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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