The war over Dr. Laura

A gay activist boycott of the conservative radio host backfires when the religious right jumps in.

Published June 20, 2000 8:00PM (EDT)

On Tuesday, the titans of the religious right will meet in Washington for an annual summit of sorts to discuss how entertainment programming is harming American families. But this time, topping the agenda of the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council and the American Family Association will be the free speech rights of an orthodox Jew: Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

Conservative Christians are lining up behind the controversial talk-show host, calling her the latest victim of an "anti-family" crusade. Gay activists targeted Schlessinger for what they called anti-gay rhetoric -- calling homosexuality a "biological error," touting "reparative therapy" to make gays heterosexual and claiming gays are more likely than straights to be pedophiles -- and in May they got Procter & Gamble to pull its pledge of advertising from her planned TV show.

Defending the wildly popular radio conservative who has more than 14 million listeners immediately became a cause for the religious right. "The television airwaves are rapidly embracing indoctrination, as honest debate is apparently no longer important," the Rev. Jerry Falwell said as he jumped to Dr. Laura's defense.

Of course there's irony in members of the Christian right defending someone they think is going to hell. ("Yes, anyone needs to accept Jesus Christ to be saved," says Focus on the Family spokesman Tom Minnery. "Even Dr. Laura.") But that hasn't stopped them from taking up her cause, and doing it mighty effectively. On May 22, Focus on the Family's leader James Dobson jumped to her defense, telling his radio-show listeners (which Focus estimates at 3 million a week), "There must be pluralism in this country." He admitted that Dr. Laura "does not claim to be a Christian -- she's Jewish -- but she's taken a strong stand for moral principles: the 10 Commandments and traditional parenthood and so on."

Dobson then launched a broadside attack against Procter & Gamble for pulling its support from Dr. Laura's shows, and urged listeners to call P&G to vent their outrage. "I wish they'd tell the soap maker they're not going to buy their products."

With that, the backlash officially began. Suddenly, what might have seemed like a savvy online protest of a planned TV show by gay activists had spawned much more powerful imitators -- on the other side. And now P&G, which earned kudos from some liberals for distancing itself from Dr. Laura and her so-called gay-bashing, is promising Dobson and others it will keep ads for its products -- from Pampers to Cover Girl to Clearasil -- off not just Schlessinger's show, but others that seem "inappropriate." NBC's "Law and Order" and MTV's "Undressed" and "Tom Green Show" have come under attack, and others are sure to follow.

That's probably not what Dr. Laura's critics envisioned when they started their campaign against her. But free-speech absolutists will find the story a textbook case of what happens when "good" people try to crack down on "bad" ideas: Sooner or later, inevitably, their enemies use the same cudgel against them, and, perhaps, much more effectively.

Sitting at the center of it all is Dr. Laura, now on a three-week vacation after a tour to promote her new book, "Parenthood By Proxy: Don't Have Them If You Won't Raise Them." After a clumsy public apology for some of her anti-gay remarks, which seemed to pin the blame on whiny accusers ("Regrettably, some of the words I've used have hurt some people, and I'm sorry for that"), she reversed course and went on the attack.

"The well-funded and well-connected homosexual activist movement has become the McCarthyism of the 21st century," she wrote in her syndicated column, and she defended her more controversial comments on her book tour.

Her spokeswoman, Keven Bellows, says Dr. Laura's feelings about homosexuality took a negative turn about two years ago for a very specific reason: her conversion to Orthodox Judaism.

"When she became religious, she subscribed to the tenets of traditional Judaism, and that says that homosexuality is beyond the pale of acceptable behavior," Bellows says.

Careerwise, it might not have been the best time for Schlessinger to lurch to the right. Her daily call-in show was giving her credibility she surely could never have dreamed of before. She began regular appearances on TV, including "Larry King Live" and "Meet the Press," not as a mere entertainer but as an expert of sorts. She appeared on "Meet the Press" during the Lewinsky scandal to address the state of morality in the country.

But thanks to her adoption of Orthodox Judaism, she became a fairly persistent critic of homosexuality, in particular gay marriage (publicly endorsing California's Proposition 22, which effectively bans same-sex marriages). She also began touting reparative therapy for gays, which holds that they can become straight through some combination of prayer and psychotherapy.

Her claim that pedophilia is more common among gay men than straights has gotten Dr. Laura in the most trouble. Bellows tries to say that her boss's comments on pedophilia have been taken out of context. "Of course the vast majority of pedophiles are heterosexual, she knows that," Bellows says. Then she repeats the charge.

