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08.13.10

How Dr. Laura Exploits Her Show's Callers

The conservative talk-show host’s racially charged outburst wasn’t an accident. Conor Friedersdorf on the dangers of making a career of judging others without the facts.

Dr. Laura Schlessinger recently berated a black woman who called to complain that her white husband's friends are racists. To be more specific, they regularly come over, ask impolite questions about black stereotypes, and use the n-word as if she isn’t there.

The talk-radio host replied that black people frequently use the n-word, so getting upset about its use by non-black people is nothing but oversensitivity.

“Turn on HBO and listen to a black comic, and all you hear is nigger nigger, nigger,” Schlesinger said. “I don't get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it's a horrible thing. But when black people say it, it's affectionate. It's very confusing.” Unsurprisingly, the exchange made news, owing largely to the fact that Dr. Laura used the n-word 11 times during the woman’s relatively brief call. “You said ‘nigger nigger nigger,’ and I hope everybody heard it,” the caller exclaimed. Replied the talk-radio host: “Yes they did, and I'll say it again: Nigger nigger nigger is what you hear on HBO.”

It should be noted that Dr. Laura invoked the n-word not as a racist, but as a bullying, tone-deaf, faux-naïve, tendentious blowhard. She began the next day’s show with an apology: “I was attempting to make a philosophical point, and I articulated the ‘n’ word all the way out—more than one time. And that was wrong.” 

That mea culpa covers gratuitous use of a racial epithet. What it neglects is that use of the epithet, however shocking, is hardly the most damning aspect of the call. Unfortunately, it takes a controversy with racial overtones to draw attention to flaws that have plagued Dr. Laura’s show since its inception.

I began suffering through her programs in 1994 as a young teenager, captive in my mom’s car. People with troubled lives sought advice from the talk-radio host, who interrupted them before they’d finished their stories. Often her prescription assumed facts that she hasn’t bothered to inquire about.

“Why do you listen to this?” I’d whine in my exasperated teen voice.

“She tells a lot of people what they really want to hear but they don’t have the guts to face,” my mom insisted.

That’s true. Her advice was brusque, reductive, and not always wrong.

Dr. Laura invoked the n-word not as a racist, but as a bullying, tone-deaf, faux-naïve, tendentious blowhard.

In the torturous second half of 1998, I held a temp job where the women in adjacent cubicles listened every day to all three hours of Dr. Laura’s show. It’s impossible to do so without concluding that she is often right, if only because some of her callers pose situations like, “I just got divorced for the third time, and I met a great new guy at an AA meeting. We’re really hitting it off, and while we’re not sure about moving in together yet—he’s still sorting things out with his ex—he doesn’t have anyplace to live, whereas I’ve got an air mattress on the floor next to the crib where my infant son sleeps.”

Yes, Dr. Laura gives some people good advice—the same good advice they’d get from you or me or the 411 operators. At her best, she’ll even tell people in non-abusive relationships to stay married for the kids, or insist on other hard truths that callers don’t necessarily want to hear. Too often, however, she behaves as she did toward the black caller.

Let’s go to the transcript:

CALLER: I'm having an issue with my husband where I'm starting to grow very resentful of him. I'm black, and he's white. We've been around some of his friends and family members who start making racist comments as if I'm not there or if I'm not black. And my husband ignores those comments, and it hurts my feelings. And he acts like—

SCHLESSINGER: Well, can you give me an example of a racist comment? 'Cause sometimes people are hypersensitive…

CALLER: OK. Last night—good example—we had a neighbor come over, and this neighbor—when every time he comes over, it's always a black comment. It's, "Oh, well, how do you black people like doing this?" And, "Do black people really like doing that?" And for a long time, I would ignore it. But last night, I got to the point where it—

SCHLESSINGER: I don't think that's racist.

CALLER: Well, the stereotype—

SCHLESSINGER: I don't think that's racist. No, I think that—well, listen, without giving much thought, a lot of blacks voted for Obama simply 'cause he was half-black. Didn't matter what he was gonna do in office, it was a black thing. You gotta know that.

The thing to notice is that every time we’re about to get additional relevant information from the caller, Dr. Laura interrupts, causing people like me to wonder, “WHY DON’T YOU LET HER TELL US WHICH RACIAL STEREOTYPES THE QUESTIONS INVOKED?” (Talk radio-induced anger is expressed in all caps.) Yeah, if her husband’s friend said, “Why did such a high percentage of black people vote for Obama,” it isn’t a big deal. Whereas if he said, “What do black people like more: having bastard children or eating fried chicken,” that would obviously be racist and offensive. These are crucial facts we’re missing!

Dr. Laura gives the impression that she’s taken so many calls over the years that she doesn’t need to ask about particulars. It’s as if long experience has taught her that black people have a chip on their shoulders about race. Why not just interrupt and assert as much?

The caller then offers what she assumes is a clear example of racism.

CALLER: How about the N-word? So, the N-word's been thrown around—

SCHLESSINGER: Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is nigger, nigger, nigger.

CALLER: That isn't—

SCHLESSINGER: I don't get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it's a horrible thing; but when black people say it, it's affectionate. It's very confusing.

Perhaps Dr. Laura is being deliberately obtuse to make a political point about societal double standards that she finds unfair. If so, she is using her caller, who she is supposed to help, as a political foil, a means to an end. In the advice-giving business, that’s malpractice.

The other possibility: Dr. Laura really doesn’t understand the difference between a black comic on HBO using the n-word and a white houseguest using it. Even someone who objects to that double standard shouldn’t be confused by why it exists, and if they are, they don’t understand social dynamics or human psychology well enough to give advice on national radio.

The final irony is that Dr. Laura, a frequent critic of moral relativism and pop-culture norms, is invoking the behavior of HBO comics to argue a behavior is OK.

Giving advice on the radio is a dicey enterprise. Callers ask about enormously consequential matters: marriage, divorce, child custody, abuse, addictions, relationship problems, etc. The host can never be certain that she has all the relevant information. A lot of professional therapists wouldn’t practice in that format no matter the monetary gain.

Dr. Laura daily makes a dicey enterprise into indefensible exploitation: In years of exchanges that have made her rich, she frequently fails to let callers include the small amount of context that they deem important. Sure, hearing them out might make for less compelling radio. But offering forceful pronouncements while ignorant of that information betrays bad judgment—the kind you’d expect from a white talk-radio host who uses the n-word 11 times in a tirade meant to persuade a black woman that its use is actually benign.

Conor Friedersdorf blogs at True/Slant and The American Scene. Follow him on Twitter at Conor64.