Amidst controversial racial remarks made last week, Dr. Laura Schlessinger announced during an interview with Larry King on CNN that she would be leaving her radio program at the end of the year. Saying that she would be choosing not to renew her contract, Schlessinger’s announcement would bring to an end a career that spanned 30 years.
Dr. Schlessinger, who actually holds a Ph. D. in physiology and not psychology, as some might assume, had previously issued an apology after using the N-word in response to a caller who was troubled by racially insensitive remarks made by her relatives. Dismissing the caller as racially “hypersensitive,” Schlessinger’s own subsequent use of the N-word (which she repeated 11 times) was particularly ironic. Schlessinger characterized her departure as an attempt to get her “1st Amendment rights back.”
This isn’t the first time a celebrity radio personality has left the airwaves after facing public shame and media scrutiny following the on-air use of racial slurs. Radio personality Don Imus, another host whose career stretches back as long as Schlessinger’s, infamously used racially charged language when referring to the players of the Rutgers University women’s basketball. Like Schlessinger, Imus quickly issued an apology, though his show was ultimately canceled.
The incidents are similar, though the differences between what was said and either host’s subsequent actions are striking. Though Imus’ comments, which he characterized as “thoughtless and stupid,” demeaned female athletes, Schlessinger made on-air use of what is essentially a swear word, ultimately advising her caller not to ” marry out of her race.” Imus, a comedian, made his comments in the context of a comedy program with a long history of irreverence and name-calling. Schlessinger, on the other hand, made her comments in the context of providing personal advice as an expert (her program is titled “Dr. Laura”) to a troubled caller who was having marital concerns.
While Imus explained that he could “understand why people are offended,” Schlessinger seems to have doubled down. Schlessinger claimed that she was “trying to make a philosophical point,” and said only that her use of the n-word was “wrong.” Rather than apologize to her caller specifically, or to others who were offended by the remarks, Schlessinger claimed that her freedom of speech rights were being usurped by “angry, hateful groups who don’t want to debate.”
The much-maligned Imus, on the other hand, sought forgiveness both from the women of Rutgers and from all who were offended, showing an extraordinary degree of repentance. The shock jock made a guest appearance on the radio program of Al Sharpton, an activist who was among his most vocal critics. After Imus was fired (regardless of his public shows of remorse), he personally met with and apologized to the Rutger’s basketball team, despite the fact that his job was no longer on the line.
It’s worth noting that Schlessinger’s attempt to re-brand criticism of her racist remarks as an attack on her “free speech” takes place within the current context of other racially-charged comments made by conservative pundits and reactionary activists. With a black president in office, an angry opposition movement, made up mostly of white people, may feel that they now not only have license to express public racism, but that those who take offense constitute a threat to their freedom.