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“You Cannot Allow the Airwaves to Become the Toilet of Racist Language in America”–Sharpton Calls for Imus to Be Fired

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Calls are increasing for the dismissal of talk show host Don Imus over racist comments he made on his nationally syndicated program. Imus referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos” on his show on Wednesday. We speak with the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is calling for Imus to be fired, and with Maretta Short, president of the New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Women. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk show host Don Imus is under fire for making racist comments on his radio broadcast. On Wednesday’s edition of Imus in the Morning, Imus and his producer, Bernard McGuirk, spoke about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Rutgers had just lost the national championship game the night before.

DON IMUS: So I watched the basketball game last night between a little bit of Rutgers and Tennessee, the women’s final.

SID ROSENBERG: Yeah, Tennessee won last night, seventh championship for Pat Summitt, I-Man. They beat Rutgers by 13 points.

DON IMUS: Some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they’ve got tattoos and —

BERNARD McGUIRK: Some hardcore hos.

DON IMUS: That’s some nappy-headed hos there, I’m going to tell you that. Man, that’s some — ooh! And the girls from Tennessee, they all look cute, you know, so — like kind of like a — I don’t know.

BERNARD McGUIRK: A Spike Lee thing.


BERNARD McGUIRK: The Jigaboos versus the Wannabes —


BERNARD McGUIRK: That movie that he had?

DON IMUS: Yeah, it was a tough —

CHARLES McCORD: Do the Right Thing.

BERNARD McGUIRK: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

DON IMUS: I don’t know if I’d have wanted to beat Rutgers or not. But they did, right?

SID ROSENBERG: It was a tough watch. The more I look at Rutgers, they look exactly like the Toronto Raptors.

DON IMUS: Well, I guess, yeah.

LOU RUFFINO: Only tougher.

AMY GOODMAN: Imus in the Morning is broadcast to millions of people on more than 70 radio stations. It’s based at WFAN, which is owned by CBS, and it’s also broadcast on the television network MSNBC. Public condemnation intensified after Imus initially refused calls to apologize. Speaking on his radio show one day later, Imus said people shouldn’t be offended by what he called “some idiot comment meant to be amusing.” As the controversy grew, Imus had an apparent change of heart and finally apologized Friday.

Several civil rights and media groups have rejected the apology and are calling for Imus to be removed. The Rainbow/PUSH coalition will hold protests today outside the offices of MSNBC’s parent company NBC. The Rev. Jesse Jackson said, “If he has a right to use that platform to insult and degrade, then we have a moral obligation to picket NBC and to protest.” The NAACP and the National Association of Black Journalists have also joined the calls for Imus’s firing and a boycott of his show.

Civil rights leader and founder of the National Action Network, the Rev. Al Sharpton joins us now on the telephone. Don Imus is scheduled to appear on Rev. Sharpton’s radio show at 1:00 EST. We are also joined by Maretta Short, who is the president of New Jersey National Organization for Women. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Reverend Al Sharpton, what are you calling for today?

REV. AL SHARPTON: I’m calling for Imus to be fired. I think that what he said was racist and sexist, and there must be accountability. If there is anything at all to FCC regulating and protecting the public, and if there’s any kind of ethics at all among advertisers, they would immediately move to have him removed. This is no borderline amusing comment. This is as racist and sexist as you can get.

These are young women who have excelled academically to where they can attend Rutgers University, excelled athletically, and for them to be depicted as some “nappy-headed hos,” and we act like this is something funny, I think is ridiculous.

You must remember, Amy, we’re not talking about just some wayward shock jock. This is a radio announcer who presidential candidates and U.S. senators and major network anchormen go on his show. This would be the mainstreaming of racism and sexism. We cannot tolerate that.

AMY GOODMAN: So what are you exactly calling for? I mean, Imus is broadcast in many places here. He’s broadcast on WFAN here in New York, owned by CBS. It goes out syndicated around the country, and then MSNBC every morning broadcasts the show on television.

REV. AL SHARPTON: They should remove — they should immediately terminate Imus. Certainly, there’s enough in their contracts on moral clause alone to get out of these contracts. He has tried to meet — I have said I would not meet with him. If he wanted to talk, he had to talk in public. He said, “Come on my show.” I said, “I would never try to get listeners to your show.” He said, “I’ll come to yours.”

I intend to tell him today what I’ve told everyone for the last three or four days: He ought to be fired. If he thinks he’s a good guy, as he’s saying, and he was misunderstood, then he ought to say that, and I will say to him, “If you’re a good guy, you’ll resign and help to keep a precedent that this cannot be tolerated in America.” This is not personal. What he did was racist and sexist and should not be given a pass because he’s commercially successful.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you spoken with any of the executives of CBS or NBC?

REV. AL SHARPTON: Spoke to the people at NBC, and we intend to speak to the people at CBS. We intend to be having demonstrations in New York in front of CBS and NBC, if he is still there at the end of this week. And National Action Network and National Association of Black Journalists and all of us who began this together are reaching out to other groups to join us in this.

I will, again, make it clear when Mr. Imus, if he were to show up at the radio show today, that this is not about whether he’s a good guy or whether he does charitable work, this is about accountability in media. If the airwaves can be used to, in any way, mainstream racism and sexism, it is an affront to all of us. We must resist it. We cannot have a precedent where people can say these kinds of things and walk away without any penalty.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response to Don Imus basically saying he’s a good person who he made a bad comment, that he just made an idiotic statement?

