There is too much hatred, derision, disrespect, smearing, slander, polarization, division and bigotry that has infected American politics and American media.

What Don Imus said about the Rutgers women's basketball team was only the latest example of a sickness that is spreading — and in certain corporate boardrooms even encouraged as good for business.

This problem is far larger than Imus, the idea that it's profitable, beneficial or cute to spit hate, venom, or ugliness in our politics and media.

It starts at the top. In my view, the sickest hour in the history of American national politics was when George W. Bush used his Republican National Convention to hand out little toys to demean the Purple Heart. How sick can it get? Here was a collection of politicians who never served in the military, using their convention to make fun of those wounded in war, to demean a political opponent awarded Bronze and Silver Stars for valor.

When Ann Coulter attacked 9/11 widows as harpies who were probably pleased their husbands were dead, where was our "war president" who perpetually exploits 9/11 for partisan purposes, when he should have defended the honor and dignity of those women Coulter slandered?

It's not only the right, it's also the left. It's not only television, it's blogs and talk radio and all other means of political discourse.

In the last campaign a racist and bigoted ad was run against Tennessee senatorial candidate Harold Ford Jr. (D), and the punditry class treated it as business as usual. The bigoted ad was repeated on network news again and again.

I don't often quote Al Sharpton, but on this he's right. We can't keep having these endless cycles of sickness in the major media, followed by the contrite apology, followed by business as usual, followed by the next example, which follows the same pattern.

Many argue, with good reason, that Don Imus should be fired. Let me suggest an alternative. No matter how reprehensible Imus's words were, and they were, he has never shown evidence of bigotry before and in fact is one of the more generous and charitable public figures.

How about this as an alternative to firing: Imus should offer to give one full year's salary, matched by MSNBC and CBS Radio in full, to any charity designated by a vote of the Rutgers women's basketball team.

Let the women on the team be empowered to choose and let MSNBC, CBS and Imus write gigantic checks that go light-years beyond the standard-issue apology.

Perhaps Imus should be fired, which would lose me no sleep, but if so, there is a long line of others who should have been fired long ago.

Beginning with Imus and going forward, those who do this should be fired — or, at a minimum, should do what I call extreme penance.

Once upon a time in America, when our troops were under fire our leaders in politics and media had the idea that "we are in this together."

Enough is enough.

Either Imus goes, or he should do extreme penance that will show genuine remorse and pay a substantial price, one commensurate with the wrong he committed against a great basketball team of honorable and talented women.

There is a cancer in some segments of the media, and the cancer will spread, until it is removed.