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Behind the Fall of Imus, A Digital Brush Fire

By Brooks Barnes, Emily Steel and Sarah McBride
April 13, 2007

At 6:14 a.m. on Wednesday, April 4, relatively few people were tuned into the "Imus in the Morning Show" when Don Imus referred to the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed ho's."

Ryan Chiachiere was. A 26-year-old researcher in Washington, D.C., for liberal watchdog organization Media Matters for America, he was assigned to monitor Mr. Imus's program. Mr. Chiachiere clipped the video, alerted his bosses and started working on a blog post for the organization's Web site.

Yesterday, after eight days of dizzying activity, CBS pulled the plug on Mr. Imus's hugely successful radio show. One day earlier, MSNBC had canceled its broadcast of the show on cable TV. CBS had originally suspended Mr. Imus for two weeks, but succumbed amid an escalating national outcry and an exodus of big advertisers. "All of us have been deeply upset and revulsed by the statements that were made on our air," CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves said yesterday in a written statement.

Mr. Imus, who didn't respond to repeated calls seeking comment, had for years been making outrageous and frequently crude remarks about risky subjects such as race, sex and gender, a style that millions of listeners had embraced. The media executives and advertisers profiting from Mr. Imus's popularity stood by him as protests occasionally surfaced. They usually subsided after a few days.

This time it was different. The target was a sympathetic team of young athletes. In the ensuing furor, the lucrative and often vulgar business of talk radio found itself running into new limits, as the Internet sent Mr. Imus to millions of PC screens, driving executives, advertisers and employees to distance themselves from his racist words.

On the morning of the original broadcast, there was little response to Mr. Imus's slur. Media Matters posted the video and transcript on its Web site and sent an email blast to several hundred reporters, as it does nearly every day. The post received dozens of comments, many heated, some more than 300 words long. The next day, top news outlets didn't mention the incident.

On Thursday, at about 3 p.m., NBC News President Steve Capus was conducting a routine planning meeting in his third-floor offices at Rockefeller Center when an assistant interrupted him to take an urgent phone call, according to a person at the meeting. On the other line: MSNBC General Manager Dan Abrams. Mr. Abrams said MSNBC executives were fielding complaints from viewers and employees who had seen a video clip of Mr. Imus's remark on the Media Matters site, this person says.

The group is a Web-based nonprofit organization devoted to monitoring "conservative misinformation" in print, broadcast, cable, radio and Internet media outlets. It frequently complains about Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly. Although the Imus show isn't generally considered conservative, some of its guests are.

Mr. Capus called an emergency meeting with MSNBC's management team, the producers for the TV version of "Imus in the Morning" and the head of public relations for NBC News. Among other decisions, Mr. Capus asked his PR team to draft a statement apologizing on behalf of MSNBC but clearly pointing out that "Imus in the Morning" was a CBS Radio production. MSNBC and NBC are owned by General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal.

At CBS, CEO Leslie Moonves and incoming CBS Radio CEO Dan Mason spoke on the phone and started debating a course of action. About the same time, WFAN, the CBS-owned radio station that broadcast Mr. Imus's show, received a complaint from Rutgers University, according to Bo Dietl, an investigator and security consultant, and friend to Mr. Imus.

In Chicago, Bryan Monroe, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, saw an email sent by one of his executive board members at 5:06 p.m. "FYI -- do we need to address" read the subject line. It was the Media Matters post.

Mr. Monroe, editorial director of Johnson Publishing Co. in charge of Ebony and Jet magazines, wasn't a regular reader of Media Matters or an Imus listener.

He looked at the email. "My first reaction was: 'Oh, no he didn't,'" he says. Then he watched the clip. "I heard the words come out of his mouth and thought, 'Has he lost his mind?'"

Mr. Monroe picked up the phone and started calling other board members. He had guests over for dinner that night, who also were African-American. They talked about the controversy during dinner. Later that night, he was back on the phone with NABJ members and pulled an all-nighter to draft a statement. It said that the 3,200-member organization was "outraged and disgusted" by the comments, and called for "an immediate and sincere apology." Mr. Monroe posted the statement to the NABJ Web site at 5:30 a.m.

Friday morning, there was again scant mention of Mr. Imus's travails in the newspapers, although TV stations were beginning to pick up the story. Mr. Imus began his program, at 6:06 a.m., with an on-air apology. People close to Mr. Imus say he felt pressured to apologize by NBC and CBS executives. He also realized he needed to try to defuse the brewing storm.

"Want to take a moment to apologize for an insensitive and ill-conceived remark," he said. "Our characterization was thoughtless and stupid, and we're sorry."

