Does the end of Imus' career on the public airwaves mean that freedom of speech is dead in America?
That's an interesting question raised by several people who commented on my post last night. The simple answer to that is no. Freedom of speech has always been limited in the U.S. -- you can't yell fire in a crowded theater. And you can't utter words that lose companies money.
I estimate Imus made about $18 million in profit for his corporate overlords. According to the Wall Street Journal [subscription required], Imus generated $25 million a year for CBS Corp. (NYSE: CBS) and $8.3 million for Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) and General Electric Co.'s (NYSE: GE) joint venture, MSNBC. Imus reached two million radio listeners every morning and 350,000 television viewers. And The New York Times [registration required] estimates that Imus made $10 million a year and I arbitrarily added in about $5 million in production costs, which is probably on the low end.
The point is that CBS and MSNBC wagered that the firestorm generated by Imus' remarks would cost them that $20 million in profit as corporate advertisers fled -- fearing that consumers would stop buying their products if they kept supporting Imus' show.
It was crossing the line from profit to loss that cost Imus his spot on the public airwaves. Sometimes there is such a thing as bad press.