There was a change on Sept. 11. Perhaps you noticed. That event changed the climate of political correctness in our country. As a nation, we got scared, anxious, and frustrated. We seemed to stifle our own words.
Radio was once a bastion of free speech. They pushed envelopes and expressions. But today, radio has turned into a DMZ between two different factions: people who look for things to complain about, and people who are being complained about.
When Don Imus restarted his radio career six months back with the pledge to "mend wounds" caused by his racist and sexist comments about Rutgers women's basketball team, perhaps he opened himself up as a giant target for a peanut gallery of those who were just waiting to prey upon his first misstep.
Yesterday, they got their chance, in what must have been an Ewok celebration for those armchair parents of America.
On Monday, during an on-air conversation about suspended Dallas Cowboy football player "Pacman" Jones, Imus asks, "What color is he?"
Warner Wolf responds, "African-American".
Imus retorts, "There you go. Now we know."
There is no doubt that what drops from Imus' lips this time is not smart, savvy, nor tactful. Especially in lieu of the vilification he went through that had him fired and off-the-air from CBS and MSNBC.
Dumb and dumber might not quite encompass the ramifications here. But here is the rub: how can we judge when the outcry and catcalls are made so quickly, that most normal citizens and listeners do not even have a chance to judge it themselves? It is judged like a lightning strike from many with political and social interests before it even gets to us.
WABC and Imus quickly circled the wagons.
"I meant that he was being picked on because he's black," Imus said in a statement released by his spokesman as soon as it hit the news circuits. Imus and company have been quick to cite the new and improved ethnic diversity of his producing team and co-hosts.
But he has not put this new staff between his synapses nor between his brain and his tongue as his gravel acerbic words drop like WMDs from his lips. His statement was that he was trying to "make a sarcastic point".
The problem is that his career has become a sarcastic point to what radio has been shorn into, as many acts have gone over to SIRIUS and XM, like Howard Stern and Opie & Anthony. And even there, they have been subjected to pressure and sensitivity from a new public-at-large who wants, not just to comment or have an opinion, but to control and remove.
So, is this the fault of Imus? Or the fault of the cavalcade of politico correctophobes who sit waiting for the latest outrage, seeking to hit it like a pitch from Billy Wagner in the top of the ninth inning?
A bit of both, I'm afraid.
For the two sides are entwined like a snake eating it's own head. They feed one another in some mottled twist that is seeping any substance from the medium. We have barely a moment to perceive, weigh, and contemplate where the world-at-large already wants to respond for us. One pitches, the other bats, and the game is played without much of a regular Joe and Joan's participation.
"I find the inference of his remark disturbing because it plays into stereotypes," says Al Sharpton. "We will determine in the next day or so whether or not his remark warrants direct action on our part."
Ominous words from a man who has at times launched himself like a viper into the fray of anything that is racial for over 20 years.
Meanwhile, WABC and Citadel Broadcasting Corp. Vice President Phil Boyce, has already made statements of being satisfied by Imus' explanation. But the whole fiasco smacks to me of many things.
Do some people not have a racially-sensitive bone in their body? Perhaps. Only Don will really know what he meant. But we will never have an honest dialogue to address anything tangible, because reaction causes one to take a defensive posture.
The world at large has become a measuring stick to every word that comes out of a mouth or in print. The reaction is so palpable that it drowns all else. When it causes people to duck and weave, we will never know intent or the point in the first place.
The problem is that neither side is having a real conversation with one another to bridge the divide. That large divide between race, intentions, perceptions, and subjections. Talking points and subjects are lost between outrage, opinion, and action before we ever get to wrestle with tough, nuanced, and textured issues that have no easy answer.
In to that, the fault is both, whether they like it or not. Nobody wants a real conversation. Yet judgments and excuses are raining down just the same.
Tread lightly, they are listening.