In April 2007, radio host Don Imus was under fire for calling the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.” He was later fired over the infamous remark, even though he’d gotten away with other, similarly gross comments.
In a roundtable discussion on NBC’s “Meet the Press” at the time, Ifill pointed out the hypocrisy of those attacking Imus despite having never taken issue with his earlier racist statements.
“There has been radio silence from a lot of people who have done [Imus’ show] who could have spoken up and said, I find this offensive or I didn’t know,” Ifill said. “These people didn’t speak up.”
Turning to “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert and fellow guest David Brooks, she said, “Tim, we didn’t hear from you. David, we didn’t hear from you.”
Ifill then noted her own experience with Imus. Years before the Rutgers comment, Imus had called the PBS journalist a “cleaning lady.” And that was hardly the first racist comment he’d made. He’d also called tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams “booma-chucka, big-butted women” and black New York Times columnist Bill Rhoden a “quota hire.”
“A lot of people did know and a lot of people were listening and they just decided it was OK,” Ifill told “Meet the Press.” “They decided this culture of meanness was fine — until they got caught. My concern about Mr. Imus and a lot of people and a lot of the debate in this society is not that people are sorry that they say these things, they are sorry that someone catches them.”
Brooks and Russert had appeared on Imus’ show prior to the controversy. Brooks defended his appearances by saying that, “I have the lamest excuse for why I did it, which is I didn’t know what he said... I didn’t listen to the show except for the five minutes before when I went on.”
The whole incident is a crucial reminder of the vital role the press plays in calling out bigotry. This issue has come up in recent days with the news that Steven Bannon, a former Breitbart executive who is sympathetic to conspiracy theories and white nationalism, will join President-elect Donald Trump’s White House team.
Under Bannon, Breitbart News became known for bigoted stories, like one that referred to conservative commentator Bill Kristol as a “renegade Jew” or another that tied Planned Parenthood to Nazis. As chief strategist, Bannon will play a key role in Trump’s administration.
“Do not normalize any of this,” Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch warns. “Because when one of your first two hires is a white nationalist, this is #NotNormal.”