Dr. Laura Quits: I Think It's A Shame (and some belated commentary on Helen Thomas)

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I bet Dr. Laura is not smiling quite as wide this morning.

Dr. Laura Schlessinger is quitting the over-the-air radio business. She has been forced into a corner with no apparent way out. Her resigning was demanded in the wake of her comments to a caller in which she used racial slurs to illustrate a point.

I am not defending Dr. Laura’s use of insensitive language, however I do not think she should quit or be asked / forced to quit.

Here is exactly what happened: (Source)

A black woman called the show and told Dr. Laura that

her husband is white and his relatives frequently use hurtful racial language around her, including the “N-word.” In response, Schlessinger said “Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is n*****, n*****, n*****.” Schlessinger also told her that “If you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race.”

Predictably, there was a lot of backlash and Dr. Laura was forced to quit.

The Dr. Laura flap reminded me of the Helen Thomas fiasco. Thomas was also forced to resign in the wake of her insensitive comments as well.

Thomas said something to effect of:

Israelis should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to Germany and Poland.

Thomas took the heat for a few days until she quit.

I think these stories are both tragic.

Yes, in both cases, the comments were insensitive. Would they like to take back their words if they could? Sure. So why don’t we let them?

Both of these women speak millions of words over the course of their careers. It is inevitable that they will slip up. Why are we so swift to demand they give up their careers? Have we become so sensitive that there is no longer forgiveness?

It goes to a deeper issue as well.

The distillation of thought and narrowing of acceptable speech severely hampers the ability for Americans to debate and discuss issues. The 1st Amendment protects our right to free speech. This right has been described as providing a marketplace of ideas. If we allow whoever yells loudest to bully the marketplace then the marketplace becomes dominated by that voice.

The proper response to speech that you find offensive is not deprive the speaker from speaking further.* It is by explaining why the speech is offensive and offering counter-speech. Discussion and debate. Not calls for resigning.

By allowing bullies to determine who is permitted in the marketplace if ideas and who is not permitted in the marketplace of ideas curtails the effectiveness of that marketplace.

Dr. Laura and Helen Thomas were important voices. They may be infuriating at times and they may have been insensitive. But that is not a reason for their voices to be lost. The marketplace of ideas has fewer voices and that hurts us.

The real losers in their resignations is us.

*Severe forms of hate speech that are likely to incite violence or compromise the rights of others are not protected by the 1st Amendment.

  • leslie friedman

    I haven’t read all the comments so perhaps someone has already written this, but to compare a journalist — Helen Thomas — whose very profession demands objectivity, to a radio talk show personality — Dr. Laura — whose whole show is about her own personal opinions, misses the point. It was certainly a terrible idea for Dr. Laura to spew the N word even though she was not using it as an epithet. What spewed out of Thomas’ mouth was hate and blatant anti-Semitism, rendering any article she would ever write, past and future, not compliant with accepted standards of journalism.

    • It was mentioned and I responded above:

      “All journalists have biases. Their ability to report objectively must be judged by their reporting NOT by their biases.”

      • .. and even more accurately, “every human has bias”.

  • Hey, you said it: “Severe forms of hate speech that are likely to incite violence or compromise the rights of others are not protected by the 1st Amendment.” I read the transcript of Dr. Laura’s conversation. I couldn’t even listen to it for fear of the damage to my psyche. I was floored by Helen Thomas’s comments.

    But for sure, it’s hard when words are your livelihood not to slip up. I don’t imagine that these ladies have permanently stepped down. If Don Imus made it back on air, I’m sure these ladies will be back when the air has cleared.

    • Aliza:

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Damage to psyche is bad, but you can just do as you did, not read it! The fact that they are ousted completely and lose their voice for everything is what disturbs me…

  • Izzy

    Helen Thomas was judged by her reporting. If this had been a lone incident capping a long career or objective reporting, it would have played out differently. The fact is that her reporting has never been objective, and this incident was merely a manifestation of the bias that can be found in her years of “reporting.” Also, Helen never really repudiated what her initial statement suggested, that Israel has no right to exist. Basically, her “apology” was really a non-apology. That is why she can’t take back her words – b/c she never really attempted to. As an aside, I see a certain poetic justice in the woman, who made a career of jumping down the throats of others in front of cameras and microphones, finally being undone and having her legacy tarnished by a camera and a microphone during an unguarded moment. She lived by the sword, and she died by it.
    Dr. Laura, whom I am not especially fond of, used a word in a context and manner that would have been perfectly acceptable to most, were her skin a different color. I see a difference there.

