From Jackie Robinson to Don Imus

Friday, April 20, 2007

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Consider Jackie Robinson and Don Imus — an ironic, mismatched set of bookends on history’s shelf if ever there were such.

At the very same time Imus’ racial-comment controversy was peaking and CBS Radio sent him packing, many Americans were celebrating the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s courageous role as the first black player in Major League Baseball.

Consider what Imus said over the radio in 2007. And then consider what No. 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers had to hear in 1947, virtually every time he took the field. It’s not a stretch to say that Robinson heard far worse in a few steps toward the plate than anything Imus has every uttered on the radio about minorities — which in no way excuses Imus, but which does tell us a bit about how much has changed in America.

“Free speech” of the type Robinson heard and Imus uttered is not, in the main, actually a First Amendment issue. For the amendment to come into play, government needs to be involved. Except for the Rev. Al Sharpton’s early call for the Federal Communications Commission to review Imus’ statements, it was the marketplace — not government — where judgment was considered, and rendered. And though the First Amendment may protect you from government attempts to prevent your speech, it doesn’t provide a shield from the repercussions of what you say.

Imus was held accountable in the commercial marketplace, where both MSNBC and CBS Radio decided to accept the loss of a top revenue producer as top advertisers jumped ship; and the marketplace of public opinion, where the top shock-jock had both detractors and defenders.

As all the many elements and angles of the Imus affair unfolded, a friend noted that the front page of USA TODAY on April 13 had two stories next to each other: A “cover story” atop the page, noting Robinson’s anniversary; and a second story below it, reporting that Imus had been dropped by his radio network.

In Robinson’s day, a shouted racial epithet directed at him was not only accepted by many, but done in a top-of-the-lung screech — and the word or words used were heard widely and daily in mainstream America. Sixty years later, an unthinking slur by one of the nation’s most-recognized entertainment personalities gets on the air, but also gets him fired.

Same “freedom of speech,” 60 years apart. But what a difference just few a decades — a single lifetime for some — has made in what the nation wants to hear.

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