COLUMN -- Fine, Imus the bigot is gone. What about Imus the activist?Posted by Craig Westover | 8:05 AM |
Friday, April 20, 2007
I have to admit mixed emotions over the firing of Don Imus. On one hand, Imus' banishment from medialand is vindication of the value of free speech. Speech may be free, but it has consequences. Offend people's sensibilities, and you pay the price. The tribe has spoken. I'm not going to miss the race-baiting shock jock.
But I am going to miss the activist who took on issues others in the media backed off from - specifically, Imus' championing of the hypothesis that mercury in childhood vaccines is connected to rising autism rates - now one case in 150 live births. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2005, David Schulman noted the mercury issue locked most of the media in an awkward position.
The hypothesis that the mercury-based preservative thimerosal, commonly used in childhood vaccines before 2000 and still found in flu and a few other vaccines, plausibly contributed to the alarming increase in the incidence of autism was, frankly, heresy. The scientific, medical and government health establishments denied any vaccine-autism link. Moreover, they viewed those supporting the theory as crackpots, conspiracy theorists or fanatical parents looking for someone to blame for their children's fate.
So who was the media to believe? "On Autism's Cause, It's Parents Vs. Research," declared the New York Times. Attempting to portray the mercury-vaccine connection as an ongoing scientific controversy, some reporters, discovered Schulman, were discouraged by colleagues and their superiors from pursuing the story. In general, the media were reluctant to buck the establishment. They mostly still are.
Not Imus. In 2005, he was among the first to interview David Kirby, a Brooklyn-based writer whose book "Evidence of Harm" makes a strong case for the plausibility of a connection between thimerosal and autism. Imus was on the line two years before autism became safe enough for a recent one-touch by Oprah.
In a column on the Huffington Post, Kirby gives Imus and his wife, Deirdre, much of the credit for the passing of the Combating Autism Act, which allocates funds for autism research. But, notes Kirby, an April 17 Senate hearing on specific funding was scheduled without input from organizations that support the mercury hypothesis, and the groups will not be allowed to testify.
"Imus would have gone ballistic at that injustice," writes Kirby. "But now he is gone, and he can't."
There is a teachable moment here.
Yes, Imus made a personal, racist attack on a group of young African-American women who didn't warrant the insult. He's paying the price. But are we as a country better off? Are African-Americans better off? Are we willing to talk about that?
Imus intends a crack about a college basketball team and Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton come riding out of the hills hell-bent on shooting the wounded in hopes of maintaining a semblance of relevance. Their shtick is premised on America being a racist nation. Imus confirms that, they imply. Banishing Imus from the airwaves doesn't change that, but it does reinforce the notion that people of color are still victims needing organized outrage and preferential care.
Last legislative session, I sat at the Capitol and listened to a Minnesota-nice white woman speak against school vouchers because "inner-city" parents weren't equipped to make good choices about where and how their children should be educated.
Forgive me. While not excusing Imus, I find the woman's condescending liberalism far more sinister and indicative of racism than an off-the-cuff comment of a shock jock. Confronting the attitude that people of color can't possible succeed without beneficent white help would do more for African-Americans than booting Imus off the island.
Imus the bigot is gone, and the world is safe for female African-American basketball players, if not quite so welcoming for families of color who would like a choice of where they send their kids to school. But who's going to replace Imus the activist? Who's going to speak for the family facing odds of 1 in 150 of having an autistic child? Imus may have been grotesque and incomprehensible, but perhaps we really did need him to break down a few walls. Just a thought.