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God Squad draws fire with stints on shock jock radio

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New York

Msgr. Tom Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman have been dispensing interreligious harmony over the airwaves more than a dozen years. Off camera they admit to being “like brothers.” They close their telecasts of The God Squad with a handshake, followed by a hug and a kiss on the cheek -- a gesture they hold is more real than ritual.

For thousands of New York-area Catholics and Jews the priest-rabbi team represents good theology and good taste. But their appearance once a month on one of America’s raunchiest radio/TV shows “Imus in the Morning” has raised eyebrows.

The two clergymen -- both 52 -- are seen regularly across Long Island, N.Y., where both have congregations. Cable-viewers can watch them on the interfaith Faith & Values/VISN network. Across the nation they sometimes make guest appearances on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” They have won Emmy and Christopher awards for their media partnership. Their popularity prompted New York Gov. George Pataki to ask them to preside at a beachside memorial service for the victims of TWA flight 800 that crashed off Long Island in July 1996.

So what are they doing appearing regularly on shock jock Don Imus’ radio show?

The shock jock, who has been on the New York airwaves for more than 25 years, holds top ratings among morning shows through his infamous insults and name-calling. In 1996 -- after he skewered the Clintons and most of the nation’s political and journalistic elite at a Washington correspondents’ dinner -- MSNBC invited Imus to bring his radio show to television. Within weeks his audience grew from 2 to 15 million.

Listeners can’t escape “the racist, sexist and homophobic rhetoric” that critic Philip Nobile says is the stock-in-trade of Imus and his crew. Nobile, a Brooklyn author and freelance journalist, has set out on a one-man crusade to persuade The God Squad to quit Imus.

Nobile has written the pair and sent two letters to Hartman’s superior, Bishop John McGann of Rockville Centre, N.Y. In his first letter to the bishop, Nobile accused Hartman of “giving scandal by his association with Don Imus, the most powerful and active white racist and homophobe in the American media.”

Nobile, who holds a theology degree from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, contends that the Imus show “routinely smears racial minorities, homosexuals and the handicapped with vicious and vile remarks that should shock Catholic conscience.”

Imus uses such terms as “queers” and “homos” to refer to homosexuals and frequently uses names derogatory to lesbians to describe Hillary Clinton and her female supporters, Nobile said in his letters to the clergymen. Nobile found some of the most flagrant anti-gay rhetoric coming from Imus’ sidekicks: his brother, Fred Imus; his movie critic, the ex-New York cop, Bo Deitel; and sound engineer Lou Ruffino.

Women fare little better than minorities or gays, Nobile said, noting that Imus had proposed naming eight new heifers on his New Mexico ranch after eight female media stars. While sexual innuendo and double-entendre are standard fare on Imus, black women are the targets of more insults than their white sisters, Nobile said, noting that Imus called Gwen Ifill “the cleaning lady.” An African-American, Ifill is a political correspondent for NBC news and a former New York Times White House correspondent.

Imus’ producer Bernard McGuirk, in appearances on the show, has referred to blacks as “Brillo-heads,” “dark meat” and “Sambos.” McGuirk has used ethnic stereotypes to refer to Jews and has called Arabs “towel heads” and Asians “our urine-colored brothers,” Nobile wrote.

Imus did not return repeated phone calls from NCR and did not respond to questions faxed to his office.

McGuirk regularly dons a Federal Express mailer envelope, pretending it’s a miter, and parodies New York Cardinal John O’Connor. Usually the “cardinal” is reduced to reading the New York State Lotto numbers.

How does Hartman find the parody? “It’s very funny,” he told NCR. But does the cardinal laugh? “He’s never asked for a tape or video of the show,” O’Connor’s spokesman Joseph Swilling told NCR, but “he knows of it.” Swilling, who sometimes tunes in Imus en route to work, wouldn’t characterize the parody of O’Connor as “homophobic” or “racist,” as Nobile insists it is. But “it can be very irreverent,” Swilling said.

