Volume 21 • Issue 3 April 19, 2007

What Business Learned from the Firing of

by David Zweig

Editor’s Note: Until the Virginia Tech shootings, the spectacle of business’s reaction to Don Imus’s racist and misogynistic com- ments last week presented a rare opportunity for serious national dialogues about our values, our culture, and the choices we make — or evade — daily. Powerful executives had to make decisions that transcended their job titles, and went to a place they clearly did not visit enough: who they are as human beings. This account reflects my personal perspective and in no way reflects the opinion of the World Business Academy. From this vantage point, I wrote this piece to share the evidence that some- thing remarkable occurred last week, and it portends, with hope, a signpost that business will never be quite the same again. n the 21st century, America’s cycle never seems to move from I“spin” to “rinse.” Last week the nation was transfixed by the 10-day se- rial dismemberment of Don Imus’s broadcast career after his latest, but likely not his last, racist and misogynistic remarks were transmitted for profit over the public spectrum. Imus spent the week in abject contrition, apologizing to anyone who would listen, and many who would not: the Reverend Sharpton, the Rev- erend Soaries, his audience, the Rutgers President, the basketball play- ers… anyone. Imus is certainly no stranger to hot water. But this flap was different. When his deal finally went down it was not a matter of black and white. It was, in part, green: advertisers pulled out. But looking beneath the obvious, the incident reveals something new in the world of business: yes, the power of media has changed. But more importantly, we also saw a new need to accommodate employees as stakeholders, individual reflection by CEOs, an intelligent national discussion along moral lines, and, above all, a newfound ability to perceive that which always should have been obvious: in short, a higher consciousness. Fortuitously and fortunately for Imus, the incalculable human tragedy of Virginia Tech bumped his firing from the airwaves, the Internet, and the newspapers. This week’s double sequel, Groundhog Day: Bowling for Blacksburg, provides another snapshot of how little the tectonic plates of the gun business, politics and media have moved since two other adolescent loners shot up their Colorado High School eight years ago, almost to the day. The majority in Congress purposely pushed the assault rifle ban into oblivion in 2004. One of Cho Seung-Hui’s pistols held 33 rounds, enabling him to pump at least three shots into each of his 47 victims. At the risk of digression, I note that Larry Pratt, director of Gun Owners of America, said this week, “It is irresponsibly dangerous to tell citizens that they may not have guns at schools.” At the NRA convention last week, former Ambassador John Bolton described his efforts to weaken two UN Conferences aimed at restricting international gun trafficking. Bolton was joined on the podium by Oliver North, who is not without experience in such matters. As America’s fetish with its 200,000,000 firearms spirals us and the world toward greater insanity, the other side of the frenzied media diptych, the Imus episode, had begun every so briefly to draw busi- ness, media, and American society closer to the light. It engendered a thoughtful discussion, and not a spitball war of soundbytes and in- sults. People actually changed positions, and even vowed to change their policies, without resorting to the fulsome apologies that we hear ­almost daily in the media.

 Whether businesses choose to traffic in armaments or hate speech, the rest of us suffer. One can extrapolate almost no wisdom from the isolat- ed act of a madman like Cho, and it is useless to think about his crime if the businessmen who make the guns, and politicians they own, refuse to do anything different. That reason alone should suffice to afford the victims’ families the grace in which they can grieve. The media’s obses- sion with these murders had another sad outcome that, unlike the kill- ings, did affect all of us: the media frenzy over this crime pre-empted a long overdue discussion about race, gender, and the allure of banal hate speech that passes as “entertainment” in our culture. If the gunmakers are inured from the threat of conscientious reflection about their contribution to society, perhaps the corporate advertisers who for so many decades underwrote Imus and his madcap hate speech are not. As much as anything, the Imus program highlighted a kind of willful macular degeneration of the consciousness of business, of the politicians who frequented his show, and, ultimately, of his audience. The selective blindness on the part of white America — the white poli- ticians, white advertisers, white CEOs, and white network executives, the preponderance of whom happen to be male — was perhaps the most unsettling part of this incident. As long as Imus remained in his container, whose edges were scribed by our blindness, it was all right to pour millions into his coffers. Most reports suggest he earned $10 million annually. The neurophysiologist Jerome Lettvin wrote a famous paper called What the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain wherein we learned that, gener- ally, members of one species see things differently from members of others. He monitored activity in frogs’ optic nerves while showing them visual stimuli. Frogs can see four things: general environmental outlines (useful for amphibians), small dark objects (like bugs), sudden changes in light and dark from above (like a bird-predator), and moving edges. Americans and frogs are vertebrates with similar image processing hard- ware. But in the case of Don Imus, unlike frogs, we cannot see moving edges. As the shock-jock plied his trade through the decades, most of us didn’t see how he regularly trespassed the bounds of taste, civility, and humanity. The listeners didn’t see it. The advertisers didn’t. The media execs didn’t. The politicians and guest wise men on his show didn’t see it. Only his victims saw it. We couldn’t even conjure up the victims’ faces in our minds until they paraded their pain on national television. In the case of Don Imus, the frog had it all over us. What was it about this issue, this man, and his competitors — who still pass off hatred, anger, and degradation as acceptable political com- mentary or entertainment — that blinds us? Why did it take us so long

