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4/12/2007 05:26:00 PM

Don Imus

Don Imus
CBS fired Don Imus midway through his annual Radiothon fundraiser on Thursday.
By Richard Deitsch, SI.com

A little more than a week after Don Imus made disparaging comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team, CBS did something once thought to be impossible:

They shut Imus up.

This was no local deejay in Omaha that was silenced. Imus is a rainmaker, a giant figure in the broadcasting industry who became an even more valuable property for the company after Howard Stern bolted for satellite radio last year. His Imus In The Morning show generated $15 million in annual revenue for CBS and his work on behalf of kids with cancer brought him much-deserved praise. This was a man Time magazine once placed on its list of the 25 Most Influential People in America. His fall was stunning and swift.

Perhaps a broadcasting giant like Imus might have survived in a different climate, one that did not include watchdogs in all forms, from Media Matters for America to Gawker to The Big Lead. The latter, a sports web blog, had its own media moment early last week. After ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd advised his listeners to flood the web site, ultimately bringing it down for more than two days because its server could not handle the bandwidth, Cowherd’s actions were excoriated by a passionate band of sports blogs who covered the incident as if it were Watergate. Quickly, ESPN ombudsman Le Anne Schreiber tracked down Traug Keller, senior vice president, ESPN Radio, who declared, “Our airwaves are a trust, and not to be used to hurt anyone's business. Such attacks are off limits. Zero tolerance. I can’t say it any stronger." Cowherd eventually apologized.

Blogs form every hour. You Tube shapes opinion by the second. Was there anyone in America with an interest in Imus who did not see the following clip or had the link forwarded to them? The Imus story snowballed as fast as any media-related item in recent history, an "avalanche," one radio host called it today. Shortly after Imus uttered his remarks about the Rutgers players, Media Matters highlighted the comments on its Web site. Bloggers quickly weighed in. Then came the mainstream press. Protests and rallies formed against his show. Imus apologized and apologized but the tsunami kept gaining. There was wall-to-wall cable coverage to an op-ed in The New York Times by PBS host Gwen Ifil, an African-American journalist once singed by Imus’s insensitive tongue. Sponsors soon pulled out of his show. On Wednesday, MSNBC dropped the simulcast of Imus' show. By Thursday, he no longer had an employer.

Few right-minded people would argue over the language Imus and his cohorts used to describe the Scarlet Knight players. It was reprehensible. Nor was it the first time Imus had crossed the line with racially tinged remarks. Those of us who grew up on Stern might argue that Imus’s time had past long ago. But the forces that took Imus down, in addition to his own self-immolation, speak to something larger going on in the media. Never before have the words of broadcasters, journalists and professional pundits been so closely scrutinized. The watchers have become the watchdogs.

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