Stopping Dr. Laura
America's most opinionated talk radio personality has big plans for the fall. Dr. Laura Schlessinger, host of the most popular radio show in the country, has a contract with Paramount Television to launch a television show in September. Like the radio show, the television series will feature Dr. Laura's straight-shooting advice on a broad range of moral issues and make clear calls to action. Dr. Laura claims that through her shows, she is "getting people to stop doing wrong and start doing right."
But Dr. Laura's definitions of right and wrong are offensive to many people -- especially gays and lesbians, whom she has called "sexual deviants," "aberrant," "disordered," and "dysfunctional," among other epithets. "I have called [homosexuality] an error," Dr. Laura said on her radio show. "And I think that it is irrefutable and obvious. It's dysfunctional, it is deviant. According to religion, it is not moral. But biologically it is clearly an error."
The proposed new TV show has become a focal point for activists who object to Dr. Laura's agenda. StopDrLaura.com, a Web site that grew out of Washington writer and Internet consultant John Aravosis's impatience with the tactics of mainstream gay civil rights organizations, has galvanized protestors. The site, whose subtitle is 'a coalition against hate,' has become a behind-the-scenes forum for communication and activism. It has attracted millions of hits, plenty of media attention and the support of some high-profile activists.
"Dr. Laura has a right to her opinion," writes actress Susan Sarandon on the StopDrLaura.com site, "but I think it's irresponsible of Paramount to not give equal time, at the very least, to a person with a more enlightened and contemporary perspective. I'm totally against wasting the airwaves to giving visibility to a person who is clearly in dire need of compassion, education, and a good shrink herself."
However, when it comes to influencing the entertainment industry, strong sentiments are not enough. Moral arguments must be backed up by money, and so the coalition behind StopDrLaura.com has pressured the advertisers who will finance the show to revoke their support.
On May 20, Procter & Gamble, the advertising giant with a $2 billion-plus per year budget, withdrew its support for the upcoming show. P & G has also pulled its advertising from Dr. Laura's radio show. P & G's decision put pressure on other companies who advertise on Dr. Laura's radio show or who had agreed to buy space on the television series. As of July 5th, Xerox, United Airlines, American Express, AT&T, and Toys "R" Us, More.com, Boxlot, and Amica Insurance have all withdrawn their spots.
Recent maneuvers by P&G have cast the optimism of Dr. Laura's critics in a new light. P & G executives met with several right-wing, anti-gay organizations who are trying to pressure the company to reverse its decision on June 12, one day after Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchannon announced that Dr. Laura is a potential running mate. The company decided to pull its advertising from MTV's "Undressed" and "Tom Green Show," programs that it called "inappropriate."
"Procter & Gamble has been a model of corporate responsibility for refusing to profit off of 'Dr.' Laura's intolerance," said Wayne Besen, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, the largest national lesbian and gay political organization. "We hope this meeting will not change or affect Procter & Gamble's commitment to fairness and to treating all of its valued customers with the dignity and respect they deserve," he said, minimizing the significance of P&G's pullout from MTV.
But just two months after withdrawing their support from the Dr. Laura show, Focus on the Family received an apologetic letter from P&G's global marketing officer, Bob Wheling. Although Wheling defended P&G's decision to pull advertising from Dr. Laura, he described her as "an eloquent spokesperson for traditional values."
And yet with some last-minute withdrawals a new precedent has been set -- advertisers and stations are not just refusing to sign on to the show, but are pulling out of previously existing contracts. Paul La Camera, the general manager of WCVB in Boston, who has expressed concern about the content of the show, told the Boston Phoenix that "What they [the protesters] are asking is quite significant -- that after making a commitment to a program, we cancel. It's unprecedented and will require a lot of thought."
The Horizons Foundation, the nation's first gay and lesbian community foundation, has placed its weight on the side of Dr. Laura's critics through a high-profile letter writing campaign. Horizons crafted an open letter to Dr. Laura -- which has been endorsed by nearly three thousand prominent health, medical, child welfare and civil rights organizations, religious associations and leaders, media outlets and individuals -- and sent it to stations who air Dr. Laura's radio show.
"As the most powerful radio show host in America," it read, "you understand the effects of language on children. It is within your power and your wit and intelligence to help kids by speaking out against homophobia and anti-gay violence."
Using statistics about the suicide rate among gay youth -- which is three to seven times higher than that among straight youth -- the letter asks Dr. Laura to consider her words more carefully.
"Dr. Laura," the letter finishes, "We are not saying that you should be censored. Nor are we implying that you don't have the right to express yourself. We are simply saying this: young people who are otherwise happy and healthy are being taught to hate themselves simply because they are gay."
