouth.

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