NPR’s recent firing of Juan Williams over his indelicate remarks about Muslims of Arab descent on The O’Reilly Factor is only the latest in a litany of bigoted comments by well-known media personalities: Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s use of the “n” word eleven times in less than five minutes on her radio broadcast; Don Imus’s comments about the “nappy-headed ‘hos” on the Rutgers women’s basketball team; and even Lou Dobbs’ year-long attacks on “illegal” immigrants. Each of these incidents have left reporters and commentators wondering whether we’ve become a society that is hyper-sensitive about race, or whether bigoted attitudes run deeper and are more pervasive than we’ve thought. A more trenchant reading suggests that these broadcasters are paid to be “edgy” and that they either get carried away or get so enveloped in their own egos that they don’t see their comments as beyond the pale.
I want to offer a different reading of such incidents, one that has more to do with cynical career advancement in a post-network broadcasting era. I find it difficult to believe that long-time broadcasters (Williams, Dobbs, and Schlessinger, especially) really make such comments inadvertently. Rather, I see them as attempts to renew flagging careers and reinvent themselves for a changed media environment. In other words, I believe that many of the racially insensitive comments that broadcasters make are, in fact, quite deliberate efforts to rebrand themselves.
Granted, several of these incidents were unearthed by the left-leaning newsblog Media Matters for America, so broadcasters and their agents are not fully in control of the rebranding process. However, they can be pretty certain that, in a media environment where both professionals and amateurs are constantly “tracking” comments from politicians and commentators on the other side of the political aisle, any racist tirade will get recorded and go viral.
Of course, proving the assertion that racist rants are merely cynical rebranding strategies is difficult if not impossible. But, we can look at what happens to someone’s career in the wake of such comments, particularly at how they reinvent themselves after the controversy and the degree of financial and professional fallout they experience. Schlessinger recently signed a new contract with Sirius XM satellite radio and Williams, Dobbs, and Imus almost immediately got picked up by NewsCorp-owned outlets after news of their tirades broke. In fact, The Washington Post recently noted that Fox-owned channels have become “second-chance” outlets for indelicate commentators. Rather than understand these moves as instances of right-wing corporations seeking to influence politics, however, I believe they are driven primarily by branding: in each case, the commentator moved from more mainstream to more niche operations, which require on-air personalities with hard edges. Racist “outbursts” helped provide these otherwise somewhat banal broadcasters with such edges.
Because the Don Imus controversy took place more than three years ago, a sufficient amount of time has passed to allow us to examine the impact of the controversy on his career. Imus, in my opinion, is the prototype for this particular career strategy, but I continue to believe that his comments and their aftermath were largely accidental. Since that time, however, people like Schlessinger and Williams have quite consciously followed the trail that Imus blazed.
In the immediate wake of Imus’s comments, CBS and MSNBC cancelled their simulcasts of Imus in the Morning. Imus went on an apology tour that included Al Sharpton’s radio program and a visit with the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Within months, he was back on the air with a radio broadcast distributed by Citadel Media and a television simulcast that eventually wound up on the Fox Business Network. Since his initial outburst, Imus’s ratings have returned to their previous numbers among his core audience, male listeners 25-52, even though his overall numbers have dropped. Still, given the overall decrease in his total listeners, his ability to regain his standing among his core demographic is even more impressive. Moreover, Imus and Dobbs are now on the Fox Business Network, which serves as a kind of recruiting ground for the higher-profile Fox News Channel. Of course, Imus has supposedly gotten less “edgy,” even lecturing Juan Williams on the importance of repentance. But, I would argue that, while apologies or changes in style might help redeem a broadcaster for some listeners, for those who agree with the racist rant, these changes won’t significantly alter the broadcaster’s perceived brand.
Again, I think Imus is the accidental prototype for this racist rebranding strategy. For others—Williams, Dobbs, Schlessinger—it should come as no surprise that their tirades came at times when their careers were flagging. While each had been edgy or relevant in his or her own way in the late 1990s and early 2000s, by the end of the decade, all of them had become passé, facing declining ratings and brasher commentators with greater niche appeal. Again, let me stress that my reading of this trend is just that: a reading. However, if I am correct, we should continue to see this strategy being employed as media personalities face changed niche-media conditions and need to reinvent themselves to meet those conditions.