guys like Tim Russert rarely have to face black people on the air who will confront their billionaire boys club assumptions. I doubt that Russert sees himself as an intolerant, racist sexist frat boy jerk. And in most interactions he probably doesn't behave that way in the least. But he also didn't see that Imus was feeding a very nasty American Id with his comments, (it was "part of his charm" after all) and since he did it to everyone, it was no harm no foul. Looking Gwen Ifill, his colleague and respected female African American journalist, right in the eye, and having to answer to her concerns is something that could have made a difference long ago.
Ezra, in response:
I'd bet that she never before felt comfortable looking him in the eye and expressing her concerns. Because there's nothing worse -- particularly for a minority who's "made it" -- than becoming known as the "PC" police. Nothing worse than being too humorless to get the joke. Russert had to face Ifill's concerns not because he finally spoke to an African-American, female, journalist, but because the uproar surrounding Imus made it socially acceptable for Ifill to express her long-standing discomfort in a way that wouldn't get her ejected from the club. The Imus Controversy, in other words, comprised a set of "extraordinary circumstances," in which Ifill could make these comments without harming herself or discomfiting her friends. And even in this context, her actions were brave.
My problem with this is it's a deep truth wrapped in shallow error. Ifill was good, but the eye contact--the literal eye contact, I mean--was something else. Russert introduced her with that verb-challenged litany (see Monday) of news organizations, apparently intended (future archaeologists will share our bafflement) to rebut what she'd written about the slow news response and remarkable quiet in a lot of quarters. And while Timmy said this--except when he had to check his notes to make sure he was getting everybody in--he was eyeballing her in the same manner your neighbor, who's decided to be conciliatory about it, reminds you that your children trampled his garden while not bothering to remind you he owns a German shepherd he could forget to chain up.
And yet, and yet! We have to ask: if pretending you don't smell bacon when Tim takes his seat is part of the admission fee, why should Ifill pay it? How much better can ya eat? Gwen Ifill is arguably the most powerful African-American journalist on television. To be sure, it's PBS, not Uncle Walter's old seat, but then how many African-Americans, let alone African-American women, have the opportunity to comment on, and help shape, television news coverage every week? Why does Gwen Ifill need to kiss Tim Russert's ass in order to appear on a program nobody outside the Beltway watches?
And, more importantly, why do we find that to be an "explanation" of anything? What's the difference between an osculum infamum at Imus' gate and one at Russert's? Who made Imus powerful? Who made Russert? It certainly ain't Talent. It's access. It's access to the public airwaves. There'd shouldn't be any question of kowtowing to Tim Russert just to get on Meet the Press. It's not even justified if we consider the News to be just another Entertainment division: the Sundays are a vestigial survival of an era when there were News divisions, and if they play to anything that could be called a Demographic it certainly isn't one that hangs all week for the next gem of wisdom to plop out of Russert's mouth.
Why should we accept this? It's great to hear tales of CBS worker bees telling the Suits that Imus had to go, but why should it be necessary, and why should it be applied only in the most egregious case after years of abuse? Last week, when Imus was on his four-day Contrition Tour, he kept mumbling something about installing an African-American regular--something he'd "been thinking about for a long time", of course--as a sort of counterweight or crossing guard. Who serves that purpose on the Sundays? which are uniformly hosted by middle-aged white guys (okay, middle-aged or just plain elderly), and which have held the Bowtie Chair of Conservative Studies for George Eff Will for nearly thirty years.
As for Ifill, y'know, the weight of four-hundred years of oppression is not hers alone to lift, and there's much to be said for African-Americans getting the opportunity to send their children to the best schools and wear $800 shoes to lunch with the Secretary of State, but the point of diversity was supposed to be, y'know, diversity. If the appearance of a perfect congruence between Conventional Wisdom and her own that we get from Washington Week is real, so be it. But if it is the case that Russert had to look bigotry in the face for one week, it is also the case that he and the rest of the White Guys' Club could have been held accountable every week for the last fifty years, only for most of that time no African-American had the platform from which to do so. It's long past time that platform was held and used.