Give Imus a chance

Doesn’t Don Imus have freedom of speech? Why, yes, of course he does.

He said a horribly racist thing, and that’s what it was, you know. It was not a mistake of judgment or a misfired joke. It was racism at its basest, escaping its confinement barely below the skin and reflecting bigotry based wholly on appearance.

He’s not in jail, is he? He’s not even up on charges.

Our government may not and must not sanction or punish speech. Our great libertarian experiment could never tolerate or survive that.

But does Imus have employment freedom? Absolutely not. None of us does.

Our country seeks to offer the pursuit of happiness, which is to say an opportunity, not a guarantee. There’s nothing in the Constitution that grants a job.

By law you’re not supposed to discriminate in hiring and firing, but that’s a far cry from a right to a nationally syndicated radio and television program.

A person enjoys employment security, which is not the same as freedom, if he is under contract, either for personal services or through collective bargaining. But contracts aren’t forever, and, generally speaking, they can be escaped for the right amount of money.

You’ll find that most American things — probably most earthly things — come down to a price tag. We call it the market, and we trust it, even nearly worship it.

Imus’ employers and sponsors — MSNBC, CBS Radio, Proctor and Gamble and others — are within their rights either to cut him loose or keep him. That decision is one of economics, not justice.

Does he remain worth the investment? Or has he so stigmatized and marginalized himself that he is no longer worth it?

But isn’t Imus a “shock jock,” like Howard Stern? Saying offensive things — isn’t that the very point?

No, these are different animals. Stern doesn’t pretend to be mainstream. Imus appears on nationwide television and big-time politicians come on his show, or did until the other day, favoring him not merely with legitimacy, but the appearance of influence. Imus is more Tim Russert than Howard Stern, and, in fact, Russert has often appeared as a guest on Imus’ show.

So we’re down to this: Does Imus have a right to fair economic opportunity? Why, yes. We all do. Along with freedom of personal expression, the right to a chance to try to make (or remake) something of oneself is the very root of this great American laboratory.

Here’s how I’d recommend it work in Imus’ case: He would be abandoned by his sponsors and fired by his networks. What he said was beyond the realm of their comfortable association. They can’t continue to pay a man who talked like that. Forgiveness is fine; reward isn’t.

But Imus is a wealthy man, trained in media and established in his profession. He should have every right to invest from his considerable holdings in restarting his program, producing and marketing it himself. He could choose to be outrageous or he could resolve to be more responsible — that being his free choice.

Then we’d see if any sponsors would find his new incarnation a viable investment. We’d see if anyone in the radio and television industry would take a chance on him. We’d see if John McCain and Rudy Giuliani would come on his show. We’d see if listeners would tune in, then hang around.

Imus would enjoy and practice freedom of speech. He would pursue fair opportunity. His underwriters and enablers would have freedom to associate, or not.

People would have the right to listen, or not.

The market would decide. It’s the great American way. And it would offer another chapter in the great human journey. Redemption is always a compelling story.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@

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