Media Matters: Incendiary rant exposes Dr. Laura (again)


The year was 1998, and radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger's celebrity was soaring. A media group had recently paid $71.5 million for her program -- the biggest radio deal at the time -- and the Los Angeles Times reported that she had the "fastest-growing show in radio history, a program now aired on 450 stations in the United States, 30 in Canada -- where she is the No. 1 talk radio personality -- and in South Africa." Schlessinger would soon begin discussions on hosting her own national TV show.

Just a few years later, Schlessinger began to stumble. In 2001, her syndicated Paramount television show was cancelled after a brief run, and in 2002, the New York Daily News reported that Schlessinger's radio audience had lost several million listeners.

Schlessinger's troubles then -- just like now -- began with incendiary remarks aimed at a minority group. During the 1990s, Schlesinger blasted "homosexuality" as "a biological error," "deviant behavior, a dysfunctional behavior," and linked gay men to pedophilia and child molestation. Schlessinger also touted "therapies which have been successful in helping a reasonable number of people become heterosexual."

When Paramount announced it had signed Schlessinger to a TV talk show for the fall of 2000, the group successfully "waged a campaign to dissuade companies from sponsoring the show." Dr. Laura debuted to "disappointing" ratings and Paramount "had difficulty attracting national sponsors to the show," forcing the studio to sell ads at reduced rates (LA Times, 9/22/00).

In the spring of 2001, Dr. Laura -- to no one's surprise -- was cancelled. Schlessinger blamed the cancellation on gay rights groups such as and Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), telling Larry King that "political correctness" "overpowers and overwhelms the United States of America today. ... This was strictly about trying to destroy my voice." Schlessinger defenders claimed that critics were trying to silence her "1st amendment" rights.

Nearly ten years later, the same controversy over Schlessinger played out again -- this time over racially tinged remarks to an African-American caller.

To give you a refresher, during the August 10 edition of her program, Schlessinger took a call from an African-American woman seeking advice on dealing with the resentment she felt when her white husband didn't speak out about racist comments his friends made. During the discussion, Schlessinger used the n-word 11 times, and told the caller that she had a "chip on [her] shoulder." Schlessinger added that "a lot of blacks voted for Obama" due to race and said that the caller shouldn't "marry out of [her] race" if she didn't "have a sense of humor."

After Media Matters posted audio of Schlessinger's racial rant, groups such as GLAAD, Women's Media Center, and UNITY Journalists of Color joined Media Matters to hold Schlessinger's "advertisers accountable and find out exactly where they stand."

Like in 2001, Schlessinger appeared on Larry King Live to claim that her "First Amendment rights have been usurped by angry, hateful groups who don't want to debate. They want to eliminate." Schlessinger announced that she was ending her radio show to "move on to other venues where I could say my piece and not have to live in fear anymore that sponsors and their families are going to be upset, radio stations are going to be upset, my peeps, as I call them, are going to be upset."

Some conservatives predictably rallied around Schlessinger. Michelle Malkin lauded Schlessinger for having "battled political correctness for years." Sarah Palin -- who's scheduled to join Fox News colleague Glenn Beck at his 8-28 rally to "reclaim" the civil rights movement -- defended Schlessinger's n-word rant by claiming Schlessinger has been "shackled" by her critics, and took to Twitter to tell Schlessinger, "Don't retreat... reload" after her "1st Amend.rights ceased 2exist."

The First Amendment argument is as silly now as it was ten years ago. "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," explained Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press executive director Lucy Dalglish on the June 15, 2000, edition of PBS's NewsHour.

The purported media critics at NewsBusters, meanwhile, bizarrely accused Media Matters of censorship because we were part of a campaign targeting advertisers. The criticism is strange considering NewsBusters and its parent, Media Research Center, also target advertisers of content they view as offensive. Indeed, MRC president Brent Bozell told the LA Times in 2000 that while he didn't approve of the anti-Dr. Laura cause, "It's perfectly acceptable for an organization to lobby to cancel a program they think is inappropriate. I don't think there's anything wrong with that at all."

At the end of the day, however, Schlessinger's racial rant is only the latest in recent public displays of racially loaded rhetoric by right-wing media figures. The question, as it was in 2000, is whether the audiences will hold figures responsible for their rhetoric.

Shouldn't the GOP be paying Fox?

In April, Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and CEO of Fox News parent company News Corp., responded to a question from Media Matters' Ari Rabin-Havt by stating that he doesn't "think we should be supporting the tea party, or any other party." Yet on Monday, Bloomberg News reported that News Corp. contributed $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. The large donation caps off more than a year and a half of pro-Republican activism during the Obama administration by Fox News hosts, reporters, and "political analysts."

Because it might be hard to keep track of Fox News' pro-GOP activism in all 50 states, here's a brief recap:

  • GOP fundraisers / events. Fox News hosts and "political analysts" have frequently spoken at or hosted fundraisers or events for Republican organizations and candidates. Recently, Fox News employee Dick Morris -- who's received money from GOP parties -- announced that he's planning to stump for more than 40 Republican candidates.
  • On-air endorsements. Fox Newsers regularly make on-air endorsements for Republicans. Fox Business host Eric Bolling, for example, told viewers they could "save" the country in 2012 by putting "a Republican in there. Turn it over in 2010."
  • Endorsing statements. Fox Newsers regularly release statements in support of candidates through their political organizations or social media accounts. Sarah Palin, for example, makes endorsements through her Facebook page, while Mike Huckabee endorses candidates on his Huck PAC website. Fox News has promoted both Huckabee and Palin's outside ventures.
  • Behind-the-scenes / campaign roles. Last year, Dick Morris worked as a paid consultant for unsuccessful Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Christy Mihos. Fox News contributor Karl Rove, meanwhile, has been offering campaign advice to Republicans, such as the House Republican Conference and Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul.
  • Political fundraising groups. Fox News hosts and contributors are raising money for Republican candidates and causes using political action committees, 527 and 501(c)(4) organizations. These fundraising groups are also promoted on Fox News.
  • Frequent softball candidate promotions. Fox News has frequently opened its airwaves to promote Republican candidates such as Republican gubernatorial candidates Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell, and Senate candidates Marco Rubio, Mark Kirk, Scott Brown, Sharron Angle, and Rand Paul. Angle summarized Fox News' friendly haven for GOP candidates when she suggested that she prefers to appear on Fox because they let her raise money.
  • GOP in exile. Fox News boasts a long roster of possible 2012 presidential candidates on its payroll, such as Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. Fox News, in turn, gives them exposure and air time while they decide whether they want to run for office.
  • GOP issue advocacy. Fox News has frequently pushed conservative misinformation about the Obama administration and various other issues. Perhaps most notably, Fox News became the voice of the opposition against health care reform earlier this year.
  • GOP events advocacy. Fox News has heavily promoted pro-Republican and anti-Democrat events such as the April 15 Tax Day Tea Parties, the Tea Party Express bus tour, and Rep. Michele Bachmann's anti-health care reform rallies.

As The Daily Show's Jon Stewart noted, "If anything, the Republicans should be paying Fox News millions and millions of dollars."

This weekly wrap-up was compiled by Media Matters research fellow Eric Hananoki.

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