 to determine that Imus, despite his charitable fundraisers and chil- dren’s camps, had irretrievably crossed the line? Imus had crossed the line many times. But in every instance, most of us, even our best and brightest, unconsciously chose not to see him wandering where he did not belong. Every elevation in individual human consciousness is presaged by a in perception. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ And Vanity comes along and asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But Conscience asks the question ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Con- science tells him it is right.” As I scan the approved public statements of media executives and cor- porations, with scant exceptions white America dithered on the Imus matter. It is difficult to find someone early on who said, “This is beyond the pale. We’re pulling our business forever.” In a rare exception, CBS benefited from diversity of one of its board directors, Bruce Gordon. A former Verizon executive and briefly the head of the NAACP, he called CEO and told him in no un- conditional terms to fire Don Imus. The value of diversity here does not reside in the hue of Gordon’s skin (although he happens to be the only CBS director from a minority group), which is irrelevant. Rather, Gordon adds value because he perceived things differently from the other people at the board table (who happen to be white). Unlike his colleagues, he saw the question in unambiguous terms with sharp edges: As an African-American, I believe that Imus has crossed the line, a very bright line that divides our country. His remarks are so significant that I believe that the right outcome is for him to be terminated. [The two-week suspension] affords man- agement the opportunity to do due diligence and evaluate what this means to the company, the brand and what it stands for. Once due diligence is completed, it is my belief that the facts should determine that he should be terminated. We should have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to what I see as irresponsible, racist behavior. The Imus comments go beyond humor. Maybe he thought it was funny, but that’s not what occurred. There has to be a consequence for that behavior. When I look at it from my position as a director, where my responsibility is to repre- sent the best interest of the shareholders, it’s more complex. But at the end of the day, the image of CBS is at risk...the ad revenue of CBS could be at risk. What I expect is for management to take the next

 two weeks to do their homework. I hope that the result of their due diligence is to terminate Don Imus. Through the years, Don Imus launches slurs too countless and vile to mention. A sampling is catalogued through the years at http://www. tompaine.com among other places. Whether Imus called Oprah a “fat flatulent cow,” or Janet Reno a “lesbo”, or Jews “hooknoses,” or others “queers” or “sambos” or “knuckle-draggers”, a resplendent sampling of it is there for all to marvel at. At this site also documents his efforts to confront Imus’s guests in person after the show (some of whom were friends of his) and ask them, essentially, “What the hell were you thinking?” Not one had an answer. Unlike those slurs dating back to 2000, this time the Rutgers insult took Don Imus down because the world had changed. Like a wooly mam- moth stumbling into the La Brea tarpit, Imus fell into the yawning abyss of modern America’s news hole and the power of digital media written by little guys with no audience to speak of. Three cable stations have 72 hours to fill. As with a garrulous dinner companion, they more they talk, the less they have to say. In 2007 the ability of private citizens to float a piece of media into the news stream (a cellphone photo or a clip of Don Imus) creates a rip current strong enough to carry off a powerful person like Don Imus. For businesses, politicians and media personalities, these factors are making the shifting seas of public opinion a vastly more treacherous place to navigate each year. The era of lone, erudite com- mentators like Walter Lippmann seems unbelievably distant, a dimming star in a galaxy eons of light years away. The world has utterly changed since then, and perhaps America has changed just a bit since Don Imus uttered those two words at 6:14 a.m. on April 4. The destruction of Imus began that morning not because anyone at CBS or NBC knew, cared, or ever believed Imus went too far. The primer that ultimately exploded Imus was hammered by a 26-year-old who worked the graveyard shift at a liberally oriented media watchdog or- ganization (MediaMatters.org). He recorded Imus’s miscue and posted it on the group’s blog, where it was rapidly picked up by YouTube, after which all hell broke loose. was broadcast on MSNBC , WFAN- AM radio in (owned by CBS) from which he produced the show, and was syndicated to 61 radio stations by . No other CBS stations carried it. To a large extent it was not the CBS microphone but the MSNBC camera that toppled Imus. One suspects that had his faux pas remained solely in the province of audio format, all of this would have blown over, or never

