News & Politics
The Cruel Sisters of American Media: Judge Judy and Dr. Laura
March 31, 2000
America the Cruel has two relatively new female media stars. The two, Laura Schlessinger -- aka Dr. Laura -- and Judy Scheidlin -- aka Judge Judy -- have now uttered enough hateful inanities that popular uprisings against them, using Web sites as organizing tools, are underway. The goal of these Internet campaigns is to put enough pressure on advertisers to dislodge the two women from their highly visible, very profitable and socially destructive media perches. Schlessinger is infamous primarily for her ongoing attacks on gays. She has equated gays with pedophiles, deviants and those who commit incest, and has argued that homosexuality has its origins in "biological errors." But Schlessinger is an equal opportunity slammer; she dumps on anyone who doesn't see the world as she does. Judge Judy made her mark last fall in Brisbane, Australia during a tour to promote her book "Beauty Fades, Dumb Is Forever." There she said that only "liberal morons" advocate needle exchange and suggested that instead of attempting to control AIDS and hepatitis by providing clean needles to drug addicts, we should "give them all dirty needles and let them die.'' The CEO of the Alcohol and Drug Foundation of Queensland (Australia) responded to Dr. Judy as follows: "The arrogance of a TV celebrity using the tragedy of young lives struck down by drugs for her own commercial gain is nothing short of repulsive." Media meanness for profit is not new in America but it's primarily been a male domain up until recently. Three of the most visible spewers of hate of past years have been radio personality Don Imus, multimedia leech Howard Stern and the once wildly popular conservative Rush Limbaugh, who has lost some of his clout during the Clinton era. Earlier pundits of bigotry were Mort Downey, who became a national figure through his groundbreaking TV show where people screamed at each other, and New York City's Bob Grant, who spewed racist crap for years on various radio programs. But apparently there is nothing more popular than a hard-hearted mother figure dosing out tough love. Dr. Laura has become a talk radio celebrity not simply by presenting a barrage of insult and outrage, as Imus and Stern have famously done, but by perverting the already fairly perverse standards of radio advice programming. Schlessinger's genius, according to Bill Berkowitz in the weekly publication Culture Watch, "has been to adapt the call-in format to her own special brand of shtick -- a no excuses 'tough love' that frequently turns into a confrontational bloodletting of her callers. She calls these exchanges her 'nagging, preaching and teaching' approach. Critics claim she's arrogant, rude, mean-spirited and the 'queen of mean.'" Whatever you think about Dr. Laura, her success is indisputable. She is the most listened-to talk radio host in America. Her syndicator, Kraig T. Kitchin, claims hers is "the fastest growing national radio program in our medium's history, both in listeners and affiliates." The listeners are said to total 20 million and the affiliates 450. In 1997, her show was sold to Jacor Communications Inc. for $71.5 million. Soon Dr. Laura will be on the tube, as she recently signed a $3 million deal with Paramount Domestic TV for a syndicated day time talk show that is supposed to air in the fall of 2000. In the face of callousness, racism and homophobia, prominent media people have usually stepped forward to provide criticism and help marginalize the hate mongers. But with the politics of cruelty hitting new heights, and the media offering pulpits to whomever can amass a large audience, there is some question of where the moral leadership is going to come from to confront the Dr. Lauras and Judge Judys -- or if it will be heard amidst the tabloid din. For example, while they are clearly on record opposing Dr. Laura, leading gay groups like GLADD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) have not yet been willing to play hard ball, according to media observers, perhaps because they prefer to work on the inside and not be aggressively activist Into this breach have stepped Web activists cleverly using online technology and getting cooperation from traditional media to aggressively attack Dr. Laura and Judge Judy. Anti-Dr. Laura activists have banded together to create the Web site StopDrLaura.com with the ultimate goal of getting her off the air. But it's a slippery slope for these activities. For in the classic paradox of political organizing, the more these characters get attacked, the more their audience grows -- and the more money their media sponsors make.That is up to a point. For a media outlet to make money, it still needs advertisers. The question here is can enough heat be applied to the advertisers who support these two women to undermine their base. Already several advertisers have abandoned Judge Judy.The effort to turn up the heat on Schlessinger and Paramount Television has been led by the StopDrLaura.com site. On March 11, the site posted a story reported by Amy Pagnozzi in the Hartford Courant, in which Dr. Laura attacked a 14-year-old girl who had written an award-winning essay defending free speech on the Internet. Pagnozzi wrote that Dr. Laura "savaged the child" in a "disgusting" broadcast in which she said the Connecticut eighth-grader's support of the First Amendment as applied to the Internet was "stupid" and "dangerous," and that "If she was my daughter, I'd probably put her up for adoption.'' Schlessinger also went on to suggest that the child be "sacrificed," in the tradition of the Incas who ritually murdered their own children, and made ironic quips that the girl should be kidnapped. Schlessinger added: "Poor Sara [the essay winner] doesn't get it. When she makes her marriage vows and her husband has sex with everybody else, let's see if she thinks that this philosophy works." The impact Schlessinger has on children and teenagers is an area of major concern for critics. AlterNet syndicated