Saturday, June 10, 2000

Dr. Laura's order under fire

Local foes challenge radio host's rhetoric

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dr. Laura Schlessinger
        It's classic Dr. Laura: Take responsibility. Do the right thing. Actions have consequences. The twist: Her opponents are using the same argument to rally against the popular radio show host.

        “Why have I become a lightning rod?” said Dr. Laura Schlessinger, in an interview with The Cincinnati Enquirer. “Because I have very strong opinions on things, and I clarify them.”

        On radio and in interviews, she has denounced homosexual behavior as deviant and a biological error.

        Her comments have sparked strident debates across the country on the airwaves, editorial pages and at the watercoolers. In Cincinnati, the controversy prompted letters to the editor, pro and con, a planned demonstration on Dr. Laura's behalf, and a counter-measure donation drive.

  Sample of Dr. Laura comments
  • 18 to 20 million .... Number of viewers who tune in to her daily three-hour radio show.
  • 30,000 to 50,000 .... Number of attempted calls into her show each day.
  • 175 .... Number of TV stations that have bought Dr. Laura's show, representing 96 percent of the country.
  • 115 .... Number of newspapers that carry her syndicated column (Dr. Laura's last column for release will be July 7; she is quitting to concentrate on her new TV show).
  The Rev. Fred Phelps, a controversial figure who picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a victim of anti-gay violence, has planned a June 19 rally against Procter & Gamble.
  Stonewall Cincinnati, GABLE (Gay, Bi-sexual and Lesbian Employees and their supporters at P&G), and other local activist groups have planned a counter-measure to combat the message of hate. They are asking residents to support the company's decision to pull advertising from the new Dr. Laura TV show by donating P&G products such as Tide, Pampers and Jif Peanut Butter. The groups will then distribute the donations to local charities.
  Sunday is the first collection day. Residents can drop off items at Burnet Woods or Hoffner Park.
  Information: (513) 651-2500.
        Dr. Laura considers voicing her views a matter of free speech. Her opponents call it irresponsible.

        “Rhetoric like that has consequences,” said Doreen Cudnik, executive director of Stonewall Cincinnati, a gay-rights group. “We saw the murder of Matthew Shepard. We see hate crimes here in our own community. This kind of antiquated, intolerant misinformation gets broadcast every day to millions of people.”

        Even though she broadcasts from Los Angeles, she's not a long way from Cincinnati, Ms. Cudnik said.

        Her radio show airs on WKRC-AM (550) from 9 a.m. to noon weekdays. Her daily TV talk show debuts in September on WCPO-TV (Channel 9). The Cincinnati Enquirer occasionally runs her syndicated column.

        “Yes, it's a national issue, but it's a local issue because it affects local people,” Ms. Cudnik said.

        Dr. Laura has the right to her own opinion, she said, but the “issue for us is that there's a responsibility that comes with that microphone.”

        She already is facing repercussions from her actions. The world's second-largest advertiser, Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, pulled its advertising from her new TV show. A Canadian regulatory organization last month chastised her for making “abusively discriminatory” comments and said she violated the group's code of ethics.

        And opponents have established a well-organized network called Stop Dr. Laura, complete with a Web site ( and T-shirts for sale.

        Yet she steadfastly refuses to change her message.

        “I'm no coward. I have very serious beliefs,” Dr. Laura said. “I think my audience would be flabbergasted if I did anything but stand up tall and strong to my beliefs and to the impact on certain things in society, especially children and family.”

Her appeal
        And you can't argue with success. Despite some chinks in the armor, Dr. Laura remains wildly popular.

        Already, 175 stations — representing 96 percent of the country — have bought the Dr. Laura TV show. Her radio show attracts 20 million listeners, tying her with Rush Limbaugh for the No. 1 spot. Up to 50,000 people call each day for a dose of “preach, teach and nag,” Dr. Laura-style.

        Her books have reached the bestseller list, and there's even a Dr. Laura board game.

