Media Literacy Online Project - Serving Educators Around The World
Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Dr. Laura and Media Realities

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

It's fun to watch the media all of the time, but it's especially rewarding to be watching when the little dog pulls away the curtain and we get a glimpse inside and actually see important media decisions being made. And these days, Dr. Laura is giving us the chance to see how programming and sponsorship decisions are influenced.

Dr. Laura Schlessinger has surpassed Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern as the most-listened to radio personality on the air today. She dispenses "morals, values, principles and ethics" (her words) in her daily syndicated radio talk show, broadcast on 450 radio stations and heard by an estimated 18 million listeners. A best-selling author and purveyor of Dr. Laura coffee mugs, tee-shirts, screen savers, and key chains, she "delivers witty, wise and workable moral philosophy," taking on "the moral dilemmas of our time" (again, her words).

She is neither a medical doctor nor pyschologist. Her impressive title comes from a Ph. D. in physiology.

She has lately become a lightning rod on the homosexual issue, calling homosexual behavior "deviant" and "a biological error." She promotes theraputic programs designed to "cure" homosexuals. She has linked homosexuality to paedophilia, and accuses gays of being " disordered and dysfunctional." She is also smug, self-impressed and vicious - she once chastised a Connecticut 8th grader by name for an award-winning essay in favor of free speech on the Internet. Dr. Laura said that if the child was hers, she'd put her up for adoption, and even suggested that the child be "sacrificed," Inca-style. But it is her views on homosexuality that are causing the most trouble.

Paramount Television, noting her success and notoriety, has created a Dr. Laura TV show, set to debut in September. They've already shot the first program. And the battle has begun.

Gay advocacy groups are protesting the decision to put her on TV, and have mobilized to not only stop the TV show, but also to attack her radio program. They cite a decision by The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council earlier this month which charged that Dr. Laura used "abusively discriminatory" language about gays and suggested that her approach may "fertilize the ground for brutality" against gays and lesbians. The Canadian Standards Council called her comments "clearly pejorative," "fatuous and unsustainable," and "in breach of Canada's broadcasting code."

There have been - and will be - demonstrations all over the country, trying to get TV stations not to carry her new show and convince corporations not to advertise on it. Already Xerox, Toys R Us, United Airlines, and Proctor & Gamble have withdrawn their support for her show.

It's a great topic for discussion - the rights of free speech versus hateful talk. First Amendment advocates are flocking to Dr. Laura's side, calling attempts to cancel her show "censorship" and "fascism." Those who support the right of people to pursue an alternate lifestyle want her stopped, arguing that she's promoting intolerance. It is an opportunity for nearly everyone on both sides of the issue to make noble speeches about values and tolerance and rights and morality.

It is also quite beside the point.

Nobody has the "right" to host a talk show. Networks and TV stations are not interested in moral messages as much as they are interested in profits. This is not evil; it's their responsibility to their stockholders. They exist to make a profit, and they make that profit by purchasing programs people will watch and then selling that accumulated audience to advertisers. That's the way our media system works.

If - and when - advertisers decide that it's not in their best interest to buy commercials on a certain program or be associated with a certain personality, they will drop their financial support and the show will be canceled.

Proctor & Gamble's public statement said it all: "We've chosen not to be involved with a show that will require time and resources to deal with this kind of controversy. . . . Today there are lots of programming options, and we've decided there are better ones for us."

An advertising professional has noted that "The idea of advertising is to pull people in, not drive people away, so when a topic is divisive or polarizing, you want to stay away."

What we're watching here is less a First Amendment issue or a morality issue. It's more a business issue. We must never forget that media outlets are commercial enterprises, in the business of making money by selling audiences to advertisers.

The way to affect programming (whether you like it or hate it) is to understand that fact and act upon it, as various groups have done in this case. Not democracy in action, but business in action.

It is - as we all are finding out - the surest way to be heard.