Headline Deceit, the N-Word, and Dr. Laura

Curse you, Gawker, for making me defend Laura Schlesinger!

Radio talk show host/advisor/scold Laura Schlesinger, a.k.a. “Dr. Laura,” has a target on her back for liberal sharpshooters, thanks to her persistent demonization of gays and her advocacy of female subjugation in marriage. Outside of those two areas (“And aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”), Schlesinger’s ethical instincts are usually sound, and her advice to troubled callers is usually good. But she has a lot of enemies, and proof of that is today’s eye-catching headline on the gossip website Gawker, which can fairly be described as “ethics-free.”

The headline:

Dr. Laura Apologizes for Shocking, N-Word Filled Radio Rant

I had just begun work on a post about misleading headlines in the media when I came across this, which conjured up the image of Dr. Laura doing a Michael Richards or Mel Gibson impression, suddenly losing all sense of propriety and self-control and allowing her previously private racism to rear its ugly head. This isn’t what really occurred however, though the headline writer and the author of the article clearly wants the world to believe it did.

The exchange Schlesinger apologized for (I don’t like to use the “Dr.,” which is as deceptive in Schlesinger’s case—she has a doctorate, but it is not in psychology or any field remotely connected to her current occupation—as it is for “Dr. Phil,”) began when an African-American woman called to ask if it was racist for her white husband and his friends to use the term “nigger.” Schlesinger responded with a flawed argument based on an accurate observation:

SCHLESINGER:  Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO and listen to a black comic, and all you hear is “nigger, nigger, nigger”. 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. [ Note: It isn’t confusing. Perception of good or ill will is a significant component of communication. The exact same word or phase can be friendly, ironic, hostile or frightening depending on who says it and how. Still, African-Americans who argue for a total taboo on the word cannot simultaneously excuse it according to race. That part of Schlesinger’s argument is sound.]

When the caller protested Schlesinger’s direct use of “nigger,” Laura went into full battle mode:

SCHLESINGER: Oh, then I guess you don’t watch HBO or listen to any black comedians! My dear, the point I am trying to make…we’ve got a black man as president and we’ve got more complaining about racism than ever. I think that’s hilarious.

The caller didn’t think it was hilarious.

CALLER: Is it OK to say that word? Is it ever OK to say that word?
SCHLESINGER: It depends how it’s said. Black guys talking to each other seem to think it’s ok.
CALLER: But you’re not black, they’re not black, my husband is white.

SCHLESINGER: Oh, I see, so a word is restricted to race. Got it. Can’t do much about that.
CALLER: I can’t believe someone like you is on the radio spewing out the nigger word, and I hope everybody heard it.
SCHLESINGER: I didn’t “spew out” the nigger word!
CALLER: You said “nigger, nigger, nigger” and I hope everybody heard it.
SCHLESINGER: Yes they did, and I’ll say it again: “nigger, nigger, nigger” is what you hear on HBO.

Having foolishly made her own self-drawn bullseye larger, Schlesinger reaped the predictable: accusations that she was a racist. “That’s racist!” was The Daily Beast’s label for the story. Gawker called her comments “incredibly offensive” and suggested that her apology the next day was “too little, too late.”

There was nothing racist about Schlesinger’s argument, her 100% accurate observation about the use of “nigger” by black comics, or her opinion that it is hypocritical for African-Americans to argue that the word should be a complete societal taboo while tolerating its use by friends, family, comics and rappers. There was nothing racist about her use of the full word in a discussion about its use, either. She did not call anyone a nigger, nor did she use the word as an epithet or an insult. We have no banned words or images in America: we can draw Muhammad or say the name of Voldemort if we so desire. Actors who use the word “nigger” when they are performing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” are not racists, teachers who quote from Huckleberry Finn are not racists when they refer to one of many passages using the word, and ethics bloggers aren’t racist when they use the word to discuss whether a radio talk show host was being racist when she used the word. Gawker’s headline was unfair, and its suggestion that Schlesinger’s typically no-holds-barred commentary was anything but overly blunt is unsupportable as well as particularly brainless and biased political correctness with a motive: they are out to get her. The smoking gun: Gawker’s use of the links from Media Matters, the proudly and absurdly left-biased “watchdog” group that never met a conservative or Republican  it thought deserved fair treatment, and that never heard of a liberal or Democrat who deserved media criticism.

Schlesinger did have reason to apologize, it is true. She was baiting the woman, who had told her that she was bothered by the use of “nigger,” and Schlesinger intentionally said it repeatedly anyway. She violated the Second Niggardly Principal: though her use of the word “nigger” was not logically offensive within the context of her remarks, she should have been sensitive to the fact that her caller, and other listeners as well, would be upset by it. She could easily have made her point without using the word at all. She needed to apologize, and did.

But Laura Schlesinger, based on this episode at least, is not racist, and said nothing that would suggest she is racist. Gawker, typically, set out to misrepresent what occurred for malicious purposes, and that is a far more serious breach of ethics than Dr. Laura’s impulsive insensitivity.

3 thoughts on “Headline Deceit, the N-Word, and Dr. Laura

  1. I agree. I thought Dr. Laura’s reaction to the caller was unsympathetic and rather careless, but not racist. And her apology was wonderful. I’m using it as an example of apology-sans-excuse.

  2. Pingback: Dr. Laura Schlesinger, Ethics Chicken « Ethics Alarms

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