Ethics Corner: Don Imus Plays The Intimidation Game

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By: Allan Wolper

The Don of talk-show radio was raving mad. The Wall Street Journal had just published a front-page story on March 24 that questioned the finances of the Imus Ranch in New Mexico for sick children. No one messes with the I-Man. So he mauled the messenger, Robert Frank.

“He is a dishonest reporter,” Imus told the masses who listen to him on his “Imus In The Morning” syndicated radio program and watch him on the MSNBC simulcast. “He did a hatchet job.” Then, for good measure, he called Frank’s wife “a pig.”

Imus’ audience knew exactly what to do. They’d heard his rant-a-thons before. They rushed to their computers and telephones to vent at the staff reporter. Frank received dozens of telephone calls and e-mails, some of them threatening and others that impugned his integrity, his writing, and his newspaper.

The Wall Street Journal may move the market, but Imus moves the masses. His frenzied followers believe what he tells them, for Imus is their truth. The Journal is part of the lying mainstream media.

It didn’t matter that the WSJ story noted that it costs the ranch $27,000 for each 10-day camp stay, far more than similar charity camps spend. “Does it cost too much per kid?” Imus asked the newspaper. “Maybe it does. I would spend $2.6 million or $1.8 million, if I thought it could change kids’ lives.” Imus has donated $1 million of his own money to the ranch.

The Journal also reported that Imus might have to reimburse the IRS for his personal use of the ranch. He broadcasts his show during the summer from a studio there. He and his wife, Deirdre Coleman Imus (both of whom are unpaid members of the Imus Ranch Inc. board of directors) also use the mansion there for vacations.

The WSJ article was the second major investigation of the ranch. The first, on Feb. 10, 2003 by Thomas J. Cole of The Albuquerque (N.M.) Journal, raised some of the same financial issues the WSJ report did.

Cole told me how Imus, during his show, made a pre-emptive rant against the Albuquerque Journal a full 18 months before the story was published. “He called us petty, negative, and since we were making it personal, he would go after our publisher [Thompson H. Lang],” he recalled.

But Imus, for reasons that he never aired, didn’t say anything after the story was finally published. Cole says he’s glad the WSJ followed it up: “They did a great job of laying out the accounting issues.”

New Mexico reporters have absorbed a series of Imus’ attacks since he and his wife started building the ranch there seven years ago. In the summer of 1998 he raged on the air against Karen Peterson, then a reporter for the Santa Fe New Mexican, after she reported that Imus used state workers to tear down some buildings on public land he’d leased. Imus called her “a skank” and a “troll,” gave out her office telephone number over the air, and suggested his listeners follow his lead in making her life miserable.

Peterson thought the “troll” comments were funny: “We formed a club called The Trolls for women who covered the capital.” But she was stunned by the hundreds of e-mails and phone calls that followed from Imus Nation. “It was vicious,” said Peterson, now a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal. “People said I hated cancer kids, that they hoped I got AIDS. I was blown away by his ability to incite a mob.”

Three years later Imus also went after Wren Propp, another Journal reporter, after she disclosed that Imus had fired Jane Smith ? an interior decorator for the ranch who alleged she’d been shortchanged in a contract dispute.

“I don’t listen to him, but my mother does, and she called to tell me that his insults meant I was doing something right,” Propp said with a laugh.

There is no question that the Imus ranch has provided hundreds of severely ill children with a summer experience that brought sunshine into their troubled lives. And he has every right to bark back at the media watchdogs who criticize his handling of the ranch. But he has an obligation to do more than scream at them. His personal attacks against anyone who dares to question how he spends the millions in his care may make people wonder whether he has something to hide.

Howard Houghton, city editor of the New Mexican, gave his analysis of Imus: “He seems like a thin-skinned guy who enjoys flexing his muscles. He thinks he can intimidate newspapers, but it won’t work.” He notes that when his paper runs stories critical of certain people, “We don’t give out phone numbers and tell people to call them up.”

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