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Dr. Laura lived by the market, died by the market

Please stop all the censoring!

As most radio enthusiasts have probably already heard, veteran talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger appeared on the Larry King Live program Tuesday night and announced that she would leave her show at the end of the contract. Schlessinger made the decision in response to growing flack over her repeated use of the so-called “n-word” with a black caller on the Aug. 10 edition of her program. The liberal media watchdog group Media Matters organized a swift and effective campaign calling attention to Dr. Laura’s remarks and joined with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Women’s Media Center, and UNITY Journalists of Color to “hold [the program’s] advertisers accountable and find out exactly where they stand.”

In announcing her departure from the airwaves Dr. Laura put forth a curious interpretation of the Bill of Rights when she told King, “I don’t have the right to say what I need to say. My first amendment rights have been usurped.” Lest anyone be confused, the current state of US law and policy makes it perfectly legal for Dr. Laura to use the “n-word” and most other words in the English language on the radio. The only exceptions to this are in cases of indecency, which only pertains to discussing matters of sexual and excretory functions; racial, gender and other types of epithets are not policed by the FCC in any fashion.

Rather, what happened to Dr. Laura is that she felt the harsh sting of the marketplace at work. Rather than attempting to bring any sort of governmental action the coalition led by Media Matters took aim squarely at Dr. Laura’s advertisers and called them on the carpet for supporting her program and the speech it contains. As it turns out, it looks like big companies like General Motor’s OnStar and Motel 6 decided they’d rather not be associated with a program that tosses around the “n-word” and pulled their advertising.

That is not censorship, and it has nothing to do with the First Amendment, which reads, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech[.]” It does not read, “GM shall not pull its advertising dollars from a program featuring speech it does not wish to be associated with.” In fact, there’s nothing stopping Dr. Laura from continuing to be on air except Dr. Laura, and maybe her production company and affiliates.

That’s the funny thing about the Constitutional right to free speech. One has the right to say just about anything she likes, in nearly any forum, and the government has very few Constitutionally valid reasons to either stop the speech or punish the speaker. But that right to free speech does not mean the speaker cannot be held accountable by others for what she says and the venue where it’s said.

Dr. Laura has benefited significantly from commercial radio consolidation, which made it both feasible and profitable for her show to be carried on hundreds of stations. It’s that size of reach that has made her show attractive to big advertisers like Motel 6. But big companies like these are also protective about their public image. Obviously Dr. Laura miscalculated the public’s tolerance for such brazen use of the “n-word,” especially in confronting an African-American caller. Motel 6 decided it can ill-afford to make the same miscalculation.

Now, advertisers’ tolerance for challenging or offensive speech cuts both ways, making it difficult to get sponsors for programs that are more left-leaning, too. But I always find it curious when free market loving conservatives like Dr. Laura decry being held accountable by the consumers who patronize the companies that fund their paychecks. I’m doubly amazed–but not surprised–that someone with her record of callous remarks should be so thin skinned to begin with.

There’s an observation of the commercial media system from the journalist A.J. Liebling that is often tossed around by media scholars: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” We might paraphrase that as: “freedom to broadcast is guaranteed only to those who own radio stations.” Furthermore, even if there is a right to speak freely, there is no commensurate right to profit. Dr. Laura could certainly take some of her sizable fortune and buy up a few stations to spout her nonsense without regard to what Media Matters, Motel 6, GM or any advertiser thinks.

But somehow I don’t think she’s really willing to put her money where her mouth is.

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4 Responses to Dr. Laura lived by the market, died by the market

  1. Kim August 19, 2010 at 10:35 am #

    Much of this article is true until you read the last sentence of the second to the last paragtaph where it says she may take her own money to spout her nonsense. She did not spout nonsense. She stated the truth! Blacks do use the N-word often, and then they turn around and tell everyone else that they are offended if they use that same n-word. Screw your double satandard! You stop using the N-word and eventually it will become forgotten and obsolete. Media matters seems to ignore left wing wrongs that are indeed hateful but when someone uses the N word to simply repeat as an example of what she is describing as the double standard, the double standard is exercised by Media Matters to boot her off of the air. Can’t you see how atrocious and hypocritical this is? Do you even give a crap or do you have an entirely different agenda? At least be consistant. That is all Dr Laura was saying.

  2. Paul Riismandel August 19, 2010 at 11:22 am #

    I fail to see Dr. Laura as a “truth” teller. Her comments indicate to me only a reactionary–and likely willful–ignorance to centuries of racism and white privilege in the US. The word in question was used for decades by one group of people to demean and dehumanize another group of people simply based upon the color of their skin. One can choose to ignore or minimize this history, but that doesn’t change the simple fact of the word’s legacy in America.

    Calling this a “double-standard” is a red herring. If a white American believes she needs to use this word, which has an undeniable racist history when used by white people, that is her right. But she will have to bear the consequences of associating herself with this racist word and its history of use as an epithet to demean and belittle people of African descent.

    I cannot conceive of a legitimate, non-racist reason why any white person would feel as though her freedoms were being impinged because she will be subject to harsh criticism for using the “n-word.” Nevermind that the caller–an African American–made it pretty clear that she herself didn’t think the word was appropriate under any circumstances, spoken by any person. More than her use of the “n-word” Dr. Laura’s insistence that the caller have to justify the speech of other African Americans–in effect, to serve as a spokesperson for all African Americans–was fundamentally racist, and only further highlighted Dr. Laura’s obvious racism. It is this clear and ignorant racism that Dr. Laura revealed so callously which caused the harsh criticism. Using the “n-word” as she did was only the most obvious and easily identifiable symptom of this.

  3. Matthew Lasar August 19, 2010 at 11:30 pm #

    I’m with Paul on this one.

    Everybody knows what the etiquette is in this case. Unless you are a member of the group in question, you don’t use the slang word. So you don’t use the N-word if you’re not black, and on and on for the words associated with Jews, Italian-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, etc, etc. This is not rocket science. And of course it isn’t consistent. Etiquette isn’t about being consistent, it’s about getting along with people, supposedly Dr. Laura’s expertise.

  4. dr laura schlessinger July 27, 2011 at 9:05 am #

    Check out my daily 3-hour radio program on SIRIUS XM STARS 107 from 11 to 2 pm PST Monday thru Friday and replayed evenings and weekends!

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