|TOO HOT FOR TV?|
June 15, 2000
Does radio host "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger propagate hate? Should she be able to take her views to television? Terence Smith leads a discussion with three experts.
Then, click here for an Online Forum on this topic.
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DR. LAURA SCHLESSINGER: My number: 1-800-Dr-Laura, 1- 800-d-r-l-a-u-r-a.
TERENCE SMITH: Conservative radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger aims to provoke. The pop psychologist-- her degree is in physiology-- has been stirring the pot for years. Controversy has earned her the second-highest talk show ratings in the nation, second only to Rush Limbaugh. She is broadcast on more than 450 stations.
DR. LAURA SCHLESSINGER: So you think your mom's lying, and taking advantage of the situation?
TERENCE SMITH: Now Dr. Laura, as she is known, wants to translate that success to television with her own daytime talk show this fall, produced and syndicated by Paramount studios.
PROTESTER: Laura Schlessinger is a quack. She's a charlatan.
|Protest and controversy|
TERENCE SMITH: But protesters, driven in large part by gay rights groups, charge that Schlessinger is a bigot who uses the airwaves to spew anti-gay sentiment to some 18 million weekly listeners. The proposed television show has mobilized them in what they see as a culture war. The anti-Dr. Laura movement has taken to newspapers, and to the Web. This site, tompaine.com, calls her the "queen of mean," and this one, stopdrLaura.com, the command center of the campaign, provides information about protests around the country. It even sells T-shirts reading, "Are you a biological error?" The quote stems from comments about homosexuality by Schlessinger, who has also described it as, "a terrible sadness" and "deviant sexual behavior."
DR. LAURA SCHLESSINGER: I'm Dr. Laura Schlessinger.
TERENCE SMITH: An orthodox Jew, Dr. Laura takes what she calls a "traditional" view of issues such as homosexuality, and her right to express them.
DR. LAURA SCHLESSINGER: Of course a society should discriminate. Of
course it should. It should discriminate against certain behaviors.
And man-on-man and woman-on- woman sexual activity is a deviant sexual
orientation-- does not promote any of the
DR. LAURA SCHLESSINGER: I think for the most part, people understand the notion of free speech and religious persecution, when they say it, when somebody has strong, profound religious beliefs, that that is a conviction which needs to be respected instead of misconstrued or misrepresented as hate speech.
TERENCE SMITH: Dr. Laura also writes a syndicated self-help column, and has had four best-selling books, including this latest one with the provocative title, "Parenthood by Proxy: Don't Have Them if You Won't Raise Them," which critics see as an attack on working mothers. While Paramount stands by its plans to air the television show, Proctor & Gamble dropped its plan to sponsor the new program, and United Airlines announced it would no longer run ads for her radio show in its in-flight magazine. Television stations around the country are considering whether to go ahead and carry the program.
SPOKESPERSON: There has been considerable controversy over her inflammatory statements about homosexuality and women. Newscenter 5, WCVB, has been meeting with gay and lesbian groups who do not want the station to air the program.
TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council rebuked Schlessinger for what it called "abusively discriminatory violations of Canada's broadcast code." It is requiring stations that continue to broadcast her show to censor anti-gay comments, and broadcast statements on the council's ruling.
|A panel discussion|
SMITH: For more on the controversial Dr. Laura Schlessinger program,
we turn to Keven Bellows-- her Vice President and general manager at
Premiere Radio Networks; and to Joan Garry, executive director of GLAAD,
the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, that is protesting
her program; and to Lucy Dalglish, a lawyer who is executive director
of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. Welcome to
all three of you.
JOAN GARRY: Well, first off, I have to say that the notion of this whole debate being framed in terms of free speech is kind of ironic, because I, along with millions of people, gay and straight, are in fact expressing our free speech in the concerns that we have about this show. The issue for GLAAD, as it's an anti-defamation organization, is that this isn't about free speech, it's about defamatory speech: Some of the language you just heard, as well as some of the misinformation that Dr. Laura is putting out there. And I think it's also important to know that this issue started for us two years ago, not today with the protests, but two years ago with conversations with both Laura Schlessinger and with Paramount, to really inform them, educate them about the impact that these words are having on people who listen to them, and to ask them to exert some responsibility.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. But is your purpose to differ with Dr. Laura and her views, or to keep her off television?