 blown up at all. Thanks to the internet, the ephemeral becomes the eter- nal; the videobyte of his slur has been downloaded 1.5 million times. Ironically, that’s a bigger audience than MSNBC could pull for the Imus program. MSNBC cable TV picked up a live video feed of the program from Imus’s radio studio. It did not make for dramatic television, but it filled a programming hole. Ratings indicated it drew about 350,000 unique viewers for at least five minutes a week. MSNBC paid a $4 million annual fee to CBS to the show. It attracted some $8 million in ad revenues, about one twentieth of MSNBC’s total. The video produc- tion cost $500,000 a year, leaving a modest profit after Imus drew his $10 million salary. MSNBC’s trifling profits turned out to be small recom- pense for big trouble. After the storm gathered strength, MSNBC ulti- mately buckled days before CBS succumbed to the pressure to fire Imus. At CBS, Imus was a slightly bigger deal. His program generated revenue from two sources. One was syndication, as noted above. The other was the wholly owned New York station WFAN, where Mediaweek estimated the show produced 44% of the station’s estimated $50 million in rev- enue. WFAN is one of the ten top-grossing stations in the U.S. Even with such distribution, among the constellation of radio talkers, Don Imus is not a star of major brightness. According to Talkers Maga- zine, the top five radio personalities in ratings (Limbaugh, , Savage, Schlesinger and Ingraham) have a collective minimum weekly audience of 47 million (which may include substantial duplication). All of them spend almost all their time degrading people with whom they disagree on political grounds, usually with vicious personal insults. That’s entertainment. Imus and these five commentators dominate the talk format in the AM spectrum, after the profoundly vulgar left terrestrial radio to sign with Sirius Satellite Radio in a deal worth $600 million. While Sirius has only 5 million-plus subcribers, Stern’s departure has markedly changed — some would say weakened — the AM industry. In churning a quarter of its customers each year, Sirius has rung up a cumulative loss of almost $4 billion. Comparatively, Don Imus pulled a small audience. Overall, he had a cumulative weekly draw of 2.25 million, sufficient only to place him in the top 25 radio shows in the country. Yet the audience was powerful and shaped media and opinions. Imus did very well with affluent well educated males over 50 in the North- east. These are opinion influencers, and Imus developed a symbiotic relationship between this small but desirable demographic and the guests who appeared on the serious parts of the program. These guests ranged from politicians and pundits to serious authors. Sen. , for example, used the venue to announce his presidential

