The tidal wave of outrage that had already cost Don Imus his TV show swept him off the airwaves altogether yesterday, eight days after the radio pundit used a racial slur to describe the Rutgers University women's basketball team.
CBS president Leslie Moonves announced that the network was immediately canceling Imus in the Morning. The show, which originated from New York, is heard on 61 radio stations around the country, including WWDB-AM (860) in Philadelphia.
Hours later, Imus met with Rutgers coaches and players at the governor's mansion in Princeton to personally apologize.
A person participating in the meeting, which lasted nearly three hours before ending about 10:45 p.m., characterized it as "intense, very intense" in a text message to an Associated Press reporter.
Imus left the meeting without commenting to reporters.
Earlier in the day, the Rutgers players and their head coach, C. Vivian Stringer, had appeared via satellite on Oprah.
After the show, Stringer, who had resisted calling for Imus' firing, said in a phone call from her home in New Jersey: "I don't know anyone who wants to see someone else's life disrupted like this. We shouldn't gloat."
CBS had said Tuesday that it would suspend Imus for two weeks, but it delayed the suspension so he could host a two-day on-air Radiothon for charity yesterday and today. But as public ire continued to mount and advertisers began to bail, the network decided to pull the plug early, despite Imus' repeated apologies. The fund-raiser will go on as planned with sidekick Charles McCord and Imus' wife, Deirdre, hosting today.
It was a stunning turn of events for the famous broadcaster. Other celebrities have survived similarly bigoted comments by making orchestrated acts of contrition. But the difference between Imus and Mel Gibson, Michael Richards or Isaiah Washington, is that he spewed his verbal venom on the air. (Protests began when an MSNBC employee contacted the National Association of Black Journalists in Maryland to complain.)
The Rev. Al Sharpton, one of Imus' most severe critics, said, "We cannot afford a precedent established that the airways can commercialize and mainstream sexism and racism."
A CBS spokesman declined to say whether the network was buying out Imus' contract. Imus, 66, was paid a reported $8 million a year under a recently renewed five-year CBS contract. His deal with MSNBC was estimated at an additional $2 million a year.
Imus referred to the Scarlet Knights as "nappy-headed hos" during his broadcast April 4, the day after Rutgers lost to Tennessee in the NCAA women's championship game.
In the same segment, his executive producer, Bernard McGuirk, referred to the championship game as "the Jigaboos vs. the Wannabes."
The CBS decision came one day after MSNBC announced that it was dropping its cable simulcast of the show. Both networks had been under pressure from advertisers, African American leaders, network employees, and women's groups.
Reacting to the dismissal, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said: "CBS refused to lower its standards anymore to house Don Imus. It is a victory for public decency. No one should use the public airwaves to transmit racial or sexual degradation."
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said it was "interesting that [the firing] happened as late as it did. It should have happened the moment they were aware the statement had been made."
Jamieson wondered why mainstream journalists and politicians have continued to make appearances on a program that "almost has ritualized ridicule as a subtext."
Moonves told CBS employees in an internal memo that the decision to fire Imus was made "after a period of thought, discussion, listening to you, and the pursuit of due process in this painful matter."
"From the outset, I believe all of us have been deeply upset and revulsed by the statements that were made on our air about the young women who represented Rutgers University in the NCAA women's basketball championship with such class, energy and talent," Moonves said in announcing the decision. He also offered an apology to Stringer and the Rutgers squad.
Moonves said in his statement that CBS "wanted to take the time necessary to listen to the many diverse voices that were raised on this issue. . . . I believe that in taking this action, we are doing the right thing."
A CBS spokesman said the Mike and Mad Dog show would assume Imus' slot for two weeks starting Monday.
Imus had been syndicated since 1993 by Westwood One, CBS's syndication division, which paid many stations - including WWDB - to air it. Its ratings barely registered here.
Westwood One, the nation's largest radio syndicator, has a stable of other talk shows, including Don & Mike, Jim Bohannon, Bill O'Reilly and Larry King.
Imus, who has been fired at least twice in his nearly 40 years on the air, is no stranger to controversy. The crusty broadcaster, who usually affected a cowboy hat, battled alcohol and drug problems earlier in his career.
Radio insiders suggested yesterday that his career was not over.
"He'll go the way of [Howard] Stern - satellite radio," said Philadelphia talk-show host Michael Smerconish, who replaced Imus in the Morning 3 1/2 years ago on CBS-owned WPHT-AM (1210). "If he wants to work, he will find work."
But Tracey G. Riese, president of T.G. Riese and Associates, a branding and public relations firm in New York City, wasn't so sure about an Imus comeback. "This was a terrible mistake that you almost cannot recover from," she said in a phone interview last night.
"The best thing Imus could have done would have been to apologize immediately to the team and the listeners after uttering the offensive words," Riese said. "He should have said: 'I can't believe what I just heard come out of my mouth.' "
Bryan Monroe, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, views the Imus controversy as an opportunity for people to find a new way of talking to one another.
"Something happened the last few days," he said. "America said 'Enough of this kind of discourse, this kind of hate'."