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Cathy Renna

What Dr. Laura Taught Me

Filed By Cathy Renna | August 20, 2010 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Dr. Laura Schlessinger, glaad, media, n-word, shock jock, Stop Dr. Laura

This week, the notorious "Dr." Laura said she is leaving her radio show after once again shooting her mouth off. drlaura.jpgBut this time it was by using the "n" word and prompting a coalition of groups including Unity: Journalists of Color, the Women's Media Center, and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation to get her to apologize and retire from radio. For me, it was déjà vu all over again.

And you want to read this to end, trust me.

From 2000 through 2001, it sometimes seemed like I had more of a relationship with Dr. Laura than with my girlfriend. As the community relations director at GLAAD, I spent more time than I care to recall talking about Dr. Laura, working on GLAAD's successful campaign to get her nationally syndicated TV show off the air, and traveling the country working with allied groups and meeting with the affiliate stations that had her show foisted upon them.

A Little History

The differences between then and now have made me realize how much has changed -- and how much hasn't -- in our community over the past decade. The short story is that we did not have the Internet as an organizing tool (especially Twitter), but the greater issue is that the media and our community have come very far in changing attitudes, lowering the tolerance for public defamation of all kinds. We see it happen every day, and it happens fast and furious. Back then we had to convince people she was a bigot; today, not so much.

At the time, GLAAD was growing fast, having worked on much larger-scale national issues and being at the center of media influence in a way it had never been before, particularly around framing news issues and creating national debate about specific issues of defamation. Fresh off the controversial but highly visible campaign to combat Eminem's hateful and violently homophobic lyrics, Laura Schlessinger's comments about gay people being "biological errors" and many other offensive and inaccurate rants, GLAAD swung into action. We began a campaign that would last over a year, leading to the creation of an online activist organization focused on direct action and aggressive tactics, StopDrLaura.com, that pushed GLAAD to be more aggressive (more on that soon) and an investment by GLAAD in a campaign that was nuanced, very costly, and, in the end, so effective it garnered a PR Week award for nonprofit campaign of the year.

At the same time, many things have not changed. Dr. Laura called me a "brownshirt" on her show (and boy, did that piss off my family members who grew up under Mussolini in Italy). This time around, she is using the same name-calling tactic with Media Matters and spouting the same tired, inaccurate comments about her First Amendment rights being violated. I said it then -- over and over on national television and in the community -- and I say it now: There is no First Amendment right to have a nationally syndicated talk show. If there is, I would like my show now, please. MSNBC would be nice. I would be fine following Rachel Maddow.

But seriously, when it all started we had a very specific way of doing things at GLAAD -- driven by the leadership -- that included actually meeting with "Dr." Laura (lucky Joan Garry, our executive director, did that and survived), difficult but necessary meetings with Paramount, and ramping up our grassroots efforts to reach out to as many as possible of the CBS (Paramount-owned) affiliates that would be airing the show as well as local community groups that wanted to work with us to get the show shut down before it could air.

As I prepared to hit the road, eventually traveling to over a dozen affiliate meetings in places as diverse as Baltimore, Cleveland, and others, working with local groups to conduct their own meetings, armed with information and arguments against the show, StopDrLaura.com hit the scene. In retrospect, it was a lesson learned for me as a person and an activist. I know there was tension with some of the GLAAD staff but I, for one, had a great deal of respect for the people involved and made lemons out of lemonade. In some of the affiliate meetings, I was even able to bring Robin Tyler, a Stop Dr. Laura leader, with me. As I said to her as we went to our Atlanta meeting: "Let's play it this way -- I'm the bad cop, you are the worse cop. If they think I'll be tough, wait until they get a load of you. And the protest is happening as a joint effort."

In Dallas, local activist John Selig, also a close personal friend, not only represented Stop Dr. Laura in our meeting but was instrumental in getting the local protest together. Anyone who puts me on the back of a pickup truck with a megaphone get points in my book. If all of this sounds familiar, take a look at the Get Equal folks and the establishment LGBT groups now. Like I said, déjà vu all over again.

Lessons Learned

But there are a few very interesting things we can take from this most recent case.

One, in my affiliate meetings I had to schlepp a cassette recorder and hit "play" on a series of comments about LGBT people. We let her hang herself, and many an affiliate station manager was appalled and then willing to write to Paramount to express concern and privately tell us the station would relegate her to a 2 a.m. time slot.

Second, we had to wait until the TV show aired to target advertisers since Paramount refused to back down. Advertiser complaints went so well that all she had toward the end of the TV show was remnant advertising for things like Cleo the psychic and Madame Fifi's love plant. After a few incidents, the show finally was canceled. In today's world of Twitter and Facebook, things can and do happen at a faster pace, and many more people can get involved easily. The one thing that hasn't changed are her sorry-ass apologies, name-calling of groups that call her out on her bigotry, and her completely bizarre interpretation of the First Amendment.

