04/04/2008 10:20 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Coincidence of Martin Luther King and Imus Anniversaries Brings Surprisingly Bitter Thoughts About Media

I didn't realize it until I was in the final stages of researching my media story today about the one-year anniversary of shock jock Don Imus' "nappy-headed hos" comments about Rutgers University's women's basketball team. But today also marks the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis, Tenn.

And as I watch a cavalcade of TV news reports and documentaries looking at King's life and legacy, I'm struck by the way Imus' example shows both how far we have come, and how far we have to go.

As I note in my newspaper story and blog today, Imus suffered a singular humiliation after calling the women of Rutgers University's near-championship basketball team "nappy-headed hos"; a week-long media frenzy in which pundits and reporters chewed over his comments (and his long history of making similar race-based jokes) before the uproar forced MSNBC and CBS Radio to fire the 67-year-old radio curmudgeon.

But Imus wasn't about to go quietly. Instead, he displayed what New York magazine called "a cockroach's knack for survval" -- negotiating a multi-million-dollar settlement to his CBS contract, and then earned a new gig with ABC Radio and RFD-TV. One year later, he's leading a show his fans say is more energized and relevant -- getting better ratings in New York than he did before his firing and more than halfway back to rebuilding the network of radio stations which aired his show when he was fired.

So did we really learn any lessons?

The continuing battle over issues like the words of Rev. Jeremiah Wright suggests to me that our soundbite-focused media culture isn't well suited to the serious, complex debate we need to have on race in America.

Instead, we have disaffected sides playing gotcha -- trying to catch their opponents in telling gaffes rather than attempting to reach an understanding. And this dynamic has often been exacerbated by the media coverage I've seen so far of King's anniversary.

TV is often more comfortable looking back than looking forward, to be sure. So it's easier to recall the awful days before King's death, when segregation was still a reality and black folks struggled to exercise their hard-won right to vote, especially in the south.

Yet, even as we're prepared to make a biracial man a serious candidate for president, we still struggle with the kind of institutional racism (and classism) that allowed the Jena 6 controversy and Hurricane Katrina debacle to shake our faith in each other. And we still struggle with huge pockets of media -- cable TV and talk radio, specifically -- that are not nearly as diverse in staffing and subject matter as they should be.

It's an odd day for those of us who follow race in media. But, in Dr. King's honor, I'm going to try and focus today on how far we've come, and spend a little less time obsessing on how far we have to go.