Just as Don Imus gains a new show, Duane "Dog the Bounty Hunter" Chapman finds himself in danger of losing his.
That's just some of the latest news from what appears to be a vigorously growing arm of the entertainment industry, the racial etiquette beat.
Imus, as just about everyone on the planet knows, lost his CBS Radio and MSNBC simulcast earlier this year. He casually referred to Rutgers University's women's basketball team as "nappy headed hos." Months later, Citadel Broadcasting's radio outlet WABC New York has signed him up for a new show scheduled to debut on Dec. 3.
That's show biz. For shock jocks, an edgy, in-yo'-face brand of broadcasting that Imus helped to pioneer, getting fired from time to time only enhances one's street cred.
No so for the Dog. A&E suspended production on Chapman's popular "Dog the Bounty Hunter" pseudo-documentary series after his son Tucker sold an embarrassing tape of his dad on the telephone to the National Enquirer for cash. Ah, kids.
Chapman can be heard on the tape urging his son, Tucker, to end his relationship with his black girlfriend, Monique Shinnery. The professional bounty hunter can be heard referring to her as a "whore" and with the N-word accompanied by a modifying verb that is inappropriate for family newspapers.
With his TV future hanging in the balance, Dog embarked on what has now become a familiar ritual for Imus, Michael "Kramer" Richards, Doug "Greaseman" Tracht and other celebrities who find themselves in trouble for racial offenses: He contacted the Rev. Al Sharpton, whom celebrity spin doctors must have on speed-dial these days, right next to the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Like other TV game shows, the game of "gotcha" to snare celebrities who say something offensive about women or minorities seems to be a growth industry. It is a peculiar sign of America's progress with race relations that today's racial news is so deeply dominated by issues that concern civil rights or racial justice less than they are arguments about etiquette.
This is an age, for example, in which Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware finds himself in the national doghouse for referring to his fellow Democratic hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, as "clean" and "articulate." The old etiquette might have let the remarks pass as naive condescension by someone who obviously meant well. With today's etiquette, Biden's campaign was viewed widely as sunk before it hardly set sail.
As Aldous Huxley wrote in "Brave New World Revisited," his non-fiction sequel to his classic futuristic novel, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are always on alert against tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions."
As a result, the social critic Neil Postman wrote in his 1985 book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," we have allowed sports, the news, politics, religion and education become "congenial adjuncts" of the entertainment industry. Today we appear to have added race relations to that list.
As a result we take attention away from other urgent stories that unfortunately cannot be argued as easily or amusingly as Hollywood gossip can.
Compare, for example, the gravity of Dog the Bounty Hunter's vulgarities with that of another breaking news development: A major new study of some 2,300 families finds that, since the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, the nation's income gap between blacks and whites has grown.
According to the study, which was funded and managed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, incomes have increased over the past 30 years among both black and white families, mainly because more women are in the work force. But the increase was greater among whites. One reason for the growing gap: Incomes among black men have actually declined in the past three decades, when adjusted for inflation. They were offset only by gains among black women.
Whether you come at these findings from the political right, the left or the wobbly moderate middle, they call for serious discussion and, one hopes, action. Unfortunately the nation's airtime and talk time is more likely to be taken up with arguments about racial etiquette and which celebrity is the latest to break the rules.
I used to think Americans didn't talk enough about race. I now realize that Americans are delighted to talk about race, if it means they don't have to talk about class. Income inequality isn't as much fun. It's only more important.