        People keep coming back because they “perceive me as sincere,” she said. “There's no schtick on this show. I'm trying very hard to direct people to have the will and courage to lead a moral life ... to make more purpose and meaning out of their lives than just doing what you do each day.”

        Her appeal also stems from tapping into a country tired of hearing excuses and ready to discuss right and wrong without dawdling in the gray areas. She talks about family values and children, issues high on the priority scale of Americans.

        Joan Lipinski, 34, of Cheviot, often agrees with Dr. Laura's viewpoints. The mother of an 11-month-old boy, Mrs. Lipinski decided to work part time so she could stay at home with him.

        But Mrs. Lipinski can't stomach more than a few minutes of Dr. Laura.

        “I think she's a mean woman. And self-righteous,” said Mrs. Lipinski. “People call her radio show for help, and she doesn't even let them finish their story before she starts attacking.”

        Some people need to hear it harder, said Dr. Laura.

        “When somebody's being very obstructionist about their own welfare, I have to pound on them a little harder,” she said, without apology.

Her detractors
        The danger, opponents say, is that she preaches a message of intolerance: if you don't subscribe to her conservative agenda, then you're wrong.

        Dr. Laura uses her radio pulpit “to denigrate a faction of humanity,” said Lori Lonergan, a member of GABLE, (Gay, Bi-sexual and Lesbian Employees and their supporters at P&G). “She's not saying, "I disagree with a certain way of life or a certain sexual orientation.' She is using what she deems her scientific background ... to state irrevocably that homosexuals are deviant and the result of a biological error.”

        Dr. Laura, who holds a master's degree and a doctorate in physiology from Columbia University, insists she is only speaking her conscience.

        Moreover, she insists she's never said she hates gays and lesbians. It's the homosexual behavior — not the person — that is deviant, she said.

        Gays and lesbians should be able to get a job or have housing, Dr. Laura said, and parents should support their children, despite sexual orientation.

        “The thing that I came down on is that I believe, because I'm a very religious person, and I follow Scriptures, and it very clearly designates marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman. And I see the best opportunity for children to be parented by a mommy and a daddy,” she said. “So it's extraordinary that basically speaking, I have been about 95 percent supportive of gay and lesbian rights and life, but this one area I deviate, and for that, I sort of get thrown out with the baby and the bathwater.”

"A lightning rod'
        Her comments on homosexuality enflamed enough people that Procter & Gamble not only pulled its advertising from the Dr. Laura TV show, but also withdrew as an equity partner.

        “The fact is: She is controversial. She is a lightning rod on some issues,” said Robert Wehling, P&G's global marketing executive. “I think when it became clear that you can't, in this particular case, separate the personality and the show — and that de facto you'd be involved in a controversial environment, we decided to go in a different direction.”

        P&G is the only sponsor to drop the show, said Michelle Hunt, Paramount's media director. She said it is against company policy to release the names of other sponsors.

        Tom Schick, a public relations professor at Xavier University, said decisions like P&G's are based on business, not ethics.

        A company has to weigh what's more important: reaching a show's audience or the risk of alienating certain groups.

        In some situations, “there's so much heat, a company cannot get a clear position that is right and defensible,” Mr. Schick said, “so staying out of the fray and out of the fight is often an easier way to maintain image.”

        Ed Rahn thinks P&G wimped out. He enjoys Dr. Laura and sides with her on most issues.

        Mr. Rahn, 74, of Madeira, criticized the company's decision, saying they bowed to the special interests of a small, but vocal, minority. Their action impedes free speech, he said.

        “But more important than that, (P&G) dropped their support of somebody who speaks very strongly for the family, which I thought P&G stood for,” Mr. Rahn said.

        Just because one viewpoint was controversial doesn't mean they should ditch the whole project, he said.

        In a letter to the company, he pointed out, “Even their own Ivory soap is not 100 percent pure.”

        John Kiesewetter contributed to this report.

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