It was Good Friday and many people already were off for the holiday weekend. News was supposed to slow to a crawl for several days.

Instead, the apology made the story explode. It hit the wires that day, and reporters began to contact CBS and MSNBC. It quickly became clear an apology wasn't going to suffice, and that the weekend wouldn't douse the fire.

David Carr, who writes a Monday media column for the New York Times business section, decided to scrap his planned subject and write about Mr. Imus instead. He called the remark "the kind of unalloyed racial insult that might not have passed muster on a low-watt AM station in the Jim Crow South."

Mr. Imus's problems were compounded by a power vacuum at CBS Radio, which produced his show. Two weeks earlier, CEO Joel Hollander, a longtime supporter of Mr. Imus and his various charities, had resigned. The company had been underperforming lately and was still reeling from the loss of shock-jock Howard Stern to satellite radio. Mr. Hollander's successor, Mr. Mason, wasn't due to start until April 16. He consulted with CBS executives by phone and email from his home outside Washington, D.C.

Mr. Imus's show is on just one CBS station -- WFAN -- but the media giant also earns revenue from syndicating the show to radio stations around the country. CBS owns 18% of the show's syndicator, Westwood One Inc.

Local stations that carry Imus say they sensed the situation was drifting. "Nobody had a firm hand on it," says Gabe Hobbs, head of talk programming at Clear Channel Communications Inc., which airs the Imus show on a handful of stations, including in Washington, D.C., and Providence, R.I. Some station managers say Westwood's affiliate-relations staff stayed in touch with them throughout the week.

Late Friday, WFAN issued a short statement. "We are disappointed by Imus's actions earlier this week, which we find completely inappropriate." The station said it would "monitor the program's content going forward."

On Friday, advertisers including Procter & Gamble Co. started talking about pulling their advertising from MSNBC's daytime schedule, which included Imus.

Civil-rights leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson raised the volume of their protests over the weekend, holding rallies in New York and Chicago. At a Saturday rally at the Harlem headquarters of the National Action Network, Mr. Sharpton called for Mr. Imus to be fired. A Sharpton spokesman says more than 200 people attended. Mr. Imus began to grasp the full consequences of what he had done, says his friend Mr. Dietl.

"Everybody is coming after me," Mr. Dietl recalls Mr. Imus telling him in a phone call that day. Mr. Imus and Mr. Dietl discussed the possibility of Mr. Imus appearing on Mr. Sharpton's radio show on Monday. Mr. Dietl says he advised against it, saying Mr. Sharpton would use Mr. Imus only to advance his own agenda. But Mr. Imus told his friend he wanted to use the show to apologize again.

CBS managers checked in with each other by phone, according to a spokesman, and NBC News executives gathered for a lengthy conference call on Sunday to map strategy, says Allison Gollust, head of communications for NBC News. Ms. Gollust hosted 15 people at her home for Easter dinner but never saw them.

Both CBS and NBC realized on Monday that critics were focusing their energy on MSNBC. The channel, critics strategized, was more likely to pull the plug because it had less to lose. Mr. Imus generates about $25 million a year for CBS, but only about $8.3 million for MSNBC. And although Mr. Imus reached over two million radio listeners every morning and only about 350,000 television viewers, TV was a more visible platform to attack.

Mr. Dietl offered to appear on Mr. Sharpton's show with Mr. Imus. "He said, 'No, Bo, I want to go on myself. I want to show I'm not afraid to face the music,'" Mr. Dietl recalls, saying Mr. Imus was convinced the controversy would die down after an apology. But the appearance seemed to make matters worse, with critics latching on to Mr. Imus's use of the phrase "you people," in what they said was a bungled apology.

CBS and NBC faced new problems: The Rutgers basketball team called a news conference for Tuesday morning. Another issue: a two-day charity "radio-athon" scheduled for Mr. Imus's show on Thursday and Friday.

At 6:30 p.m., MSNBC issued a harsh statement announcing it was suspending the show for two weeks, calling Mr. Imus's comments "racist" and "abhorrent." CBS 15 minutes later released its own statement saying it also would suspend the show.

The Rutgers news conference the next day was devastating. Carried live on cable TV, it went on for more than an hour. The coach gave a lengthy speech, before the 10 young women on the team, eight of whom are black, were introduced. They looked uncomfortable in the media glare. Without a hint of professional polish, their remarks came across as heartfelt.

For years, Mr. Imus had been somewhat inoculated from criticism because along with the edgy shtick, he addressed serious issues with guests from the political and media establishment. Presidential candidates (John Kerry, John McCain, Joseph Biden) top journalists (NBC's Tim Russert, David Gregory and Andrea Mitchell) and writers with a book to sell made stops on the show. Mr. Imus also pushed worthy charities, including his New Mexico ranch which hosted children with cancer.

