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Published on Friday, April 28, 2000 in The Nation
Dr. Laura, Be Quiet!
by Katha Pollitt
Dr. Laura Schlessinger has said a lot of hurtful and irresponsible things on the radio during her many years as a right-wing religious "therapist" and yenta. She mocks and humiliates her callers, some of whom have serious problems. She never misses a chance to bash feminists, working mothers, unmarried or divorced parents, women who have abortions, people who engage in nonmarital sex and anyone who hesitates to whip them through the streets. While she's not entirely a fraud--like "Dr." Henry Kissinger she has a PhD, but in the irrelevant field of physiology--when she ventures into therapeutic territory she's an ignorant meddler. A recent convert to Orthodox Judaism, she hectored one Jewish mother who had qualms about circumcising her son, insisting that there was "overwhelming medical evidence" of the benefits of circumcision, which is false, and that those who said otherwise were members of hate groups pushing anti-Semitic propaganda. She told another mother, who felt guilty about not including a disruptive autistic child in a special restaurant outing, that it was time to think about placing the child in an institution. Maybe so, but who asked her?

For years groups on the receiving end of Dr. Laura's tirades and black-and-white judgments about people she's never met and situations she knows nothing about have grumbled as her show's ratings soared: With 14.25 million weekly listeners, she's almost tied with Rush Limbaugh for the nation's most popular radio personality. Not bad for a woman whose naked photos--product of a youthful preconversion liaison with fellow radio host Bill Ballance--are plastered all over the Web. From time to time, a controversy surfaces: The American Library Association, for example, has strongly objected to her smear campaign against them for their opposition to Internet filtering. But it took gays and lesbians to make a fuss loud enough to make the news, and more power to them, I say. Antigay remarks have long been a Dr. Laura staple--the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) first tried to get a meeting with her in 1997, when she referred to homosexuality as a "biological faux pas"--but recently she's stepped up her attacks. Homosexuality is "deviant," a "biological disorder" or "biological error." Gays are sexual predators who do not deserve rights and should not be left alone with children: "How many letters have I read on the air from gay men who acknowledge that a huge portion of the male homosexual populace is predatory on young boys?" She advocates "reparative" therapy and uses the Family Research Council, Gary Bauer's outfit, as her main source of information on homosexuality.

With Viacom's Paramount unit preparing a Dr. Laura daytime TV show for September--more than 160 stations, reaching over 90 percent of the nation's households, have already signed up--enough was clearly enough. Gays have fought back with letters, ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, a demonstration at Paramount's gates and a spiffy website,, which claims 14 million hits. In response, Dr. Laura hired a "crisis management" firm, issued a weaselly "apology" ("words that I have used in a clinical [!] context have been perceived as judgment"), fired the crisis management team and relabeled the "apology" a "clarification."

Gay activists want the TV show canceled, which seems unlikely, despite the sympathy of David Lee, producer of Paramount's Frasier, who has said he's ashamed of his employer. Dr. Laura is not just the most successful woman in radio history (sigh), she's a multimedia franchise, with more than 3 million copies of her various books in print; her own foundation, which makes grants to groups that fight abortion and "teen sexuality"; a new magazine called Dr. Laura Perspective; and a website crowded with innumerable kitschy and self-promoting tie-ins, from books by others praising her show to teddy-bear tea-sets for children. But the gay protests are at least raising the right question: A major studio would never give a flagrant racist or open anti-Semite his own show, no matter how popular he was--Pat Buchanan, who came close, was always one pole of a debate--so why does Paramount find it more acceptable to promote antigay bigotry?

I used to think focusing on Dr. Laura was a waste of time for feminists. After a week of listening to her mad and prurient diatribes, I think we should take a leaf from gay activism and get busy. When Rush Limbaugh burst onto the national political scene, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting got right on his case, even publishing a clever paperback, The Way Things Aren't, dismantling his fake statistics and fractured anecdotes. Maybe it's time for a similar exposé of Dr. Laura, who says women who have abortions are murderers and that mothers always can--and always should--choose not to work, who falsely describes emergency contraception as "dumping out a pregnancy" and causing "disease," and who urges her callers not to help women leave bad marriages because it's all their own fault (see Noy Thrupkaew's article in the May Sojourner for a good introduction). Feminist pickets and protests and demands for equal time might not matter to Dr. Laura's core audience--half lost sheep, half graduates of the Taliban School of Female Deportment--but it would give Paramount another good reason to rethink the show.

New Yorkers can start by joining NOW at noon on May 3, in a demonstration in front of Barnes & Noble at 600 Fifth Avenue, where Dr. Laura will be signing copies of her latest book.

Copyright 2000 The Nation Company, L.P.


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