In a move akin to firing Bobby Knight and replacing him with Woody Hayes, CBS Radio has at last settled on a successor for Don Imus’s old morning drive slot.
He is Craig Carton, and his proudest moment on the New Jersey airwaves probably came in 2005, when a sitting Governor threatened to beat him up after Mr. Carton said that women like the Governor’s wife, who suffered from postpartum depression, “must be crazy in the first place” and needed medical marijuana to keep themselves from “putting their babies in the microwave.”
"At the end of the day, the integrity of our company and the respect that you feel for CBS becomes the most important consideration," CBS C.E.O. Les Moonves said when he fired Mr. Imus back in May, a noble sentiment that he apparently didn’t actually mean, given the primitive on-air caricaturing of minority groups that helped Mr. Carton make his name in the Garden State—and attract the kind of ratings that caught CBS’s eye.
But what is most dispiriting about Mr. Carton’s hiring is not CBS’s hypocrisy or even the fact that so vile and calculating a character has been rewarded with a top-market job and a lucrative contract. It’s that CBS’ decision marks the death of quality political conversation in a prime venue. For nearly two decades, Mr. Imus’ WFAN radio show served as a showcase for a cross-ideological mix of prominent and colorful political voices, with a mishmash of literary and sports figures tossed in for good measure. Rick Santorum would stop by just as frequently as Chris Dodd. Mary Matalin would praise the Bush administration in one segment, while Tom Oliphant would bury it in the next. The roster of guests—Tim Russert, John McCain, John Kerry, and Frank Rich were among the eclectic bunch of regulars‐was as politically diverse as it was relevant.
And almost always, the interviews made for compelling listening. Mr. Imus’ on-air sidekicks—the ones who recklessly egged him on when he launched into his notorious riff on the Rutgers women’s basketball team—would take a backseat and Mr. Imus would go one-on-one with his guest, treating them with a level of respect that would stun anyone who knows him solely by the Rutgers controversy. He gave them space to make their points and asked intelligent questions, displaying a political (or literary, for that matter) fluency that would surprise non-listeners.
But what made Imus interviews unique and enjoyable was the host’s readiness to sniff out spin and political posture and, when appropriate, to make his guests—master manipulators all—squirm with razor-sharp follow-ups. Chuck Schumer, for instance, appeared this spring as the scandal over the conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center was breaking. Mr. Schumer, the skilled attack dog, began rattling off his familiar castigations of the Bush administration and the G.O.P., laying the failures at their feet. But Mr. Imus, who had rained his own outrage on the G.O.P., refused to let Mr. Schumer treat the scandal as a political football.
Instead, he bore into him, demanding to know when he’d last visited Walter Reed, until Mr. Schumer sheepishly admitted that he hadn’t been since before the start of the Iraq War. When Mr. Schumer then noted that he’d visited veterans’ hospitals in New York and seen the conditions there and introduced bills to address it, Mr. Imus pointed out—and Mr. Schumer, reluctantly agreed—that he hadn’t actually accomplished anything. Finally, Mr. Imus reminded Mr. Schumer of his vote to authorize the Iraq War, then asked him why he wouldn’t “go over to Walter Reed…to see the consequence of your vote.”
“You know, probably I should have gone there,” Mr. Schumer finally confessed, having been shamed into putting the football away.
Variations of the Schumer episode played out on the Imus show regularly, with Democrats and Republicans alike. That was Mr. Imus at his best—not wed to either party or to a particular ideology, but simply channeling the listening audience’s fatigue with the condescension and hypocrisy of the political class. Guests who respected the maturity and intelligence of the audience came off well. Those who didn’t—well, again, there’s the Schumer example.
Mr. Imus’ downfall, of course, was what would transpire between guests, when he’d give free reign to his on-air sidekicks, a group of white men who’d perform skits and engage in banter that mainly relied on crude racial, ethnic and sexual stereotyping. When their antics would provoke media scrutiny, Mr. Imus’s crew invariably claimed that it was all in good fun—of the equal opportunity offending variety. But even to regular listeners, it was hardly clear that they were joking. Mostly, Mr. Imus would sit back and let them go at it, playfully objecting for show—not to actually put a stop to it. But other times—as he did on that fateful day when sidekick Bernard McGuirk began ridiculing the Rutgers team—he would join in.
But at least with Mr. Imus and his newsmaker interviews, CBS had half of a great show. In Mr. Carton, CBS has tapped someone who lacks Mr. Imus’ political I.Q. and who has, instead, built his entire broadcast career on the kind of cheap, grade school-level taunts and insults that were the calling card of Mr. Imus’s co-hosts.
Contrast, for example, Mr. Imus’s efforts to spotlight the plight of America’s wounded Iraq veterans with Mr. Carton’s signature political projects in New Jersey.
There was, for instance, his effort last year to identify and expose politicians who are gay, inviting listeners to provide tips and offering protection to gay elected officials if they would sign a statement that he promised to keep confidential. This was, of course, presented as a humorous exercise – which it was, for those who still think that the fact of someone’s sexual orientation is itself a punchline. There was also the time he waded into local politics in Edison, New Jersey, a township of about 90,000 people, many of whom are Asian immigrants. Several weeks before an election in 2005, Mr. Carton turned his attention to Jun Choi, a 34-year-old Korean-American who was running for mayor.
“Chinese should never dictate the outcome of an election!” Mr. Carton thundered, apparently confusing Mr. Choi’s ethnicity.
“Well, go to A.C. for a week and try and get a table,” the host continued, assuming a crude Chinese accent, “‘Ching-chong, ching-chong, ching-chong.’ You hit it on 17, you stupid bitch! The dealer's got a 5! I’m holding an 18. What're you hitting for?! You know?”
When a caller from Edison told Mr. Carton that he’d decided to leave town because “we’re being overrun,” Mr. Carton replied, “Damn Orientals and Indians!”
Mr. Choi, no doubt powered by the public backlash against Mr. Carton’s tirade, ended up winning an upset victory. But of Mr. Carton’s effort at vigilantism takes the cake. Earlier this year, as talk radio across the country embraced the crusade against illegal immigration, Mr. Carton inaugurated “Operation La Cucha Gotcha,” in which he deputized his listeners to report anyone they even suspected of being an illegal immigrant to authorities, creating a climate of hysterical scape-goating that surely intimidated many of New Jersey’s perfectly legal immigrants. Mr. Imus and Mr. Carton actually reached fairly similar, male-dominated audiences. But Mr. Imus, before he went off the air, treated his listeners to numerous interviews on the immigration debate, providing reasoned and informed dialogues on what has become an emotionally-explosive topic. Mr. Carton took that same topic and stoked his audience’s fears for ratings.
With Craig Carton, CBS will probably get the ratings it wants. But those who enjoy a touch of intelligence with their political talk would do well to look elsewhere.
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