columnist Norman Solomon insists that Dr. Laura does a lot of harm:"In her powerful position before the microphone, she spews abuse at those who live outside the circle she has drawn around humanity. Many of the people listening are youngsters. The other day, I heard a 10-year-old caller on Schlessinger's program deferentially seeking advice. He got plenty of it.""Children are particularly vulnerable to this inflated radio icon, who often sounds much more like a verbal bully than a counselor," continues Solomon. "They're unlikely to understand that she's on the national airwaves not because of wisdom or compassion or scientific knowledge, but because 'Dr. Laura' is show biz -- and big bucks. To broadcasting executives, the fact that she's the most widely heard talk-show host in America means exquisite cash flow.""I am getting people to stop doing wrong and start doing right," says Dr. Laura. For gays, that belief translates into a steady stream of corrosive venom. Early last summer, voicing scorn for "gay rights," Schlessinger launched into a diatribe. "Rights. Rights! Rights? For sexual deviants ... sexual behavior, there are no rights," she said. "That's what I'm worried about with the pedophilia and the bestiality and the sadomasochism and the cross-dressing. Is this all going to be 'rights' too, to deviant sexual behavior? It's deviant sexual behavior. Why does deviant sexual behavior get rights?"On March 10, Schlessinger issued a statement on the gay controversy on her Web site. The statement came after a coalition of organizations announced they will hold a protest at the gates of Paramount on March 21 to demand the studio drop plans to air the Dr. Laura Show this fall. The pressure on Dr. Laura has been enhanced by nationwide ads sponsored by the Horizons Foundation, the Child Welfare League of America and the progressive Web site TomPaine.com.In her statement, Schlessinger denies that labeling gays as "biological errors," sexual deviants and pedophiles should be perceived as judgmental. "Words that I have used in a clinical context have been perceived as judgment. They were not meant to characterize homosexual individuals or encourage others to disparage homosexuals." What's interesting is that Schlessinger has continually insisted, according to Berkowitz, that for decades psychological literature has amassed information that says kids in gay homes will be damaged because there is no father in the house." San Francisco psychologist Dr. Vivian Dent scoffed at Schlessinger's claims. "I don't know what literature she's reading," she said. "Most research psychologists would agree that kids raised by gay couples do just as well or just as poorly as kids in straight families. " Furthermore, Schlessinger is neither a psychiatrist, nor a psychologist. She is actually a physiologist and neither the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association nor the American Psychiatric Association support her theories on homosexuality. Berkowitz also notes that Dr. Laura has become a reliable conduit for the Religious Right's social agenda, injecting herself into several Christian Right campaigns, featured in Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family Citizen Magazine and using information from the virulently anti-gay Family Research Council on her shows. On the lighter, more ironic side, last year Schlessinger became an overnight Internet phenomenon when pictures of her naked during her twenties went up on the Net. When millions went to log on and check it out, they were quickly linked to one of the thousands of porn sites. The campaign against Judge Judy received a boost from the unlikely venue of supermarket tabloids, with articles appearing simultaneously in both The Globe and The National Enquirer in December. An Internet-based campaign aimed at the Judge Judy show's sponsors began to percolate, as the drug reform advocate DRCNet, together with allied organizations such as the Harm Reduction Coalition, Family Watch and Drugsense started circulating lists of Judge Judy advertisers. Three Judge Judy sponsors, Herr's Potato Chips, Papa John's Pizza and a joint venture of Shell Oil and Chase Manhattan Bank said they would cease running ads on the Judge Judy show. Papa John's spokesman, Brian Jennings, reiterated the company's position, telling the Web news site APB, "I regret ever advertising on her show." He also said, "We stopped it as soon as we found out about her adverse views. We have nothing to do with Judge Judy, nor will we ever." Then last week DRCNet launched a Web site, DumpJudgeJudy.com, to motivate the anti-Judge Judy campaign and to raise awareness of drug-related HIV and hepatitis and the urgent need for needle exchange programs. Feeling the pressure, Sheindlin released public statements on her Web site, www.judgejudy.com. On March 9 the New York Post story was titled "Judge Judy sorry... sort of." Sheindlin told the Post, "If they're looking for me to say I'm sorry to the families who lost children or loved ones [to AIDS or drugs] -- absolutely. I feel badly if words that I used hurt them. But am I going to apologize to a [drug advocacy] group that has an agenda -- absolutely not."In terms of the big picture, no one has been more eloquent than syndicated columnist Ariana Huffington in grasping the impact of the Dr. Laura-Judge Judy trend on other efforts to scapegoat society's victims. According to Huffington, Judge Judy's views reflect a "disturbing trend in our culture toward getting the 'love' out of tough love. Call it the New Callousness turning an indifferent shoulder to anyone -- drug addicts, the homeless, those behind bars -- who hasn't had the good sense to become a bull-market rider. After all, they're getting in the way of the Panglossian message that all is well 'in this best of all possible worlds.'" Huffington concludes: "Transforming human beings into nuisances -- problems that must be eradicated -- is a dangerous step along the deadly path of dehumanization. It takes very little to end a life that has been stripped of its humanity."