“Find the cost of freedom” wrote Stephen Stills in 1970 upon visiting a Civil War site. Those who fought and died to defend our freedoms are indeed “buried in the ground” as Stills and company sang.
Yet a debate rages on over not only race and racism in an era in which it has been of moment to declare “Black Lives Matter,” but over the language we use to talk about it. Moreover, the words and images we choose and share continue to be the stuff of controversy in our public lives and the media of choice. Lately, the First Amendment has played hopscotch.
When he died last month, Don Imus carried with him into the ground a professional lifetime as a “shock jock” who became what The New York Times termed in his obit “an equal opportunity offender.”
I should know, because 10 years before his indefensible use of racial slurs forced him temporarily off the airwaves, he had added more four-letter words — and some cleverer multisyllabic — to my name than I had heard since leaving home. Or so they say.
I will never actually know the precise linguistic tour de force behind Imus’ assault on listener senses at my expense, since I consumed my morning joe without the accompaniment of his growl, and given the defamatory nature of his descriptors, transcripts or recordings were never kept, lest a plaintiff’s lawyer should subpoena them. I have heard contradictory interpretations by family and friends who were listening in of what the Don had to say about yours truly, and they were not for young ears.
What had I done to invite this calumny? Most immediately, I had taken off the air a moderator he liked — it must have been a slow news day for “Imus in the Morning — but here is where the fun comes in: I had previously assigned a TV pilot to one of his sidekicks and not to his nibs. He accosted me for this offense one day in the commissary of the historic Kaufman Astoria studios, where his radio station WFAN was located. Years later, the grizzled mastodon — now I can get mine! — had not forgotten.
I can give as good as I got after Imus’ demise because in America — as opposed to England, which makes for litigious potential in media which crosses the pond — a dead person can no longer be defamed and their heirs cannot sue.
This mortal get-out-of-jail-free card is played for all it’s worth in Clint Eastwood’s December bio-pic “Richard Jewell.” The director, in a display of sexism attributable to his advanced age, savages the memory of an actual reporter, Kathy Scruggs. Scruggs died in 2001, so she is not around to sue.
In the movie, Eastwood depicts Scruggs as sleeping with a fictitious FBI agent in order to extract the name of the agency’s prime suspect. Doubtless this gives hope to male law enforcement officers in the audience dreaming of their next encounter with a female press person, but as reviewer A.O. Scott summed up Eastwood’s treatment of Scruggs, “the character is, at best, a collection of lazy, sexist screenwriting clichés.”
When it comes to gender and sexual preference slurs, case in point is the instance this week of Dave Chappelle, for comedic purposes, in an equal-opportunity slagging of women and gays as he receives the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
As the TV suit who had brought the program to public television and overseen its 20 years of boundary pushing, I was keenly aware that a few stations chose to slide this broadcast to a later hour, out of harm’s way. After all, a cornerstone of American law around obscenity has been “community standards,” since the “Miller test” established by the U. S. Supreme Court in 1973. So I got Chappelle’s best line, that the “Second Amendment is just in case the First one doesn’t work out.” Who knew Chappelle was NRA?
In light of these recent moments in media, it is plain to see that words still matter even in an age of POTUS’ cyberbullying while his better half decries the same sort of thing on the part of kids. Small wonder in the Tweet House that the first lady expresses her opinions not in spoken language but via sartorial coding, so much so that a whole industry has cropped up around the color of her dresses and the cut of her cloth. One stitch is worth a thousand words.
The line between First Amendment privilege and populist prejudice is blurry at best. If comedians step to the line, while pols and popular personalities swan-dive over it, such is the nature of the beast. Intention matters: Don Imus is dead. It’s Eastwood’s antiquated notions that need burial.
Dalton Delan is a writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.