JOAN GARRY: No, the purpose of our work here is to really hold up some defamation, defamatory language and its use, and hold it up for everyone to see, and really indicate that it cannot and should not go unchallenged, and really, to look at Paramount domestic television particularly, and to ask them, in light of the ongoing history of Laura Schlessinger's words, to really exert some responsibility.
TERENCE SMITH: But you have approached Paramount and said, "don't put it on air"?
JOAN GARRY: In both situations, both with Schlessinger and with Paramount, we found ourselves in a position where both of these entities have really not acknowledged the defamation of these words, nor taken responsibility for them. And without either of those situations from either Paramount or Schlessinger, we've really had no choice but to advocate that the show be pulled.
TERENCE SMITH: Keven Bellows, does that strike you as legitimate protest?
KEVEN BELLOWS: Well, no, because I was actually at a meeting at Paramount with Joan when GLAAD's desire was for assurances that, if Dr. Laura had a television show, that there would be many different points of view represented on that television show, and she was assured that that would in fact be the case. I think it's amusing that Laura, of all people, should not be allowed to be on television, when there is so much despair about violence and sex and basically the wasteland of television. Dr. Laura is the foremost advocate of morals, values, and ethics in America. And that's what this television show will be about, and there will be many different points of view expressed. So I don't think this is about fairness, I think this is about unfairness.
TERENCE SMITH: Lucy Dalglish, is it protest? Is it censorship? Is there a first amendment issue here?
LUCY DALGLISH: Well, there's a first amendment issue in the sense of people having the right to say what they want to say on the airwaves, whether that be someone from GLAAD or Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Censorship, in the legal sense, really only occurs when the government is trying to prevent you from saying something. I think that actions that GLAAD has taken regarding Dr. Laura is the way we in the American system expect the system to work, and Dr. Laura has a right to say what she's doing, and my organization, the Reporters Committee, would defend her right to express her views on the air, as well as we would support GLAAD's right to go to advertisers, go to viewers, and request that they not support. That's the way things are supposed to work in the United States.
TERENCE SMITH: So you would not support the idea of peremptorily blocking the show?
LUCY DALGLISH: Oh, by the government? Heavens no.
TERENCE SMITH: Or by the producers, as a result of protests?
LUCY DALGLISH: Well, if the producers do it themselves, it's not censorship.
TERENCE SMITH: Their business.
LUCY DALGLISH: It's their business, it's their show.
|Free speech or defamation?|
TERENCE SMITH: If you succeed, Joan Garry, in keeping someone like Dr. Laura, whose views you don't agree with, off the air, what is to prevent others from keeping someone who's views you did agree with off the air? Where does it stop?
JOAN GARRY: I think the important thing to note here is that what we're really trying to do here is to combat and eliminate defamation. That's what we're in the business of doing. When we started these conversations several years ago, that was what it was about, was about saying, "look, these are defamatory words. When you use the word 'gay' and the word 'mistake' in the same sentence, people make those connections." A parent whose son has just come out to him, hears those words, "gay" and "mistake" in the same sentence, and you tell me the connection that he draws there. These are the kinds of things that we feel are important to raise as issues, and we feel that media professionals absolutely have a responsibility. You think about someone like Laura Schlessinger. This is not an issue of Laura Schlessinger, private citizen. This is an issue of Laura Schlessinger, a paid entertainer. And it is our belief that she entertains at a price, at the price of putting an entire class of people in a very second-class place, and we believe that media professionals carry a responsibility, and in that situation, that Paramount has a responsibility to curb that.
TERENCE SMITH: Mm-hmm. Keven Bellows, Joan Garry has used the word defamatory. Is that fair?
KEVEN BELLOWS: No, I don't think so. I mean, the whole notion of Dr. Laura as a homophobe is just ridiculous. Dr. Laura was the first radio talk show host in America to take gay calls on the air. She counsels gay people to tell their parents, to make peace with their family, she counsels the families to make peace with their children. She actually had a call not too long ago about a man who didn't want to accept a house that his parents wanted to buy him because he was afraid that they were buying him the house to encourage him to get married, and he is in fact gay. And she said, "for heaven's sakes, tell your parents that you're gay. They obviously love you. They probably know anyway." This is not a gay movement against Dr. Laura. We have hundreds and hundreds of phone calls and letters and faxes from gay people who love her, who really know what she's all about and who say, "these people do not speak for us."
TERENCE SMITH: And yet she has made her views on the homosexual lifestyle entirely clear.