What this latest round of our community's ongoing battle with her showed me is that we can and do learn from our mistakes. We do better working in coalition and harnessing technology and social media to make a difference much faster.

Finally, I personally learned a lot from the experience from local groups that came to the affiliate meetings and showed me the power of personal storytelling, the impact this kind of defamation has, and most importantly, how we can have different tactics and strategies and work together even if we do not totally agree on every point. Stop Dr. Laura and GLAAD were not the best of bedfellows all the time, but the combination represented two kinds of activism that need to work together more often.

Dr. Laura vs Judy Sheppard

One final story. Many years later, I was sitting in the green room with Judy Shepard at the Today Show and, lo and behold, "Dr." Laura was on the set, shilling a for a new book. As I sat there trying to contain myself, I realized Schlessinger's husband was sitting on the couch across from us. I went to introduce myself and got a curt "I know who you are," which I took as a compliment. As Schlessinger's segment finished and we readied for Judy to go on, an intern came in to get her husband. I asked, "Is she was coming back to green room?" The intern said sotto voce, "No way, she knows that Mrs. Shepard is here."

That says it all for me about "Dr." Laura. She knows she is hurting people and does it anyway -- and does not have the guts to face people affected by the hate she spews. That she does it in the guise of "helping" and used a title for a PhD in physiology to do it knowingly tells me she knows she is a quack and a fraud.

Good riddance to the radio show. And I have full confidence that the folks at Media Matters and other groups will keep a close eye on her online presence and books to hold her accountable in those arenas as well.

This piece originally appeared on Advocate.com.


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Wow Cathy, I guess we think alike. I used that "No one has a First Amendment right to a mainstream talk show" line just the other day on Alex's post. While I can't say for sure, it's entirely possible I heard or read you saying it years ago and it's just been kicking around in the back of my brain ever since.

But hey, if you get a nationally-syndicated talk show I want one too, but I get dibs on the slot after Maddow. I asked for it first. Of course, Lawrence O'Donnell may have an issue with that (he's gonna be great...I want his first show to be a cage match versus Pat Buchannan, his debates with him are downright legendary).

Would love to have a show on FOX it would be called "To the Left!" I would enjoy having it on right after any of the talk shows or the news! Maybe a few of us could approach Fox with the idea? Think of all the hospital visits that would cause!LOL

She hasn't earned her black card, she tried to fake one and failed. Usually, one must be a real cultural participant (not just casual observer as she blatantly displayed) before one earns the right to use an ironic slur.

Joe-Allen Doty | August 21, 2010 11:15 AM

Laura Schlessinger got a Ph.D. in physiology from Columbia University in 1974. While she did take courses to certified as a counselor; her PhD has no connection with psychology.

She is a real expert on marriages; she's had more than one.

Paige Listerud | August 21, 2010 11:52 AM

I would love to sit for hours and pick your brains about activism. You really have a wealth of knowledge, Cathy--you could be a consultant on activism but I don't know how many direct action aficionados would be able to pay you.

She's blaming everyone for that show going down, when it was really her who went off the air. Whatever, I won't cry much about her.

But good to know your part in this story, what with certain people trying to take all the credit for campaigns against her back in 2000....

Cathy Renna Cathy Renna | August 21, 2010 1:58 PM

lots of people deserve credit, glaad, stopdrlaura.com and every person who called or wrote and advertiser - plenty to go around!

...And don't let the door hit you in the ass.

John R. Selig | August 22, 2010 4:26 PM

Laura Schlessinger states that she is leaving her radio show to get her first amendment rights back. Excuse me!!! She has had a radio show for many years and has written book after book,.Schlessinger has had plenty of opportunity to express her opinions to a wide audience.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. It doesn't offer immunity from responsibility for what has to say. Schlessinger wants to be able to spew hate and then not be chastised for her comments. So when she victimizes she acts as if she is the victim, the harmed party. Sorry Laura, that dog don't hunt!

This taught me something very different, and it's not a pleasing thing: That people are free to use negative terms against GLBT people without end, but if they use the N-word a few times, that's some how so much worse that she's pressured to resign.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not upset that she's going off the air for being an intolerable bigot. I'm just disappointed that the reaction only came after she used the N-word in the same way she's been using the F-word for years.

It seems we're happy to help with the "community effort" to remove bigots when they show their stripes against other groups, but those same groups are less inclined to reciprocate when it's us being targeted. In fact, in some cases they pile on, especially the super religious side of the non-white community. (I'm looking at you Jesse Jackson.)