SOLOMON: Dr. Laura Does TV

After many months of controversy over her anti-gay statements to millions of radio listeners, Dr. Laura ascended the airwaves to an even higher and mightier pulpit. Her crusade has reached televisionland.

Over the summer, Schlessinger held onto the misconceptions that led her to describe homosexuality as "a biological error" manifested by "deviants." Meanwhile, she tried some damage control -- but couldn't let go of her bigotry.

In a July interview with Time magazine, she insisted: "Not being able to relate normally to a member of the opposite sex is some kind of error. I do not see that as insulting at all. It is a statement of biological fact."

Actually, it's nothing of the kind. Dr. Laura is about as scientific as William Jennings Bryan was at the Scopes trial, thumping the Bible as a backbeat for old prejudices. Fortunately, these days, most clergy are far more enlightened.

"The anti-gay beliefs you espouse on a regular basis -- that homosexuality is 'deviant' and that gays can and should be cured -- are entirely outside the mainstream of scientific thought," said an open letter to Schlessinger, signed last February by more than 100 religious leaders, along with heads of medical, child-welfare and civil rights groups.

Dr. Laura should be known as "Dr. Ignorant." Her persistent claim that being gay amounts to being ill has been repudiated by such organizations as the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association.

Yet it seems that Dr. Laura is enmeshed in her own rhetoric, which isn't just inflammatory -- it's also very harmful. Using the mass media to denigrate gays is especially injurious to young people.

The open letter that Schlessinger received (and evidently ignored) seven months ago emphasized the point: "Nowhere are the consequences of anti-gay feelings more apparent than in the high number of suicides among gay youth.... While suicide is the ultimate consequence of homophobia, studies find that gay youth -- and youth who are perceived to be gay -- are more likely to get beat up, feel isolated, and have trouble in school." Right now, Dr. Laura is a public health hazard.

Many of her fans have the impression that Schlessinger is some kind of doctor, but her degree is in physiology. Whatever her credentials, she excels at passing judgment, swiftly and rigidly. Dr. Laura condemns anyone whose sexual actions -- homosexual, heterosexual or whatever -- don't adhere to her line. And Dr. Laura's daily television show offers more of the same.

"I'm trying to teach morals, values, ethics and principles," Schlessinger said in late summer, adding that her TV program scored with test audiences: "They liked it more and more when I was talking right into the camera, giving people the concept of what's right and wrong on a certain issue."

As Chicago Tribune television critic Steve Johnson has noted, "the radio show seems to consist of some fairly damaged people seeking quick answers from someone who barely has time to grasp even the basics of their situations." With perhaps undue optimism about the sensibilities of the nation's viewers, Johnson commented: "It is hard to imagine the God-like benedictions and upbraidings that Schlessinger dispenses on her radio show going over well on TV."

Under pressure from gay rights advocates, several major advertisers -- including Procter & Gamble, Priceline.com, Sears and AT&T -- stopped sponsoring the Dr. Laura radio program. But so far, Dr. Laura has been able to sustain the momentum of her show-biz bandwagon. Despite all the efforts to block it, she remains on a roll.

Days before the Sept. 11 premiere of Dr. Laura's syndicated TV show, some of her adversaries were striving to put the best face on recent events. For example, the Horizons Foundation issued a news release saying that "several gay rights activists and business leaders saw the public and corporate backlash against Dr. Laura's homophobic stances as a turning point for attitudes toward gays and lesbians."

Perhaps. But most of the way through 2000, the fortunes of Dr. Laura indicate that some of the largest media institutions in the country are still willing to heavily promote national broadcasts that disparage the humanity of certain people because of their sexual orientation. And too often, it's easy to be complacent -- if the poisonous barbs aren't aimed directly at us.

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