Furor over Imus puts heat on other broadcasters

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Corporate decisions to cancel Don Imus’ U.S. radio and cable television shows have some commentators wondering what may happen to other media personalities who have also pushed the bounds of civility.

CBS Corp. canceled Imus’ morning radio program on Thursday, a day after MSNBC pulled its simultaneous cable TV broadcast over comments Imus made about a women’s college basketball team.

But Imus was not alone in offending minorities when he said the Rutgers University team looked like “nappy headed hos,” a phrase widely condemned as racist and sexist.

Nationally syndicated U.S. radio host Neal Boortz last year said a black congresswoman who has since failed in a bid for re-election, Cynthia McKinney, “looks like a ghetto slut.”

Rush Limbaugh, another national radio broadcaster, in January called Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, whose father was from Kenya and white mother from Kansas, a “halfrican American.”

And CNN talk-show host Glenn Beck, during an interview with Muslim congressman Keith Ellison, said in November, “Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.”

Those are some of the examples cited by MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann on Wednesday night.

The comments by Boortz, Limbaugh and Beck were confirmed by the watchdog group Media Matters, which said the same public outcry that forced Imus off the air ought to be applied to others.

“Every day on talk radio and cable news, journalists, hosts, guests and commentators cross that same line. Regardless of who the victim of that hate speech is, it is damaging and hurtful both to the public debate and the public at large,” Karl Frisch, a spokesman for Media Matters, said on Thursday before the CBS announcement.

Boortz, Limbaugh and Beck remain in their jobs, and Boortz was among a group of conservative radio hosts who met U.S. President George W. Bush in the White House for 90 minutes last September.

Some media experts suggested their offenses were not as egregious as Imus’ because they targeted public officials rather than collegiate athletes.

But Frisch said politicians did not deserve “racist, homophobic, sexist ridicule.”

Paul Levinson, chairman of the Department of Communications and Media Studies at New York’s Fordham University, said commentators such as Limbaugh or Ann Coulter were “already identified as crackpots” while Imus was more influential with the mainstream.

Author and columnist Coulter last month called Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards a “faggot,” which led three newspapers to drop her column.

“Once someone is identified as beyond the pale, which is how Coulter and Limbaugh are identified, nobody ever takes anything they say all that seriously,” Levinson said.

Levinson doubted the Imus incident would affect long-lasting change. “If those people began scaling back, they’d lose who they are. They couldn’t exist without that level of outrageousness,” he said.

Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television, said other commentators would invite similar trouble if they went as far as Imus did.

He did not see a double standard even though Imus is to the left of the political spectrum while those singled out by Media Matters are to the right. “The rules about who can say what and when are extremely complex,” Thompson said. “In Imus’s case, it was all about the context.”