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What's new about the Imus controversy?

Story Highlights

• Don Imus embroiled in controversy over racial remarks
• Observers say upset-apology-forgiveness cycle same as past
• Some want Imus firing; others want media to look at message
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(CNN) -- Does the Don Imus controversy have an echo quality to it?

Michael Harrison of Talkers magazine, a publication devoted to radio, thinks so.

"I think that there's a lot of hypocrisy going on here," Harrison said Monday on CNN's "Paula Zahn Now" about the backlash against Imus over remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team. (Giuliani: I'd go on Imus' show Video)

"The fact is our entire culture is awash in this kind of thing. And, every six months to eight months, for some unusual reason, somebody says something ... that's commonly being said by so many people in the media, in comedy, in movies, on television, on radio, and they're picked out. They're held up. They're burned at the cross," he said. "We blame them. We don't blame corporate America. We don't blame our tastes. And the cycle begins again."

Certainly, we've seen this show before. Last year it was Mel Gibson (anti-Semitic comments) followed by Michael Richards (racist rant) and Isaiah Washington (homophobic insult).

Moreover, radio hosts, whether on the left, right or shock-jock fringe, are known for their inflammatory rhetoric. Rush Limbaugh has his "feminazis"; liberals strike back with "Rethuglicans." And shock jocks insult guests, callers and staff members with equal impunity. (Clinton: Way over the line Video)

Robert Thompson, pop culture professor at Syracuse University, wonders if the cycle of slur/apology/victim's-group demand/greater apology/contrition-rehab has run its course.

"There's an open cynicism about this now," Thompson said. "In its predictability, the whole equation is falling apart entirely."

But Char Miller, director of urban studies at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, thinks that l'affaire Imus may be different. Miller said he believes that society has become less willing to accept the kind of characterizations Imus let loose.

"By combining racism and sexism, he increased the animosity," Miller said. The controversy "has struck a nerve in a lot of places. That's a sign that our willingness to accept such language is diminishing."

The use of such language is not that unusual, said Tobe Berkovitz, interim dean of Boston University's College of Communication.

"The difference is that now it's not behind closed doors -- or the doors have been thrown open," Berkovitz said. "But people have always said vile things. It was just in the country club, or the classroom, or on the factory floor. Now, in the cell phone-Internet age, these things go blasting out to the world, not just between folks."

Moving the marketplace

Of course, the media business plays all sides of the controversy. Media corporations create and distribute the music, movies and television shows that radio hosts complain about. They also pay the radio hosts to push the envelope.

And the public keeps the merry-go-round moving.

"There has to be a bit of the marketplace in this," Berkovitz said. "[Radio hosts] fill a lot of air. The public has lots of options, so the hosts give red meat or gray tofu and give the people what they want, or [the public] will go somewhere else."

Niger Innis, spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, said that jumping on Imus -- and not taking on the rest of the system -- is foolish.

"The hypocrisy of these media empires that are full partners in the grossest industry, the hip-hop industry, that pumps out the most vicious stereotypes of African-Americans, the hypocrisy is just gross," Innis told CNN's Zahn. "And they're going to -- they're going to slap Don Imus on the hand because they're so offended?"

But Michael Eric Dyson, a radio host and author of "Debating Race," told CNN's Lou Dobbs that the talk has to start somewhere.

"To say I'm sorry without facing the fire ... of what he has instigated would be to essentially rap him on the back of the knuckles without saying, 'Look, Mr. Imus, what you did is indicative of a deep and virulent pathology that needs to be removed.' And the reality is, these kinds of thoughts and behaviors have to be at least isolated, talked about and dealt with."

Perhaps Essence Carson, captain of the Rutgers women's basketball team, said it best.

Just because inflammatory talk is widespread in popular culture -- rap and hip-hop music have been widely criticized for misogyny and vulgarity -- it's not acceptable, whether on music radio or talk radio, she said at the team's Tuesday press conference.

"All that matters is it's wrong," Carson said.


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Radio host Don Imus is hearing calls for his ouster after disparaging remarks aimed at the Rutgers women's basketball squad.

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