Every time I've been on Don Imus' show, he has reminded listeners that he "discovered" me. It's not exactly hyperbole. He first invited me on when I was just a foulmouthed blogger who ran the gossipy political site Wonkette. As I recall, my first on-air conversation with him was about the Bush twins, or, as I called them, "Jenna and Not-Jenna." Last fall I became a regular guest and took up slightly more serious topics (on my last appearance we talked about Senator John McCain's Baghdad trip and Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani's lack of social graces), but the subjects hardly mattered. I had been invited inside the circle, and to be perfectly honest, I was thrilled to be there.
As the invites kept coming, I found myself succumbing to the clubhouse mentality that Imus both inspires and cultivates. Sure, I cringed at his and his crew's race-baiting (the Ray Nagin impersonations, the Obama jokes) and at the casual locker-room misogyny (Hillary Clinton's a "bitch," CNN news anchor Paula Zahn is a "wrinkled old prune"), but I told myself that going on the show meant something beyond inflating my precious ego. I wasn't alone. As Frank Rich noted a few years ago, "It's the only show ... that I've been on where you can actually talk in an informed way not in sound bites." Yeah, what he said!
I'm embarrassed to admit that it took Imus' saying something so devastatingly crass to make me realize that there just was no reason beyond ego to play along. I did the show almost solely to earn my media-elite merit badge. The sad truth is that unless you have a book to promote, there's often no other reason any writer or columnist has to do the show. If Rich wants to "talk in an informed way," I'm sure there's an open mike at C-Span Radio, and if there's really a hunger for such adult dialogue, does it really have to be accompanied by childish crudeness? Actually, don't answer that. In any case, the media figures and politicians who clown around with Imus can pretend that the show is really about informed conversation or pop sociology or anything except junior-high-level teasing, but its true appeal for them lies in the seal of approval Imus bestows.
Of course, having a venue where one can speak frankly talk in the way everyone does privately about political figures can be liberating. I have said things on his show that cannot be printed here. But do I really want to give my tacit approval to someone whose greatest gift to public discourse could be fairly described as allowing pundits to get potty-mouthed?
My giving up the show, I acknowledge, is too little and too late. I doubt that I'll be missed. It's depressingly easy to find female journalists who will tolerate or ignore bigotry if it means getting into the boys' club someday. (If only I were the only one.) And I'm not so vain that I think I brought something unique to the airwaves. In fact, I assume that one reason he had me on was the tantalizing prospect that I might say something scandalous or racy. That, and he and his cronies seemed to enjoy having the occasional guest they could leer at.
Once, after I was on, he and his gang proceeded to discuss my "creamy" skin and compliment my nice pair of ... "eyes." I later asked the producer to remind him that as far as I knew, my father was listening. Now I'm going to ask my dad not to anymore.