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What Imus Really Did Wrong

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I'm sorry to hear that Don Imus is being drummed off the air. I think that what he said was dull and insensitive, but he should not have lost his job.

I was on Conan O'Brien once and we did a sketch that was a rant against conservatives out to get Clinton during his impeachment. I said that Henry Hyde should be stoned to death for his role in the impeachment. It was a joke. I had never advocated any such thing before that or since. But right-wing talk-radio types went to town. Larry Elder. Hannity. All of those geniuses. They really poured it on. Even that free-thinker and Democratic insider Jack Valenti chimed in to condemn me.

I sent a letter of apology to Hyde. Told him that if the joke was in poor taste, I was sorry. But no actual harm was meant. I never heard back from him. I read people on the internet who seriously called me to task for that perceived threat to a member of Congress for years to come.

Imus is an entertainer. He is not Tim Russert. In order to appeal to a crowd that is a notch or two above Hannity's, however, he must combine a bit of Russert to his persona. He must walk a line between informed, reliable broadcaster and witty madman. Jon Stewart walks that line effectively, or one similar to it. Letterman walks it better than anyone. Intelligent, yet free. Sometimes even loopy, but always in a controlled way.

Imus said something that sounded racist without really being a racist. His only crime was that he didn't walk that line very carefully. And that's his job. Don't fire Imus because he's racially insensitive. His employers should have let his audience decide that. But, perhaps, fire him because his talent is diminishing. Imus was once one of the smartest guys in radio. Maybe he's just another radio host now. Like when the Jayson Blair scandal made people realize that the New York Times had, basically, become just another newspaper. Imus isn't a bad guy. He's just not the old Imus anymore. He's no longer that guy who always keeps that line in the corner of his eye.