That's where Imus messed up, according to Paglia. Straddling the line between entertainer and journalist, she said, he took liberties that traditional news reporters should not take. "Things that go on in a comedy club, things that go on in a late-night show like 'Saturday Night Live,' it's absolutely different from an early morning drive-time show that comments on contemporary politics in a serious way as well as a satirical way," she said. "I do feel that Imus should be held to a different standard than a comedian."
Thompson believes those standards should be established by broadcasters and distributors. Some entertainers can push the envelope further than others, and it's up to the people who pay them to figure out how far they can go.
"There are lines and they're all over the place. They just need to be clear by the employers," Thompson said. "Comedy Central has certain lines and they have certain lines for certain shows. "The sketches that Dave Chappelle was doing on 'The Chappelle Show' were comedy and humor that if it were played on 'Seinfeld' would have and could have caused an absolute controversy. One has to look at who's saying it, who they're saying it to, and the context."
Through the Imus fallout, some comedians seemed to hold back from satirizing him and his infamous comment.
On April 14, "Saturday Night Live" brought out a cowboy-hat, denim jacket clad Darrell Hammond to mimic a bumbling, apologetic Imus. Hammond's imitation of Imus' twang was amusing, but the sketch lacked bite. It got a smattering of laughter from the audience, and on "YouTube," where a clip of it was posted, one commenter wondered why "SNL" went with a tame approach, saying, "SNL could have done something really funny with this. I hate to join the SNL-basher crowd, but even I could have written a better comedy sketch around the Imus affair."
The uncertainty about how to turn Imus' crassness into comedy was an example of what Thompson and Paglia said is the embattled talk show host's gift to America: An opportunity to pause and re-evaluate what's worth saying and what's not.
As Russell Simmons' call for clean language showed, hip-hop embraced the moment. Danny Simmons, Russell's older brother and creator of HBO's spoken-word series "Def Poetry Jam," believes the music would be better without misogyny.
"I don't think that any of that stuff is essential to good music," he said. "When you go back to the roots of early hip-hop, you don't hear the misogyny, you don't hear the roots of negative language the way it's being used now."
The industry remains divided on whether rap should censor itself to serve a social good. But Paglia hopes other sectors of pop culture will follow Russell Simmons' suit and, at the very least, reconsider using racist and sexist language.
"I do think that something's gone very wrong with standards of creativity in the popular arts. It's not that this is bad, this isn't nice -- it's that it's too easy. It's knee-jerk crap," she said. "It's time to clean things up not because the government is telling us to do so or has any right to do so, but because there should be standards and it should be better."