Culminating its three-year public education campaign against the rhetoric of talk-show host Laura Schlessinger, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) recently hailed the cancellation of TV's "Dr. Laura" as a major victory against defamation and anti-gay intolerance.
"Dr. Laura," produced and distributed by Paramount Domestic Television, ended production on Mar. 29. The freshman TV show has been a critical and ratings failure since its Sept. 11, 2000 debut, and since early November it has been downgraded to post-midnight time slots in 29 of the nation's top 30 media markets.
GLAAD launched its campaign in 1998, when Schlessinger began using terms such as "deviant," "disordered" and "biological error" to describe gays and lesbians. GLAAD's high-profile initiative successfully thwarted corporate sponsorship of the show, forcing Paramount to offer deeply discounted rates and rely almost exclusively on direct-order products to fill national ad slots. In February, GLAAD was awarded the PR Week Award for Non-Profit Team of the Year 2001 for its Schlessinger campaign.
"Paramount Domestic Television justified its decision to air 'Dr. Laura' by saying that it would 'let the people decide,'" said GLAAD Executive Director Joan M. Garry "Well, the people have decided. Viewers and advertisers alike have decided that when given a choice, they will choose to reject those who advocate intolerance and advance an agenda of exclusion."
"This is a culmination of GLAAD's three years of strategic education and advocacy work," Garry said. "In coalition with thousands of local activists from across the country, we have held Laura Schlessinger accountable for her defamation of our community. And we've sent a strong message that we are no longer an easy target for prejudice. GLAAD hopes the cancellation of 'Dr. Laura' will make media corporations think twice about giving a platform to someone who promotes derision and exclusion. Such decisions will never go unchallenged."
In recent years, Schlessinger (whose doctorate is in physiology, not psychology or psychiatry) has perpetuated misinformation and reinforced damaging stereotypes about homosexuality. She also has advocated dangerous pseudo-therapies--condemned and discredited by the psychiatric and psychological communities--intended to "convert" people from gay to straight.
"In the final analysis, Schlessinger's defamatory characterizations of our lives have been exposed for what they really are: politically motivated opinions in the service of an anti-gay agenda," Garry said. "Not science; not fact; and not the objective, unbiased conclusions of a qualified 'Dr.' As a result of this ongoing campaign, people across the nation both gay and straight now know that 'Dr. Laura' is not the place to find accurate information about sexual orientation issues."
Schlessinger's attacks first came to GLAAD's attention in 1997 when she characterized homosexuality as a "biological faux pas" in her syndicated newspaper column. In February 1998 and March 1999, GLAAD Executive Director Joan M. Garry met with Schlessinger in an unproductive effort to educate her about the hurtful impact of her words. When Schlessinger signed with Paramount Domestic Television for a TV talk show in mid-1999, GLAAD launched a campaign to bring the topic of defamatory language into the national public consciousness. A crucial part of the campaign involved meetings between GLAAD and senior executives at Premiere Radio Networks (radio syndicator of "The Dr. Laura Program") and Paramount.
A pivotal moment in the campaign occurred on March 15, 2000, when Schlessinger disavowed a qualified apology she had made to the gay community only five days earlier. Having demonstrated that she could not be held accountable for her public statements, Schlessinger's recant prompted GLAAD to call on Paramount to terminate its plans to produce her TV show.
"From the beginning, we knew GLAAD's case against Laura Schlessinger would prevail or crumble based on the credibility of our message and research," Garry said. "We documented Laura's words verbatim and in context for two years. We took our case to Schlessinger herself twice, to Premiere Radio Networks and to Paramount in an effort to effect change from within the system. Once it became clear that neither Schlessinger nor her media partners had any intention of taking responsibility for her public comments, we took our case to advertisers, local television stations and the American public."
Beginning in April, GLAAD and local community coalitions began meeting with station managers in nine of the top ten media markets who had purchased "Dr. Laura" for airing in the fall. In May, GLAAD expanded its work through "Local Laura Activism: Step by Step," a groundbreaking online initiative that gave local activists across the country the tools they needed to plan, ask for and conduct meetings with their local TV stations, educate advertisers, and work with their local media to increase public awareness of Schlessinger's harmful rhetoric.
In May, GLAAD placed ads in major daily newspapers and advertising trade publications discouraging companies and their media buyers from associating their brands with Schlessinger's messages of intolerance. The ads also expanded GLAAD's base of support to include the National Mental Health Association, the National Organization for Women, People for the American Way, and the National Conference for Community and Justice. GLAAD also worked with lesbian and gay employee groups within major sponsors of daytime television to discourage media buys on the show. Advertisers that withdrew their support from Schlessinger's TV and radio programs include Procter & Gamble; Sears, Roebuck and Co.; General Foods; Xerox; AT&T; Kraft; Pillsbury and dozens of other major brands.
"Dr. Laura" debuted in September to low ratings, obscure advertisers, blistering reviews and GLAAD's continuing efforts to identify and dissuade companies from sponsoring the show. Since its debut week, the show's ratings have dropped 50 percent from a high of 1.8 to a 0.9, and the show has undergone two retoolings. In the last four months, markets representing more than 70 percent of the nation's TV homes -- including all of the top 10 markets -- have downgraded the show to post-midnight timeslots.
"The cancellation of 'Dr. Laura' offers Schlessinger yet another opportunity to do the right thing," Garry said. "GLAAD calls on Schlessinger to publicly state that she will stop using her self-described 'hurtful words' to characterize the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Whatever happens, GLAAD will continue to keep an eye on Schlessinger, and we'll hold her accountable again if she continues her defamatory attacks."