"All she said was that gay men are more likely to be pedophiles, and I think that's true," she says.

Why does she think it's true? "Most of what we know about the gay population," Bellows explains, "is from the audience, a number of whom are gay."

And they're telling Dr. Laura that they are pedophiles? "Well, we're not talking 8-year-olds," she says. When asked, then, how old she thinks boys are that gay men are having sex with, she replies, "Oh, I don't know, 14 maybe, or 15."

"Trust me," she says later. "These radical gay activists don't want to talk about pedophilia."

A chorus of gay critics started sounding alarms in Washington and in Hollywood last year. David Lee, one of the creators of "Frasier" and also a gay man, penned an episode last year about a horrible, hypocritical and sociopathic "Dr. Nora." Nude pictures taken of the good doctor about 20 years before appeared all over the Internet. Stories circulated about Schlessinger's bitter separation from her mother (true) and the dissolution of her own marriage (also true).

But her audience just kept growing, and last year, despite the howls of some gay activists, Dr. Laura took the typical (and frequently disastrous) turn for a successful radio star by inking a deal to launch her own TV show with Paramount.

Though concerned, mainstream gay political organizations moved cautiously. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) met with Paramount to discuss its worries, and on Feb. 15 they issued a joint statement, describing the meeting as "a positive exchange of differing perspectives" and saying "the dialogue with Paramount executives is expected to continue."

That wasn't enough for John Aravosis, a Washington writer and Internet political consultant. A frenetic former Senate aide to Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, Aravosis has boundless energy, particularly when the subject is the woman he's learned to love to hate. Two days after the GLAAD/Paramount release, he sent out an e-mail alert to friends and others on an e-mail list about gay politics that he maintains. The subject line stated simply "Stop Dr. Laura." Within a month, Aravosis launched his Web site of the same name from his studio, and started directing people to advertisers identified as prospective sponsors in the show.

That included P&G. And to the surprise of many politics and entertainment mavens, the pressure seemed to work. On May 15, P&G announced that it would not advertise on the new TV show out of respect for the "diversity of views" of its customers.

The victory for gay activists was brief. P&G's decision galvanized their enemies on the right, and the fallout continues.

After Dobson launched his attack on P&G in May, company representatives flew to Focus on the Family headquarters June 2 to "discuss our policies," P&G's Gretchen Briscoe told Salon.

Once in the Colorado Springs, Colo., compound, P&G officials settled in with Dobson for a brief screening of three shows that featured the company's ads: MTV's "The Tom Green Show" and "Unzipped" and an episode of NBC's "Law & Order." It was advertising that Focus spokesman Tom Minnery said "concerned us."

The "Law & Order" episode featured a negative portrait of evangelicals who practiced "reparative therapy," which attempts to rewire gays into straights (a type of therapy heavily supported by both the religious right and Dr. Laura). "That's a direct slap at us," says Minnery.

The offending "Tom Green" clip featured one of his running gags of him playing outrageous pranks on his parents. In the clip Dobson showed P&G, Green unveiled a statue in his parents' front yard featuring a "very graphic portrayal," says Minnery, "of his own parents naked and engaged in intercourse."

"Undressed," a sort of low-budget soap opera for 20-somethings, was singled out for a "lesbian shower scene," Minnery says, and another scene that shows a woman giving her partner "the most graphic description of heterosexual oral intercourse that I've ever seen."

The P&G execs refused to bow to Focus' pressure regarding "Law and Order," which happens to be an Emmy-award winning show with high ratings. "We still will advertise on 'Law & Order,'" Briscoe says.

Neither "Tom Green" nor "Undressed," though, received the rousing support "Law & Order" did; P&G promised never to advertise with them again. Briscoe says that while P&G will continue to advertise on MTV, both "The Tom Green Show" and "Undressed" had always been on P&G's "off" list (which an MTV spokesperson confirmed Monday), meaning that MTV was not supposed to advertise their products during those shows.

P&G, according to Briscoe, is "one of the most conservative advertisers in the industry" -- one that strictly regulates where its ads are placed. There are plenty of shows that P&G has explicit bans on, Briscoe says, including "The Jerry Springer Show," "WWF Smackdown" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

"Every other show we review on an episode-by-episode basis," Briscoe says. "Sometimes a network will just make a mistake."