Nobile called Gellman “hypocritical” when he preached healing in the aftermath of the August shooting at a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles. The rabbi’s remarks came just minutes after blacks and Arabs had been “slimed” on the very same Imus show, Nobile said.

McGann chose not to respond to Nobile and instead passed his letter to Hartman. The priest did not dispute Nobile’s charges but defended the God Squad’s nine-year run on Imus as an effort “to bring hope to people who are on their way to work. We have tried to reach out to many people who don’t regularly go to church, synagogue or mosque, but will listen to clergy on a radio show,” he said.

Hartman said that he and Gellman “attend” to Imus and his crew both on and off the air, though they hardly agree with all that is said on the show. The priest noted that he’d asked his host not to use “Jesus Christ” as an expletive on the air and that Imus “didn’t realize he was doing it and apologized,” Hartman said. “[Imus] said he would refrain from doing that.”

Hartman said that he and Gellman talk to Imus off the air about things said by his team “that are inappropriate.”

In September Nobile sent a second letter to McGann urging the bishop to cancel an Imus radiothon designed to raise money for the diocese’s new AIDS shelter, Christa House. “You have the power to ... save the Rockville Center diocese from the shame of taking pieces of silver from a whited sepulcher like Imus who mocks Christian values while using Fr. Hartman as a fig leaf,” Nobile wrote.

The radio benefit went on as scheduled Oct. 8, raising $500,000 for the $6 million home. When it ended, Imus contributed $25,000 of his own money to Christa House.

“He’s doing a real good job with his soul,” despite his “locker room, bad boy style,” Hartman told NCR. “No radio DJ has done as much for children,” he said, citing Imus’ efforts on behalf of Tomorrow’s Children, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome research and his proposed New Mexico ranch for children with cancer.

Hartman said that the radiothon developed after Imus asked him to list what he was grateful for last Thanksgiving. Hartman named Christa House, which the priest vowed to build after his brother Jerry died of AIDS in 1996. Jerry Hartman and his partner sought the aid of the church during their illness. Jerry, a Universal Studios executive, told his brother that he had plenty of money, good doctors and a supportive family, but he wanted to aid those without medical insurance or family care.

Hartman has watched Imus change greatly over the past decade, seeking and finding help for his addictions to alcohol and drugs, the priest said.

“He no longer erects a wall around himself,” Hartman said. He described Imus as “pathologically shy” and “looking for authenticity. ... He believes that someone who’s hurting needs to be helped. ... He admires the pope and Mother Teresa.”

But Hartman admitted that “reaction is mixed” toward his appearance on the show. Imus has even asked The God Squad why they continue to come on. They provide the same reply that Hartman gave Nobile -- to reach the unchurched and those who do not attend synagogue.

Gellman told NCR that he will continue on Imus, because “I believe in Don Imus’ heart; I don’t always believe in his mouth.” Most of his congregation is glad that religion has a public face and that “I’m bringing honor to Jews by appearing. The reaction is overwhelmingly positive among men,” he said, but “not so positive among women.”

The rabbi found fault with Nobile’s criticism, noting that “there’s a pernicious idea out there that religion has to be separate from society; that religion has to be absolutely pure.” He said that neither he nor Hartman were Imus’ defenders. “If Sen. [Joe] Lieberman, Anna Quinlan, Bill Bradley and Al Gore can be on, why can’t we?”

Gellman believes his critics have asked the wrong question. “It’s not ‘Should we be on Imus?’ It’s ‘How should the religious message be delivered?’ ” The rabbi points to Jesus, who, he said, talked to prostitutes, took his message to the most populous places and didn’t care what people said or thought about him. “If it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.”

But will it be good enough for Bishop James McHugh who succeeds McGann next month and will become Hartman’s new boss? “He’ll look at everything in the media and everything in the diocese,” Hartman told NCR. Will that spell the end of his mornings on Imus? “Who knows?” Hartman replied.

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 1999