    • Helen Thomas was judged by her reporting.

      Obviously not. She was not fired for any of her reports. She was fired for off the record statements that evinced her as a bigot.

      • Izzy

        She was fired for both. Like I said, if she had a different record, the episode would have been treated differently.

  • Adam

    Again – no one has deprived either of these women of their free speech rights. I know that you understand the difference between government censorship and a business decision, so why are you trying to blur the distinction here?

    Like Aliza said, Don Imus rebounded from his gaffe and returned to the airwaves – precisely because there is an audience that wants to listen to him on the radio.

    Especially with the state of technology today, when any one of us can have a blog, a podcast, or a live streaming internet radio station, I don’t see how either of these cases has anything to do with curtailing free speech.

    If the government was going to start automatically banning hateful words, it would overreact and install an automatic script to edit anything that looks like said word. Example: “Niamey is the capital of the West African nation of *****”

    • I’m not blurring any distinctions.

      I just think people in America should support the right for others to speak freely (with that caveat above) and not demand that anyone who says something that is politically incorrect be fired.

      • Adam

        Rush Limbaugh has been saying politically incorrect things for over twenty years; even longer as a local radio host. (not the least of which being the highly insensitive term “feminazi”)

        He’s still around. Why? Because people want to listen to what he’s saying. I even think he’d survive an utterance of the dreaded N word. He’s just that popular.

        I agree with you that people shouldn’t rise up from the streets and scream in protest over every single politically incorrect statement made in broadcast media.

        On the flip side, I don’t think that any company ought to sacrifice its own profitability for some ignoble principle of allowing an unpopular broadcaster to stay on the air, in the name of “free speech”.

      • Izzy

        So do you see any limits on that freedom? Is there anything that would be so beyongd the pale, so as to deserve a pink slip? I am not talking about threatening or inciting violence, but gross insensitivity or extreme political incorrectnes. Some examples might be: “this country would be much better off, had integration never happened,” or “Jews are terrible for this country,” etc.

        • There are limits.

          I don’t think Thomas or Schlessinger went past those limits.

          If someone had said one of your two examples do you think they should be fired? Sure, they are bigoted jerks, but why fire them?

          • I can’t say that I agree. When you make a living off of media and communicating, you must be aware of cultural sensitivities, communal respect, and the like. Freedom of speech is one thing; but if you wish to earn a living from speaking to a wide group of people, you have a higher standard to adhere to. Just like bus drivers and truck drivers have a higher standard to adhere to than your regular car driver.

            Dr. Laura could have made her point in a MUCH better way. I listened to the broadcast several times, and it was absolutely dripping with her own personal angst and frustration. It had little to do with counseling the caller. On top of that, I could practically feel the embarrassment of the caller…the way that Dr. Laura kept interrupting her and nit-picking over her personal choices. There is a reason why Judaism teaches us that embarrassment is akin to murder. It kills the spirit of another…and just like murder, it is very painful to witness.

            No Dr. Laura and Helen Thomas need to internalize the fact that there are consequences to the things you say. Yes, exercise your freedom of speech…and be prepared to fully accept any fallout that may come from it!

            • Your points are valid.

              But there are other ways for them to suffer the consequences. There are social implications (ie people will respect them less), there are financial implications (ie losing sponsors) but the finality of losing their voice completely is too steep a price in my opinion.

              I am no fan of Dr. Laura and certainly, as a Jewish Rabbi, not a fan of Thomas’ bigoted remarks. I am a fan of the marketplace of ideas.

            • (Thanks for stopping by)

              • Dov Kramer

                Helen Thomas was a journalist. Her biases affect her ability to report objectively.

                Dr. Laura was a talk show. Nuff said.

                • All journalists have biases. Their ability to report objectively must be judged by their reporting NOT by their biases.

                  • Adam

                    Why bring up the 1st amendment? Neither Schlessinger nor Thomas were prosecuted by any federal or state authority for their speech.

                    This is simply a matter of capitalism. Clear Channel Radio and Hearst Publications, respectively, have a right to stop employing people who are more liability than asset to the company. Indeed, it is more than a right; the managers of these and all corporations have a duty to the shareholders to make these kinds of decisions.

                    If Laura wants to start her own radio program, using her own radio frequency and/or her own Internet Server, she can say anything she wants all day and night.

                    If Helen wants to run her own newspaper and/or website, she can also write or say anything she wants.