But Minnery says that wasn't the excuse P&G gave them during the company's Colorado visit. "When we showed them those clips they were embarrased, and promised it wouldn't happen again," he says. "Companies will say that their ads weren't supposed to run on a certain program, but they never pay attention. That's why we do, because if we don't hold their feet to the fire, nobody will. And companies that advertise on these shows are going to hear from us."

On Friday, Focus on the Family received a letter from Procter & Gamble's global marketing officer, Bob Wheling, tail planted firmly between his legs. While standing behind its decision not to advertise on Dr. Laura's show because of her "polarizing" effect on consumers, he did laud her as "an eloquent spokesperson for traditional values."

"We think the majority of her advice is good and helpful, if not always compassionate," Wheling wrote, but "our sole interest is in selling consumer products, and we have no interest in getting involved on either side of these difficult issues."

The fact that his Dr. Laura boycott has galvanized the religious right doesn't bother Aravosis, its sponsor. He's not convinced that, as free-speech defenders claim, the best antiseptic for Dr. Laura's anti-gay views is fresh air. He's incensed that mainstream media interviewers have mostly given her a pass when it comes to the issue. "She was on the 'Today Show' and 'Larry King Live,'" Aravosis says. "Did either Katie Couric or Larry King ask her about it? No."

During his interview with Schlessinger on May 2, King gave her the typical friendly treatment (King: "You're not against gays having jobs or the right to visit each other in the hospital?" Dr. Laura: "Against civil rights? Of course not.") The next day, Couric didn't even bring up the controversy with gays, though she did launch into her own mini-rant, challenging Dr. Laura's belief on single-parenthood and working moms (generally speaking, both no-nos to the radio host).

"Can you make these rash generalizations?" Couric asked. "I mean, aren't there crummy stay-at-home moms and aren't there crummy working moms? ... And what about giving children a role model of a mother or father that's making a real contribution to society so they can say, 'Wow, you know, I'm proud of my parent for being a social worker ...' Is there something to be said for that and role modeling for children in that way?"

According to a source at "Today," "Dr. Laura put no limits on the interview, and I know there were some tougher questions in there about [her views on homosexuality]. But Katie" -- a single career mom -- "had questions she wanted to pursue for her own personal reasons."

"There are a lot of people who have a reason to feel attacked by that woman," says the "Today" source.

And yet, despite their recent alliance, Dr. Laura and the Christian right are strange bedfellows. The Family Research Council's Robert Knight, senior adviser on cultural studies, still recalls the period when, as he says, "Dr. Laura was pro-gay."

Knight and other conservative Christians admit they've never been comfortable with Dr. Laura's famous reference to homosexuality as a "biological error." While gays don't like being called an "error," the reference to biology suggests people are born gay, which most conservative Christian leaders dispute. "Once, she didn't think homosexuals can change, and now she does," Knight says.

Dr. Laura hasn't exactly backtracked from her "biological error" statement, according to Bellows. "She thinks it's possible that some people are gay from environmental factors, too," Bellows says. "But she doesn't know, she's not an expert on homosexuality."

At this point, nothing Schlessinger says can appease both her accusers and her defenders, so she seems to have decided to take a safer path: silence. Even Bellows admits the controversy might have muted the talk show's usual discourse on homosexuality lately. "I don't know if she's avoided it, really, but she doesn't really want to get into [the controversy] any more, either."

That's not going to stop her advocates from turning it into a full-fledged campaign. Focus on the Family's Minnery says that the "train has already left the station," as far as Christian conservatives are concerned, and that they would continue to defend Dr. Laura and attack advertisers who advertise on shows they deem as anti-family.

And her critics have no plans to abandon their successful protest movement. "We didn't start this. She started this," says Aravosis, who says he and his partners are now considering offers of funding for their volunteer Web site. "The only way it's going to end is if she wants forgiveness, but she needs to first seek forgiveness." That's a little tough to picture.

Besides, why should she? While controversy might have fortified her enemies, it's done nothing but build the Dr. Laura brand, which, in the end, will likely give her the last laugh. Unlike Canada did this spring, no U.S. government regulatory agency is going to label her show "abusively discriminatory" and order stations to censor her when necessary. By summer's end, some radio analysts believe, her talk-show audience will eclipse the industry's giant, Rush Limbaugh.

"From a purely mercenary perspective, she's at the top of her game," says Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers magazine, the industry's bible. "As long as they spell her name right, she's going to be just fine."

By Kerry Lauerman

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