By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Now that media giants have pulled the plug on Don Imus, the debate has moved to rap lyrics and the limits of free speech. But what we should really address is the hypocrisy of those who blasted Imus for insulting comments about African-Americans and then proceeded to repeat insulting comments about Mexican-Americans.
It's time for a national dialogue on the "w-word." I'll give you a hint: It's an offensive term that is meant to imply that all Mexican-Americans arrived in the United States by swimming across a river -- something that comes across as doubly offensive to immigrants who came to the country legally or those whose families have been here for generations.
You know about the "n-word." And what my gay friends call the "f-word." Most people in the public eye wouldn't dare utter those words in full. In fact, when entertainers have done so, they've paid for it.
And so it's surprising that, lately, there seems to be a rash of media types tossing around the w-word. It's also disappointing given that all this is happening in the aftermath of the Imus affair.
New York Times columnist Frank Rich wasn't all that careful. In arguing that offensive speech shouldn't be censored, Rich wrote that we should "let Bill O'Reilly talk about 'wetbacks.' ..."
Oh, hello. That is exactly how Rich wrote it -- wetbacks. So what that he was quoting someone else. That's no excuse. If that someone else had used the long version of the n-word, you had better believe that Rich would never have printed it in his column.
Howard Kurtz picked up on the thread. The Washington Post media critic and host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" recently said on his television show that "Bill O'Reilly once referred to Mexicans as wetbacks."
Hello again. Would Kurtz have used the n-word on morning television? No way. So why use the w-word?
And it wasn't just journalists who used the word. Rosie O'Donnell, co-host of ABC's "The View," likewise insisted to Barbara Walters and her other co-hosts that O'Reilly was a racist because he "calls Mexicans wetbacks."
All these jabs got O'Reilly's attention. The TV talker used his own show to make a lame attempt at defending himself. He said that he had misspoken and that the word he was looking for was "coyote."
Speaking of offensive. It's offensive when someone thinks you're dumb enough to fall for a line like that. So what if O'Reilly meant to say something else? The w-word still came out of his potty mouth.
But just because O'Reilly acts like a jerk doesn't mean that Rich, Kurtz and O'Donnell should get a pass to follow suit. Here's a tip for liberals and those who play them on TV: If you're trying to come off as more enlightened than the next guy, it helps not to mimic the very behavior you're going out of your way to condemn.
Or else people might question your sincerity and conclude you're not really progressive -- as much as pretending.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. You can read his column here.
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