                    This is not a 1st amendment issue at all. This is pure capitalism. The fact that capitalism happened to wash away an apostate and an antisemite, in these cases, is just the cherry on top. :o)

                    • If “Capitalism” does away with free speech then it is a tragedy.

                      That’s the point.

                    • I agree with you that people shouldn’t rise up from the streets and scream in protest over every single politically incorrect statement made in broadcast media.

                      And that was the point. Thanks for getting it.

                    • Izzy

                      So where would you draw the line?

                      Imagine Thomas had said: “Jews should “get the hell out of America” and “go home…to Poland, Germany..” Would that exceed your limits? Change America to Palestine, and that is what she said.

                      Should someone be fired for making bigoted statements? Sometimes, yes. Like I have said before, words matter, especially the words of public figures, and even more so the words of members of the media. Such people, with their words, have the power to make an impact on society, and therefore, a special duty to watch what they say. If someone abuses this power, than I think it reasonable to consider suspending it or completely taking it away. That is what happened to Don Imus (temporarilly), that is what happened to Helen Thomas, and that is what is happening to Mel Gibson.

                    • R’ Fink – I don’t think Thomas or Schlessinger went past those limits.

                      If someone had said one of your two examples do you think they should be fired? Sure, they are bigoted jerks, but why fire them?

                      It’s very simple and I’ll use an example. If a Toyota executive makes a stupid mistake that damages a production run of 100,000 vehicles, he will be fired. Same here. These employees made a stupid mistake that damaged their employers business and they were fired. End of story.

                      It may be that if you were their boss, you would give them another chance, but who knows? If your job as boss (or your performance bonus, or whatever) depended on the good behavior of your employees, perhaps you also wouldn’t give them another chance.

                      That’s what is known as life in the real world.

                    • No. What happened was the “people” were morally outraged and forced the hand of the parent companies to act. I contend that people should take a chill pill and calm the heck down when someone slips up.

                    • By allowing bullies to determine who is permitted in the marketplace if ideas and who is not permitted in the marketplace of ideas curtails the effectiveness of that marketplace.

                      Ironic that you should say this in a post about Dr. Laura, who is a bully of the worst kind.

                    • Only helps to make my point.

  • Helen Thomas was judged by her reporting.

    Obviously not. She was not fired for any of her reports. She was fired for off the record statements that evinced her as a bigot.

    • off the record

      What do you mean “off the record”? She said it into a video camera! And there is no evidence that she requested from the person taking the report that it be off the record.

      • Seriously? It was a HIDDEN camera!

  • I didn’t think either should lose their jobs. But I don’t think they can be compared. Thomas, was actually giving HER OWN opinion on the matter. She really felt that way.

    Dr. Laura was simply repeating something that goes on television. She didn’t say it out of her own convictions.

    Hence, i agree, these people so much a lot of the times and a slip up is unavoidable. Problem here is, I don’t even see Dr. Laura as even slipping up.

  • Dr. Laura acted like a fool and was forced to face the consequences. I am not convinced that she was fired because my understanding is that she will be on the air until the end of the year. The NY Times is reporting that she said on Tuesday night that she would not renew her contract for the show when it expires at the end of the year.

    On CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Dr. Schlessinger said that she would leave her “Dr. Laura Program” because she doesn’t want to have to prune her words or opinions.

    “I want to be able to say what’s on my mind and in my heart and what I think is helpful and useful without somebody getting angry, some special interest group deciding this is the time to silence a voice of dissent and attack affiliates, attack sponsors,” she said. “I’m sort of done with that.”

    That is a childish response on her part. She is acting petulant because the marketplace just smacked her. That same marketplace of ideas says that you can’t speak this way without consequences.

  • Dr. Laura –

    You said nothing wrong. There are many people who just can’t handle the facts and truth. Thank You for being on the air all of these years. Please never stop standing up and being an American!!!

  • This author thinks we are stupid. Ok, many really are. But how can you compare truly racist comments of Helen Thomas, to Dr. Laura who was trying to make a point and might be guilty of momentarily being insensitive. Seems like we have a very amateur writer who has little education or the writer is super sympathetic to the “Palestinians” and cares nothing about Israelis or Jews. Another one sided liberal hack wanna bee.

  • DanO

    How can you compare Helen Thomas’ comments to Dr. Laura’s?! Thomas was and is a hater of Israel. Dr. Laura was simply echoing a fact that many blacks – Afro Americans – use the N word. IT was not a reflection of her beliefs! Thomas’ comments were. Big difference.

    • Two things need not be identical to draw comparisons.