But it soon became clear that events were moving at a speed he couldn't control.

P&G, the nation's largest advertiser, and one of its most conservative, says it quietly pulled ads from the TV broadcast on Friday but it didn't announce it until Tuesday when reporters started calling. P&G pulled ads from MSNBC's daytime schedule.

Mr. Capus called a meeting for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday with African-American employees in the news division, many of whom had complained to managers that MSNBC was sticking with Mr. Imus. The meeting, slated for 45 minutes, stretched for nearly two hours as employees -- some emotional and frank -- argued for axing the broadcast, according to two people who attended.

Jarred by the confrontation, Mr. Capus left the meeting and started lobbying CEO Jeff Zucker to pull the plug, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Senior NBC executives arrived at work on Wednesday to a flood of advertisers clamoring to pull their money from "Imus in the Morning." General Motors Corp., American Express Co., and GlaxoSmithKline PLC all followed P&G's lead. American Express's CEO Kenneth Chenault, an African-American, made the decision personally on Tuesday morning, says a spokeswoman for the financial giant.

At Sprint Nextel Corp., CEO Gary D. Forsee heard about the incident and agreed the spots should be pulled. Sprint employees had lobbied for the move, including members of an African-American Sprint employee group called the Diamond Network, says spokesman Chris Doherty. Sprint publicly confirmed its decision Wednesday.

Mark LaNeve, GM's vice president of North American vehicle sales, service and marketing, had been an occasional guest on Mr. Imus's program, appearing as recently as last Thursday. Over the years Mr. LaNeve had arranged for GM to donate vehicles to Mr. Imus's ranch for sick children. On Tuesday, as advertisers were beginning to pull out, GM said it had "no plans to make any changes at this point." A day later GM changed its mind. Yesterday, Mr. LaNeve and another top marketing executive decided to drop the ads altogether.

At NBC Universal, the only debate left was whether to announce the cancellation of the simulcast that day or wait until the charity telethon was concluded. In the early afternoon, Mr. Zucker checked in with GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, who had in turn been taking the pulse of GE board members, according to a person close to Mr. Immelt. At a 5 p.m. meeting, Mr. Zucker made the call to pull the plug immediately. "This is the right thing to do," Mr. Zucker said, according to a person in the room.

Communications executives drafted statements to release to employees and the media. NBC News executives called Mr. Imus, and Mr. Zucker placed a tense phone call to CBS's Mr. Moonves around 6 p.m. letting him know the decision.

Mr. Dietl had been reaching out to Mr. Moonves's boss, CBS Chairman Sumner Redstone, on Mr. Imus's behalf. "Two words should not ruin a person's career," he recalls telling Mr. Redstone. A spokesman for Mr. Redstone confirms the media mogul spoke with Mr. Dietl but otherwise declines to comment.

On Wednesday, CBS board member Bruce Gordon, a former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, dropped a bomb by telling the Associated Press he had called on Mr. Moonves to fire Mr. Imus.

Mr. Redstone left the decision to pull the show largely to Mr. Moonves, says a person familiar with the matter. On Thursday morning, Mr. Moonves spent an hour and a half meeting with about 10 African-American leaders and women's rights advocates.

Mr. Moonves called Mr. Imus late yesterday afternoon at home and told him that his show was canceled, according to a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Imus was awoken from a nap to take the call, Mr. Dietl says.

Other controversial radio hosts have gravitated to satellite, where there are fewer rules governing on-air standards. That happened with Mr. Stern, and with Opie & Anthony, a duo fired from CBS in August 2002 for encouraging a couple to have sex in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral.

But right now, the two satellite companies, Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. and XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc., are trying to merge, and need approval from the Federal Communications Commissions. FCC chief Kevin Martin is sensitive to complaints about indecency, and the companies wouldn't want to do anything that would jeopardize their merger prospects, says one satellite radio executive.

Mr. Imus's friend Mr. Dietl, a former New York City Police Department detective, blames the brouhaha on a fundamental mistake made by the radio host. While many others can get away with using offensive language, Mr. Dietl says, "the problem here was the people he talked about were innocent, lovely young ladies who strived and did something great."

--Neal Boudette, Ellen Byron, Brian Steinberg and Suzanne Vranica contributed to this article.

Write to Brooks Barnes at brooks.barnes@wsj.com, Emily Steel at emily.steel@wsj.com and Sarah McBride at sarah.mcbride@wsj.com

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