Schlessinger, Dr. Laura (1947—)

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Schlessinger, Dr. Laura (1947—)

With an estimated weekly listening audience of 18 million, Dr. Laura Schlessinger ranks as the most popular talk radio personality of the late 1990s, surpassing even Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern. An advocate of high ethical standards and personal accountability, Schlessinger—known to her fans simply as Dr. Laura—takes to the airwaves for three hours each weekday to offer her "never to be humble opinion" on various moral dilemmas. Employing her own brand of tough love, Schlessinger, guided by her Judeo-Christian faith, preaches to her callers, frequently chastising them for their behaviors and nagging them to mend their ways. It is this abrasive manner which causes her to be alternately hailed for her stern morality and criticized for her intolerance of contrary viewpoints. But despite assertions that Schlessinger's message is one of hate, punishment, and vengeance, her audience has continued to grow. Her radio talk show, nationally syndicated in June of 1994, built an audience of 10 million in its first two years; her syndicated column runs in 55 newspapers nationwide, and her self-help books continuously top bestseller lists. Her overwhelming popularity indicates she is doing something right, and many people, including Schlessinger, attribute this success to her tough talk and impeccable timing.

Following nearly three decades of "me generation" ethics—as defined by Fritz Perls' 1960s credo, "I do my thing and you do yours"—Schlessinger offers a radically different message: one of personal responsibility. She challenges her listeners to improve their character by employing a strong moral code when making decisions rather than relying on emotions. In a 1996 interview with Amy Bernstein for U.S. News and World Report, Schlessinger stated that between the 1960s and the 1990s Americans, "… erected a monument to feelings and made them the vantage point from which to make decisions. That's dangerous." Instead, Schlessinger instructs her listeners to take responsibility for their actions by making rational choices and doing the morally correct thing, regardless of emotion. As strident as she sometimes sounds, her message is one Americans want to hear. Indeed, after witnessing numerous high profile personal and political scandals, the American populace has grown tired of excuses. Instead, the public craves integrity, commitment, candor, and conscience—all keystones in Schlessinger's definition of character, and all part of a new counter-culture Americans appear to be embracing. During the presidential elections of 1992 and 1996, "family values" were at the foundation of every campaign platform, indicating that Americans were anxious for a return to the simplicity of life symbolized by the 1950s.

In addition to her moral message, Schlessinger offers the idea that individuals have ultimate control of their lives, claiming that even physical addictions such as alcoholism are a matter of personal choice. According to Schlessinger, a person can choose the direction his life will take by practicing self-restraint and religious faith. In a society where many people feel their lives are spinning out of control because violence appears commonplace and marriage is no longer a sacrament, hers is a message which offers stability amidst the chaos.

But for every American who embraces Schlessinger's message, there is another who rejects it. Her critics describe her as narrow-minded, self-righteous, and prudish, primarily due to her stances against live-in relationships—which she refers to inimically as "shacking up"—premarital sex, abortion (in most cases), and gossip. Additionally, Schlessinger regularly badgers listeners who engage in such behaviors, telling them to "grow up," "stop whining," or "quit cold turkey,"—advice her detractors fault for its harsh, black-and-white nature. Ironically, this is precisely the kind of advice that keeps listeners rushing to their telephones. On average, nearly 50,000 callers vie for a moment on-air with Dr. Laura, seeking her matter of fact opinions, regardless of how severe they may be.

The issue which draws the biggest fire, however, is Schlessinger's position on child care. As evidenced by her assertion following every commercial break that she is, first and foremost, "her kid's mom," children rank high on her agenda. She espouses the belief that once a child is born, a parent should put everything on hold—specifically a career—to stay home and care for that child. In most cases, she believes the at-home parent should be the mother, explaining that women are better and more natural nurturers, especially during a child's first few years. In Schlessinger's view, day-care centers are inadequate methods of child care, and largely to blame for delinquent, immoral, or irresponsible youths who suffer from a lack of one-onone time with their parents. This view is criticized by many who say Schlessinger abuses her powerful position by placing unnecessary guilt on parents—especially working mothers—and demanding unhealthy amounts of self-sacrifice. Adding more fuel to the fire is Schlessinger's assertion that the feminist movement is responsible for breaking up families by encouraging women to put their own needs before those of their children.

In addition to their disenchantment with her message, detractors have tagged Schlessinger as both a fraud and a hypocrite. The fraud charge stems from her use of the address "doctor" on air. While she does have a Ph.D., it is in Physiology, not Psychology, as many listeners may assume. While Schlessinger does have a post-doctoral certificate in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling, and did practice as a Licensed Marriage, Family, and Child Counselor for 12 years, critics worry that some callers may assume her knowledge of psychotherapy to be more vast than it is. As for being a hypocrite, detractors cite Schlessinger's assertion that people must accept their faith in whole while simultaneously breaking with her own faith on two important issues. She excuses abortion in cases where the mother's life is in danger, and condones homosexuality, saying it is an issue she and God will work out later. In response, Schlessinger states that the particulars of morality can always be debated; her focus is on the lifelong struggle to be a person of character. Needless to say, Schlessinger's position as "America's moral compass" inspires devotion, antipathy, and above all, controversy wherever her message is heard.

—Belinda S. Ray

Further Reading:

Bernstein, Amy. "Dr. Laura Schlessinger's Moral Health Show."U.S. News and World Report. April 29, 1996, 19.

Perls, Frederick S. Ego, Hunger & Aggression: A Revision of Freud's Theory & Method. N.p., Gestalt Journal Press, 1992.

Schlessinger, Laura C. How Could You Do That? The Abdication Of Character, Courage and Conscience. New York, Harper Collins, 1997.

——. Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives. New York, Harper Collins, 1997.

——. Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives. New York, Harperperennial Library, 1995.

Vogel, Stewart, and Laura C. Schlessinger. The Ten Commandments: The Significance of God's Laws in Everyday Life. New York, Harper Collins, 1998.

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Schlessinger, Dr. Laura (1947—)

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