Assessing the Imus Mess

"A Foot In His Mouth and No Clue In His Head," declared the Baltimore Sun headline. "Imus Can't Dribble Around This Flagrant, Racist Foul" added the New York Daily News. "Misogyny InThe Morning" were the words atop a Washington Post column.

If the spreading fallout is any indication, the last chapter has not yet been written in the huge national story triggered by Don Imus's remarks about the Rutgers woman's basketball team.

Already, a number of advertisers have dropped the controversial talk show host and MSNBC has discontinued its morning simulcast of Imus.

Meanwhile, a quick survey of the media coverage in the week since the veteran talk host uttered his infamous April 4 racial and gender insult against the Rutgers women suggests he will face a tough battle to re-establish his reputation and viability. Put simply, he is taking a pummeling from a press corps that can't seem to get enough of the story.

In order to take a snapshot of the Imus coverage, PEJ searched both Google News and LexisNexis in the period from April 4 until April 11. We searched for stories that matched Imus's name with a number of related terms to try and get some sense of the overall tenor of the coverage.

Through mid-day on April 11, there were about 5,200 stories on Google News alone that contained the name "Imus." The search does not provide a definitive portrait of the coverage. But it does suggest that the tone of the reporting and commentary is quite tough.

Of the search terms selected, the one that came up most frequently in stories about Imus on both data bases was Al Sharpton, the black leader whose criticisms of Imus propelled the controversy. Sharpton blasted the talk host during a tense in-studio interview on Sharpton's April 9 radio show. (In an exchange widely picked up in the media, Sharpton introduced his daughter, a recent college graduate, and said to Imus: "Are we now saying it's acceptable…for you to sit up and call my daughter a ho?") Sharpton's name appeared in some 3,200 Google stories that featured Imus's name and in more than 1,500 such stories on LexisNexis.

More generally, all of the top five Google News terms that appeared in stories about Imus had negative connotations including "racism" or "racist" (almost 2,600), "apology" (about 2,300), "sexism" or "sexist" (about 1,250) and "should be fired" (more than 840). Those also turned out to be the top five terms, with a slightly different ranking, in the LexisNexis search.

Conversely, a number of the words or phrases that might be construed as a defense of Imus did not show up as often. In the Google search, "free speech," for example, appeared in about 290 stories.

Some people have argued that if Imus is being punished for his language, there should be more criticism of the misogynistic language and imagery that appears in some African-American popular culture, most notably rap music. Thus, the words "rap" or "gangsta rap" showed up in about 240 Google stories, with "hypocrisy" (50 stories) and "double standard" (40 stories) lagging further behind. "Political correctness" also clocked in about 40 stories.

Several other key figures in this drama showed up in a number of the Imus-related stories. Gwen Ifill -- an African-American PBS staffer and a former New York Times White House correspondent -- wrote an April 10 Times column recounting what Imus once said about her: "Isn't the Times wonderful. It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House." In the April 4-11 Google search, Ifill's name showed up in more than 350 stories and it was present in more than 60 LexisNexis stories as well.

Someone who is quickly becoming a household name here is the captain of the Rutgers basketball squad who displayed poise and grace during the team's heavily covered April 10 press conference. Essence Carson's name appeared in about 270 stories in the Google search and in about 90 stories on LexisNexis.

In one of the lighter moments during an often emotional press conference, Carson also displayed a knack for the disarming ad lib. When the subject came around to what New York radio station WFAN might air during Imus's two week absence from the show, she suggested that it broadcast highlights of Rutgers women's basketball games.

Source: Google News Search carried out on April 11, 2007

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