Media outlets like TomPaine.com, a non-profit journal that places op-ed ads in major daily papers, has followed the Horizon Foundation's lead by establishing their own Stop Dr. Laura campaign. Their ads in New York Times, Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle charge that Dr. Laura's gay-bashing qualifies her as "the queen of hate radio."
Dr. Laura's responses to these attacks have become more sparse as criticism has intensified. On June 2, Dr. Laura refused to give a planned interview for WFTS in St. Petersburg, Florida minutes before it was to begin. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Dr. Laura heard the morning anchors discussing her show (which WFTS will air in September) in a negative light and walked off. Her spokesperson said that she did not wish to participate in a hostile interview. MSNBC reported that Dr. Laura refused to be interviewed unless the interviewer promised not to ask certain questions about the TV show.
Aravosis expressed frustration that when Dr. Laura appears in high -profile interviews such as on Larry King Live or the Today show, interviewers seem hesitant to ask her about the battle over her words. According to a source at "Today," where Katie Couric grilled Dr. Laura about her claim that single parenthood is wrong, the conversation was not limited by Dr. Laura but by Couric. Aravosis, however, remains skeptical.
Dr. Laura did agree to an interview with Time magazine, which will appear on July 10, in which she claims that the criticisms are only misinterpretations of her words. In a rare display of vulnerability, the prickly personality confessed that "I've cried more times than I would like to admit ... It's astonishing to have your name smeared with such vitriol. I wouldn't wish it on people I dislike. It's been agonizing."
Yet Dr. Laura refuses to back down from her position. "I regret that my words were taken out of context, distorted and lied about so many people were hurt by them," she said.
Despite the pain Dr. Laura claims she has suffered because of cruel remarks, she does not seem to draw any connection between her plight and the acerbic attacks she continues to direct at gays and lesbians. In the same interview, she fell back on her wisdom as a "doctor" in her response to a question about her treatment of gays and lesbians. "Not being able to relate normally to a member of the opposite sex is some kind of error," she said. "I do not see that as insulting at all. It is a statement of biological fact." Ironically, her doctorate -- which she wears like a banner of authenticity -- is not in psychology or psychiatry, but in physiology.
It seems that although the public may listen to Dr. Laura insatiably, it is not entirely without a critical edge. For example, a letter circulating around the Internet satirically turns Dr. Laura's fundamentalist rhetoric and her frequent biblical references on their head, with questions such as, "I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as it suggests in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?" The letter, signed "Concerned Christian," illustrates the absurdity of Dr. Laura's line of argumentation.
Members of the public and activists are also putting direct pressure on the television stations that are considering airing Dr. Laura's new show. Wonbo Woo, a spokesperson for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) met in private with the staff of WCVB in Boston, one of the stations scheduled to carry Dr. Laura's show. During the meeting he presented clips from the radio show and members of the staff "expressed great concern over the language that she used," according to the Boston Phoenix. They "were very clear in their assurances that they would not allow Dr. Laura to use their station to spread the kind of rhetoric that we presented" the paper reported.
While American stations have been slow to respond, Canadian broadcasters have already reevaluated their relationship to her show. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) was the first major network to release a decision declaring that Dr. Laura's comments are sufficiently hurtful to be considered violations of the rights of the individuals particularly the gay men and lesbians whom she targets. The statement, which CBSC released on May 10, determines that "Schlessinger's comments were in violation of the human rights provision of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) Code of Ethics." The Canadians are, as Americans rarely admit, ahead of us on this one, as the sluggish response to Dr. Laura's upcoming show by American media conglomerates clearly demonstrates.
It is quite likely, of course, that Dr. Laura's show will hit airwaves this fall, and that the television program will be as successful as its radio counterpart. Paramount has refused to pull Dr. Laura's slot this fall and has not publicly indicated worry about its content. However, they have begun to demonstrate their discomfort in other ways. This spring, the producer pulled Dr. Laura from a promotional panel in Erie, PA.
Ironically, one side-effect of the anti-Dr. Laura campaign is that Dr. Laura has become a higher profile figure as a result of the hype. Controversy boosts ratings, and Dr. Laura is certainly enjoying an expanding audience as a result of this one. Ultimately, it is the size of the audience and not the ideology of the content which will determine whether or not the show continues for a second season. If the controversy has triggered enough media coverage to significantly enhance Dr. Laura's appeal to viewers -- fans and critics alike -- then the fight may have been in vain.
However, the public discussion which this issue has generated about the nature of free speech has put more people in a position to decide which side of the argument they endorse, and isn't that what we want? In a world where we are doused with the opinions of advertisers and television shows without a second thought, a raging argument may be just what we need. Rather than a case of censorship, we are witnessing free speech at work with P& G acting as a tracking device. Whatever outcome such a discussion yields, it has been a victory for the marketplace of ideas.