KEVEN BELLOWS: Yes, she has. But the same religion that instructs her that homosexual marriage, for example, is wrong, instructs her that every human being is made in the image of God and is entitled to love and respect and compassion, and she has said that all the time on the air. She reiterates that and repeats that.
TERENCE SMITH: Mm-hmm. Lucy Dalglish, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council actually took an action against this, sanctioned it. What do you think of that, and could that happen here?
LUCY DALGLISH: Well, they don't have the same system that we have. In Canada there's this voluntary organization, the Broadcast Standards Council. And the private broadcasters opt into that system and they agree to abide by a code of ethics, and they have a procedure where if you disagree with what they say or what a broadcaster is doing, you can object to it and they will come up with some findings of fact. And while this is not an arm of the government, my understanding is that it's sort of a quasi- government-sanctioned organization, so they can't keep them off the air, but it does have considerable weight. So if you're in Canada and you're a broadcaster and you're running Dr. Laura, there are certain circumstances where they're required to listen to her show first and then remove any speech that they deem to be "offensive" and violating someone's human rights. And that's not the way we do it here.
TERENCE SMITH: And it wouldn't happen here?
LUCY DALGLISH: No, not in a situation like this. Not through the FCC and other organizations. The government does not go around blocking speech.
|Taking action against Dr. Laura|
TERENCE SMITH: Mm-hmm. Keven... Let me ask Keven Bellows -- what you think about the Canadian action?
KEVEN BELLOWS: Well, obviously we were terribly disappointed by that. But we understand that is their system, and I don't think that we really have a right to say yea or nay on that. We do not believe that anything Dr. Laura says is defamatory toward gays or lesbians, but however if the Canadian broadcasters code says that words that she uses are defamatory, then that's how it is. We haven't had any repercussions at all in Canada. Dr. Laura is the number one talk show host in Canada and continues to be, and continues to be aired on all of the affiliates.
TERENCE SMITH: Joan Garry?
JOAN GARRY: And I think the evidence, the Canadian decision... The evidence is really very much on our side of this debate. These are the kinds of words that really do reinforce prejudice and discrimination in this country, and I don't think we can ignore that. In fact, we can't ignore that, and that's really what our efforts have really been about. I think the other thing just to mention here is that Dr. Laura, unlike other talk show hosts, goes under the title of "doctor" as a... purporting to be a clinical psychologist, so it's not just like a talk show host who's out there chatting on the radio. This is a person who really understands, in fact, that her words do have an impact. She's out there attempting to shape the attitudes and behaviors of others and we have a real problem with that.
TERENCE SMITH: Why... Here's a question that seems to me at the heart of this: Why not leave it up to people to decide whether or not they like what Dr. Laura has to say and therefore either watch her on television or not?
JOAN GARRY: We are... GLAAD is a media advocacy organization, an anti- defamation organization. We believe fundamentally that media words and images absolutely have a profound impact on shaping how the gay and lesbian community is perceived. That is our mission, so our mission is to advocate for inclusive representation of our community, but also to look at defamation and hold it up and make sure that it cannot go unchallenged. For me, at the end of the day, if one person thinks twice before saying the kinds of things that Dr. Laura has been saying about the gay and lesbian community, then our work will have been accomplished.
TERENCE SMITH: Lucy Dalglish, doesn't Dr. Laura have many other ways to express herself? This is not the only medium, television.
LUCY DALGLISH: Oh, there's television, there's the Internet, there's books...
TERENCE SMITH: And she has the newspaper column and so forth.
LUCY DALGLISH: Yes, and I think Joan's group has done a marvelous job, actually, of taking advantage of the American system of free speech, by bringing out all of these points. They have been very effective in talking about Dr. Laura's credentials. They have been very effective in raising the profile of this issue, and that's the way it's supposed to work in this country.
TERENCE SMITH: Keven Bellows, has all of this protest and controversy had any effect on the program that you intend to put on the air? Will it be any different?
KEVEN BELLOWS: No, of course not. It was always intended to be a program that would be a discussion of the morals, values, and ethics of given situations or topics of interest in the news or things that are happening, and with a wide variety of opinion about all of those issues. That was how it was always envisioned, and it will be on the air in that format, and I say let the American people decide whether or not they think it is a program worthy of airing. That's the American way. That's how it's always been done. Let's keep it that way.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, and that's the final word. Thanks very much to all three of you. I appreciate it.
JOAN GARRY: Thank you very much.
LUCY DALGLISH: Thank you, Terry.
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