CBS on Dirty Words and Deeds

Even in the midst of the horrific killings at Virginia Tech, some talk radio shows on networks like National Public Radio are still devoting hours to the botched jokes and ruined career of talk radio host Don Imus. If that topic is still under discussion, allow one last comment.

CBS executive Les Moonves finally bowed to public pressure, and immediately dumped the I-Man after a meeting with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton threatening a weekend of ugly protests. The decision was as expected as the spin attached was atrocious. In his 12 years at the top of CBS Entertainment, Moonves has pleased his corporate masters by making money, but his career has also been marked by an utter lack of devotion to principle.

His dismissal of Imus, eight days after the offending Rutgers "ho" joke, could land him in the dictionary under the word "craven." If he were consistently opposed to nastiness in programming, his decision would have reflected it. The fact that it took days of threats to bring him to that decision demonstrates what little principles he has in this arena.

In his press statement on the Imus firing, the strangest part was Moonves’ touting how he enjoyed listening to the public: "Many of you have come forward during this past week to share your thoughts and feelings. I thank you for that. At the end of the day, the integrity of our company and the respect that you feel for CBS becomes the most important consideration."

Integrity and respect for CBS? Thanking the public for sharing its thoughts? Moonves and Co. at CBS have stubbornly fought against the public on other matters of broadcast decency. They’ve consistently looked protests in the eye and declared their contempt for the opinions of the majority of Americans.

It’s very easy to remember the wave of public outrage over the Janet Jackson breast exposure during the halftime of the 2004 Super Bowl. Half a million complaints piled into the FCC’s offices in Washington. The FCC ultimately levied a $550,000 fine.

But Moonves didn’t heed the majority. He threw rocks at the FCC in July 2004, refusing to accept any fine for the Jackson stripper stunt: "We think the idea of a fine for that is patently ridiculous, and we’re not going to stand for it. We’re going to take that to the courts if it happens."

They certainly did. Not only that, they’ve gone to court with other networks to fight for their "right" to drop the F-bomb on their airwaves at any time of day, no matter how many millions of children are affected — or their parents offended. So forgive the public if it thinks it’s a little hypocritical that Moonves and Co. would go out and proclaim their sensitivity to the harm of language on the Imus show, when virtually the entire Imus audience was adults.

But there was Moonves, publicly declaring his intolerance of "ho" talk: "There has been much discussion of the effect language like this has on our young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in our society." He said that consideration has "weighed most heavily on our minds as we made our decision."

This is sheer nonsense. I attended the annual Viacom shareholders meeting in New York. Presiding over the meeting were Sumner Redstone and Mel Karmazin, then the two biggest guns in that empire, the bosses of Moonves. Both the late C. DeLores Tucker and I spoke, roundly denouncing the indecent programming on their various networks. Each of us received strong applause from the shareholders. Redstone and Karmazin ignored us.

Later, a beautiful young black lady rose to speak. She was a college student representing Operation PUSH. Without prepared remarks, even notes, she delivered an extraordinarily moving 10-minute address, pleading for this corporation to end its offensive treatment of black women on its MTV and BET networks. She specifically referenced the "ho" word used so commonly on these shows. Her remarks generated a standing ovation. Redstone and Karmazin all but yawned in response.

Karmazin promised a congressional committee early in 2004 that he would have "zero tolerance" for indecency on the company’s radio stations – and he kept Howard Stern on the air.

In the wake of the Janet Jackson incident in November 2004, Viacom and Moonves agreed to a consent decree for "company-wide compliance" to prevent further broadcast indecency. Almost before the ink was dry, CBS was re-airing a controversial episode of the drama "Without a Trace" with a teen orgy re-enactment scene.

So when Moonves issues a press release proclaiming his earnest desire to participate in a sensitive dialogue with the public to build "the integrity of our company" with consumers, just know it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.