REV. AL SHARPTON: You can go to any criminal court building today, and people that are charged with crimes say that every day. The problem is the crime, not the person. I don’t have to give a long list of why I think Imus is a good or bad person, even though he has said many offensive things before. I think this act must be punished. The issue is not his other activities. The issue is he said it. He clearly said it. You played the tape. Others have heard the tape. And whether or not FCC, that regulates media in this country, and advertisers are going to continue to support and allow this kind of language to be used, that’s the issue here.

If he was a good guy, he would say, “I did something wrong. I want to step up and withdraw and help establish and continue the establishment of a precedent here that racism has no part on the airwaves.” Al Campanis, who was vice president of the Dodgers, said something that I think was even less offensive than Imus, and he had to leave the Dodgers. Jimmy “The Greek.” There’s a precedent here, that we are now trying to act like in the 21st century that racist language, racist kind of commentary can be justified as humor and excused because the guy saying it is an alright guy. I don’t think we can live by that kind of precedent.

AMY GOODMAN: The NABJ, Bryan Monroe, who’s the president of the National Association of Black Journalists, also calling for Imus to be kicked out, raised other quotes calling Gwen Ifill — I think his words were “a cleaning lady,” and describing William Rhoden of The New York Times as a “quota hire.” Those were quotes in an NABJ press release that Imus had made earlier, at other times.

REV. AL SHARPTON: Yeah, Imus has a record of this, from what he said about Gwen Ifill, what he said about Rhoden, what he said about others. But I don’t think that anything has crossed the line more blatantly than what he said about these young ladies, and, again, both sexist and racist. And are we just going to continue with this and act like it’s alright or, “OK, I can get away with just an apology”? I mean, Michael Richards, who just caused a firestorm with his nightclub act, was one matter, and I felt there that was totally wrong. I’ve condemned people in the black community for using the N-word and being offensive, and many of them were fired and suspended from radio jobs. Why would we take a different stand when it comes to Don Imus, because he deals with the political elite? I think that’s nonsense. I think he must be penalized. I think the precedent in media in this country is more important than the person of Don Imus or anyone else, in terms of their careers.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you taking this to the FCC, as well?

REV. AL SHARPTON: We have this morning sent a letter to the FCC, asking for them to take action, and we want to meet with the commissioners of the FCC. If the FCC cannot say to stations that this is not allowed, then what is their role as regulators? Are they saying to taxpayers that it’s alright that racist, sexist remarks go out over the airwaves? That is not part of our regulation.

That’s not a question now of free speech. This is a question of where we regulate radio and regulate TV differently for different people. There are any number of deejays around the country, even black, that have been fired and suspended for saying things far less offensive, but offensive. And I have supported that, even friends of mine, because I think that you cannot allow the airwaves to become the toilet of racist language in America.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Al Sharpton, joining us on the phone from New York. He is going to be having Don Imus on his radio program at 1:00 EST. Maretta Short, also with us, president of the National Organization for Women, New Jersey. Maretta Short, what is NOW calling for?

MARETTA SHORT: Well, thank you, Amy. Yes, well, right now we’re asking for people to go to our website and take action by sending messages to the general manager, Chuck Bortnick, of radio station WFAN, which produces Imus’s show, and to Karen Mateo, communications vice president of CBS Radio, which owns WFAN, and to MSNBC television, which airs and promotes the show. Imus’s message is racist to the core, is sexist to the core, and it’s totally unacceptable.

And our webpage is now.org, by the way. And on Wednesday at 2:30, there is going to be a protest and rally at Rutgers University at 350 Martin Luther King Boulevard. So those who are asking, “What is Al doing about it? What is NOW doing about it? What is NAACP doing about it?” you have work to do. You are NOW, you are the NAACP, and it’s time for us to move on this. Imus’s actions are totally unacceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: Maretta Short, you are in New Jersey. Have you spoken to people at Rutgers?

MARETTA SHORT: Well, right now, I’m waiting for call backs. I have put out calls as — last night, and I’m waiting for the calls to be returned. Right now, I’m reaching out to some members of the Rutgers basketball team. I have not spoken to any of them as of yet, but I certainly am looking forward to it.

AMY GOODMAN: And has NOW met with General Electric, which owns NBC, or NBC officials or MSNBC or WFAN or CBS, which owns FAN?

MARETTA SHORT: Yeah, that is a very good question, and I want to get to that later. But I think that it’s important to say, about these apologies that Imus is supposed to make, there’s certain things you can’t apologize for, Amy. You can apologize for stepping on somebody’s toe, bumping into them, but you cannot apologize for the filth that has come out of his mouth. I mean, I think it’s utterly, utterly disgusting, and it targets a certain audience that nobody’s focusing on: the white male beer-drinking 18 to 38ers. What makes them feel it’s OK to do that? So now, his show is creating an audience that thinks that talking in that way and insulting people and spewing out that hatred is acceptable. It is totally unacceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. We’ll certainly report on what happens today, the latest developments, what Don Imus says on Reverend Al Sharpton’s radio show and what the plans of the corporate networks are in dealing with Imus in the Morning.

MARIETTA SHORT: OK, well, Amy, thank you very much. And I just want to say that this is coming to us on the 35th year of the anniversary of the Title IX, when women have been given the equal opportunities in education, including sports, whereas years ago we just did not have that sort of thing. And, by the way, it was introduced by a woman of color, Patsy Mink of Hawaii, and I think that’s a very important point to bring out, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you very much.

REV. AL SHARPTON: I agree. And we certainly support the rally at Rutgers, and we’ll be doing rallies at CBS and NBC on Friday and Saturday of this week. And we’ll keep you informed, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks very much, Reverend Al Sharpton and Maretta Short, the president of New Jersey NOW.

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