Racist Rants as Rebranding Strategies

December 6, 2010
By | 4 Comments

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.


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4 Responses to “ Racist Rants as Rebranding Strategies ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on December 7, 2010 at 6:08 PM

    Thanks for this, Tim. It gets to the heart about what reeks with all of these cases — the individuals in question seem too primed to capitalize on the situations. None of them seemed at all surprised by the reactions, or even humbled or troubled by them — they simply knew what to expect, and seemed eager to embrace the hoopla.

  2. Tim Havens on December 8, 2010 at 3:15 PM

    Thanks for the comment, Jonathan!

  3. Tausif Khan on December 9, 2010 at 12:28 AM

    I am left unconvinced by the argument in the is article because there is very little concrete evidence presented that shows that Williams, Dobbs and Schlessinger openly followed Imus’ path. Imus is not a journalist so I do not think his social purpose/responsibility to the public is the same as the others in this grouping.

    I am still unconvinced that individuals can have brands. What is Daniel Schorr’s brand as opposed to Michel Martin’s brand? Is this phenomena of brand confined only to cable news media?

    Furthermore because this is an academic blog I was looking to see some structural analysis. I do not think that journalists are responsible for structural analysis because their duty is to report the event with factual accuracy. For me academics exist to illuminate what is operating behind an event, before and after the event and to put the event in a larger historical and social context giving that academics are giving tenure to study a particular subject area.

    I do not think that issues of individual racial sensitivity and looking at discrimination on a deeper structural level are opposing arguments on the same plane. Being individually sensitive to racial jokes and ethnic slurs is a an issue of individual emotional pain and rarely has a social impact. Social Structures which operate behind a national discourse on issues of race, ethnicity and religious discrimination have to do with unequal relationships of power among people where certain people (the dominant social group) can make jokes about others (the marginal social group). This matters because this affects the ability of people from the marginal group to make free decisions equal to that of the dominant social group. It is very important to not conflate these two levels of analysis. These are not equally compelling argument. The former can be dismissed as a fluke while the latter is about unequal distribution of power among different social groups.

    Furthermore there is a lot of conflation of social issues going on here. Lou Dobbs is commenting on a question of ethnicity which implicates issues of immigration which is not necessarily implied in a discussion of race.

    Williams issue is complicated because he made a discriminatory comment made on religious fashion which does not necessarily discuss a single race as Islam is a group that contains many races (African-Americans are also Muslim but they do not encompass all of Islam leaving open that other Muslisms are other races). Given that African-Americans are also Muslim (e.g. Congress people Andre Carson and Keith Ellison) he has offended people of the African American community as well.

    Williams issue is actually even more complicated. Besides complicated issues of religion and race this issue takes place across three networks ABC (Bill O’Reilly made the initial remarks on The View), Fox News and NPR. So the state of journalism is at issue here. Williams specifically talked about headscarves or hijabs so there is an issue of gender here as well. Finally Williams own race became an issue as NPR’s diversity is scant to begin with. So issues of brand do not even begin to address the social/political impact of this event.

    For me this article falls into the same trap as the media setting up a fight between Jim Cramer and Jon Stewart as opposing ideologies. Stewart astutely pointed out his aim was to express anger at a network which claimed to have the best business experts and know all that happens on Wall Street while not being able to explain the biggest financial meltdown since the great depression and not to punish/fight with Jim Cramer. Stewart clarified his position on the Rachel Maddow show soon after his rally when he said that he viewed people on cable news as weather people looking at events through a narrow particular ideological lens while he and his staff are climate scientists looking at the larger questions and structural issues generating the events of the day. It is this distinction that I think applies most to the difference between journalists and academics where academics are charged with looking at the bigger picture.

    Therefore I think that the more interesting media discussion would be to tease out and a describe the brands of the networks the controversial commenters left behind.

    What are CNN and NPR’s brands and what does that matter for mainstream media reporting and the national political news discourse?

    • Tausif Khan on December 9, 2010 at 12:37 AM

      The reason why I think it is important for a blog on media to address issues of race, ethnicity, gender and religion is because media is fundamentally about communication to people and therefore a part of the social world. Therefore representations of race, ethnicity, gender and religion are important for robust media analysis in my opinion.