 candidacy this January. Then-sitting President Clinton once gave a lengthy interview. Guests included , , , John McCain, , Vice President , and Joe Lieberman. Tom Friedman, , and often appeared. He had the Washington A-list; a salon at Pamela Harriman’s Georgetown mansion where the men break off to ridicule “faggots” in the other room. Random House advertised because its authors and other in- tellectuals hailed the pro- gram. The Imus format enabled them to develop ideas by taking more time than a soundbyte. Imus is an infinitesimally better interviewer than Barbara Walters and the Easter Is- land moai of the decrepit Sunday morning shows. Many celebrities enjoyed matching wits with Imus. After Imus’s fall, many of them, like David Brooks of the N.Y. Times, who is well paid precisely to ob- Project for excellence in Journalism serve the world, and John http://www.journalism.org/node/5085 ­McCain claimed ignorance about the rest of the show. It was the duality of Imus’s format — serious discussions with serious people, and character pornography — that seemed to create a bizarre optical field upon which no white man could focus. Whether the tem- poral reference is 36 years on the radio in New York (with time off for drug rehab) or the posting on YouTube, Don Imus’s hate speech prob- lem did not come to the awareness of CBS’s CEO Les Moonves until the afternoon of April 5, some 27 hours after the slip, when an assistant told him CBS was receiving calls from viewers and employees. YouTube and the blogosphere were working their magic. By dinnertime CBS had also taken complaints from Rutgers and the head of the National ­Association of Black Journalists.

 Imus apologized the next morning, which happened to be Good Friday. The Easter weekend is always a slow news day. Newspapers barely noticed the Imus problem, but TV and radio were beginning to play it up, and the Black Journalists had organized an all-out effort to register their “outrage and disgust.” The apology became the news event. Easter became a lousy time for forgiveness. Who knew? By Friday WFAN stated it would “monitor” the situation, but took no further action. The Reverends and used the weekend to organize demonstrations and thereby capitalized on the relative absence of news over a religious weekend. By Sunday after- noon, CBS and NBC executives were meeting to map their strategy for the growing crisis. On Monday April 9, Imus disgraced himself when he courageously but foolishly appeared on Sharpton’s program. The discussion was both fascinating and excruciating. Regrettably, Imus used the term “you people” and took black journal- ists to task for failing to respond to his prior calls to publicize sickle cell anemia. The appearance was a disaster and a textbook case for every- thing not to do in PR disaster control. Amidst the ham-handed dema- goguery (Sharpton brought his own daughter into the studio to con- front Imus) there were a few pinponts of truth, particularly when the Reverend Sharpton defined the issue as being “whether we can afford a precedent to be established that somebody can say something that you admittedly say yourself is wrong and I say is racist and sexist, and it just be glossed over. That’s the issue here. Because then, if you walk away from this unscathed, the next guy could say whatever he wants and just say, I’m sorry.” By this time the corporations, the news media, and almost all the ad- vertisers were circling over Georges Bank, trying to figure out where and whether it might be safe to land. Blacks definitely had a flight plan, but the corporations wanted to be sure to hold a wetted finger into the wind. As the pressure grew that day, both networks suspended him, with- out pay, for two weeks, in order to assess the situation, but perhaps to orchestrate his replacement. That day MSNBC News President met with two dozen black employees, who voiced their outrage over Imus’s continued employment. On Tuesday the Rutgers players held a press conference. It would have made for great theater if it were not so searingly honest. As has since been noted, the ten girls and their coach movingly proved that all hate speech, even “funny” hate speech, has real victims. While radio “person- alities” routinely shower cruelty upon celebrities, such as the obviously

 ailing Brittany Spears, no one defends the stars because of their wealth and fame. But the ten injured girls were different. When it became clear that the Rutgers runners-up had won America’s heart, advertisers dropped their flight reflex and decided to fight — on the side of the ten girls. P&G was among the first to announce. P&G is known as perhaps the most effective consumer goods marketing com- pany in the world. It is a conservative corporation based in a conserva- tive community, Cincinnati. It does not like controversy. It is the larg- est advertiser in the world, and it spends $3 billion on ads in the U.S. alone. At some point on Friday P&G claims to have pulled its ads, but the announcement was made only after the Rutgers team appeared on ­television. P&G is often the lead goose in the formation. Advertisers travel in packs and it’s vastly easier to justify leaving a show “because everyone else left” than it is to justify staying despite the fact everyone else left. There are far more spots in radio than there are advertising dollars, and Imus was not worth the trouble. It’s a buyers’ market. Sprint, American Ex- press, and next took flight. PetMed, GlaxoSmithKline, TDameritrade, Staples, and Ditech left. Bigelow, the only family-owned business in the lot, decided to pull its ads on April 10 and said its future sponsorship “was in jeopardy.” A blog operated by Cindy Bigelow attracted 136 comments on the matter. The postings provide a fascinating insight into the complexity of consumer response these days. The majority of posters actually condemned Big- elow’s move and swore never to buy their tea again. Apart from tea drinkers, a scientific ABC/Washington Post Poll this week suggests that Americans are closely divided over whether Imus should have been fired: 51% say yes, and 45% say no. Blacks agree with the fir- ing 3:1, and whites split down the middle. This business story is different from the others because the pressures on network executives came first from employees who held meetings about the Imus incident in the context of their company’s values. Sec- ond they came from interest groups, and particularly the National Asso- ciation of Black Journalists, which is entirely different from hundreds of thousands of Southern Baptists, for example, complaining about some egregious moral indecency on a broadcast. Listeners expressed opin- ions, but apparently not in overwhelming numbers. No email servers or phone exchanges caught fire. This decision came down because of the power of media and the power of small individuals, and not the power of hundreds of thousands. By Wednesday evening, April 11, the day after the Rutgers conference, the cable network MSNBC canceled its simulcast entirely. MSNBC News Presi- dent Steve Capus said that his employees were the determining factor:

 Look, I understand the people are going to view it [as an adver- tising-driven decision], and I only say that that — that is not why this decision was made. This decision was made after listening to the people who work for NBC News, who have placed a trust and respect the trust that America has given us. I ask you, what price do you put on your reputation? And the reputation of this news division means more to me than advertising dollars. Because if you lose your reputation, you lose everything. What matters to us most is that the men and women of NBC Uni- versal have confidence in the values we have set for this compa- ny. This is the only decision that makes that possible. With NBC out, the news department of CBS, diminished as it is, could not publicly adhere to a standard lower than that of its brethren at NBC. Given the free flight of advertisers, Imus was done. At least, for now. The annals of transgressions by other radio personalities, on air and off, are too sordid to cite here, but each has a happy ending in that every fired or suspended shock-jock came back to the airwaves for much more money. Our capacity for redemption is bottomless. I be- lieve Imus will be back. On April 12 CBS announced the firing of Imus in an internal letter ad- dressed to employees. Moonves asserted that “Imus has flourished in a culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people.” Moonves’s admission deserves unalloyed praise precisely it bespeaks a change in his consciousness in the direction of a set of values that leads toward the celebration of people, rather than their destruction. While the media-buying profession has suffered a brain drain worse than that of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, there remain many advertisers who do care about the “environment” in which their brand appears, even though the impact cannot precisely be quantified. One can take Steve Capus at his word — that the employees self-orga- nized and held management to a higher standard — at least because the money involved was not great. We can believe him at most be- cause he wanted to do the right thing. Those MSNBC journalists, as well as the unaffiliated Black Journalists, had a trimtab affect in changing the course of the behemoth NBC Universal (General Electric) toward a more conscious direction. Other radio purveyors of hate, fear, anger, demonization, and personal destruction have said they hear the footfalls in the hallway, and fear the “censors” will soon come after them. I believe their greater fear is not censorship, but civility, a behavior in which they have never evi- denced any skill whatsoever. In our capitalist system an advertiser or media corporation, or more accurately a human being employed by

10 such a firm, can always evoke the democratic or vox populi excuse and underwrite a show like Imus’s, despite its flaws, “because people like it.” Like Dr. King and Bruce Gordon, we began to ask, “Is it right?” But for a brief moment last week, that cop-out didn’t work any more. We as a people stopped to consider who we were, and what choices we make. The motes fell from our eyes, and we saw the ever-moving edge between right and wrong, between the celebration and the degradation of humanity. When she accepted Imus’s apology last Friday, the Rutgers basketball coach offered these words: “ These comments are indicative of greater ills in our culture. It is not just Mr. Imus, and we hope that this will be and serve as a catalyst for change. Let us continue to work hard together to make this world a better place.” Amen.

About the Author David Zweig is senior editor of the World Business Academy.

Copyright © 2007 World Business Academy, 428 Bryant Circle, Suite 109, Ojai, CA 93023 Academy Phone 805 640-3713 • Fax 805 640-9914 • Website www.worldbusiness.org Senior Editor, David Zweig, [email protected] Phone 510 547-3223