Schlessinger has been insulting people for years on her take-no-prisoners advice show. But the current sparks began to fly a few weeks ago with an announcement that was downright laughable: representatives for Schlessinger had come to an agreement with Paramount Television and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) to ensure that Schlessinger's new tv talk show presents "many points of view" on homosexuality "derived through a variety of sources, guests and a studio audience."
It was laughable because Schlessinger is completely irrepressible. She calls lesbians and gays "biological errors" and "deviants," and claims that "a huge portion" of gay men are pedophiles. And she regularly berates advice-seeking callers of every sexual orientation. You need only to listen to her for five minutes to ascertain that Schlessinger does not have the ability or the compassion to be equitable to a minority group she regularly defames.
In two previous meetings with GLAAD to discuss her radio show commentary, Schlessinger was "impervious to reason," as the group's director put it. Shortly thereafter, her attacks on gays and lesbians seemed to become even more venomous. Similarly, after the reports surfaced of an accord between the factions and Paramount, Schlessinger dug in her heels: her spokeswoman began telling the media that there "was no cave-in" at the meetings and that Schlessinger "stood her ground absolutely."
The word on the lot at Paramount is that the executives didn't know what they'd gotten themselves into when they bought the show last year. Dollar signs got in their eyes, and one executive in particular saw Schlessinger's show as something that would save him: he'd brought in two failed talk shows previously, and his job was on the skids. Funny how you can overlook things like homophobia when you're desperate. Couple that with the fact that Schlessinger wasn't quite as virulent about homosexuality prior to last year. With her energy, her popularity and her penchant for dehumanizing people, Schlessinger represented a ratings bonanza?Dr. Joyce Brothers meets Jerry Springer.
The last thing anyone expected, however, was that the gay staffers at Paramount would revolt. Openly gay Frasier creator and producer David Lee led the charge. "I think Paramount needs to have it brought home in a very real way," he told me in an interview on my radio show two weeks ago. "They need to know that this is an issue that's not going to go away. I just think it's time that hundreds of people [began] showing up at the Paramount gates to help drive some points home."
Shortly thereafter, protests at the Paramount gates began being organized, scheduled for this week. And a vigorous, relentless campaign by gay activists across the country soon heated up. For the past two weeks a group called StopDrLaura.com has used its website to publicize the phone numbers of Paramount executives. The group logged several million hits in a matter of days, and brought thousands of e-mails and phone calls to Paramount's corporate offices?as well as heaps of negative publicity.
Schlessinger lashed out on her show, calling it all "terrorism" and "fascism." Then she retained a crisis management p.r. firm, and within a matter of days she was saying she was "sorry" if her words hurt anyone, while at the same time not disavowing any of her previous statements. Five days later, after dropping the crisis management team, she then recanted, telling a right-wing Boston Herald columnist last week that this was a "clarification," not an "apology," and that she'd continue her antigay on-air activism.
That was when GLAAD finally demanded that Paramount pull the plug. And some say this may be the out that Paramount has been looking for to end the nightmare. Throughout the controversy there have been kneejerk charges, from the left as well as from the right, claiming that gay activists are taking away Schlessinger's "free speech"?and no doubt if Paramount kills the show those charges will escalate. But these are simplistic interpretations of the First Amendment that presuppose that modern-day media and entertainment conglomerates are there to give us all speech, in some egalitarian fashion, when in fact they're there for one thing: to make big money. With 20 million radio listeners Schlessinger has more free speech than she can handle and is not in danger of being silenced. She, like anyone else, has a right to her opinion, but no one has a right to a television show.
And everyone has a right to lobby a private company not to promote hate. No government entity has told Schlessinger or Paramount to refrain from making antigay remarks; if Paramount scraps the show it will do so voluntarily, if under pressure. Call it self-censorship, but media and entertainment companies have always voluntarily decided what is and isn't appropriate based on what they perceive to be the public's acceptance. Gays are only asking for equality. Calling African-Americans or Jews "biological errors" would today thankfully not be rewarded with a television talk show, no matter how much the ratings might soar. Hollywood?and Paramount itself?have in recent years begun to treat homophobia as a serious problem, seeing it on a par with other forms of hate and supporting gay employees, gay political groups and gay entertainment projects. It's about time they draw a line at putting antigay hatemongers on the air.
Michelangelo Signorile is editor-at-large for The Advocate.
The Torch Is Burned by Byron York Remember all the times Republicans on Capitol Hill screamed at Janet Reno that she just had to ask for an independent counsel to investigate the 1996 Democratic fundraising scandal? In hearing after hearing, GOP lawmakers would recite evidence of money-laundering and illegal contributions that cried out for an independent counsel, and Reno would respond with a long, droning answer that boiled down to one word: No. If she wasn't going to follow the advice of FBI director Louis Freeh and top campaign finance prosecutor Charles La Bella, both of whom wanted an independent investigation, she sure as hell wasn't going to listen to Fred Thompson or Dan Burton.
Now we're learning more about just how stubborn Reno was. Recently the Los Angeles Times reported that La Bella accused his bosses of using "gamesmanship" and legal "contortions" to steer the investigation away from the White House. The New York Times revealed that just four days before the 1996 election, a top Reno aide ordered the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles to stop investigating Al Gore's Buddhist temple appearance. And more stories will appear whenever we finally get a chance to see La Bella's still-secret roadmap to the case.
Not that it really matters. The independent counsel law has expired, Gore is out of danger and Clinton is poring over blueprints for his presidential library. All the big fish got away. Which makes it all the more interesting that there is one elected official who might come to grief from the campaign finance investigation. And that man is...Sen. Robert Torricelli, the New Jersey Democrat who is also the party's chief fundraiser in its drive to win back the Senate.
The Justice Dept. is investigating Torricelli's 1996 campaign, when he raised $9.2 million to defeat Republican Dick Zimmer. This month prosecutors sent more than a dozen subpoenas to Torricelli's fundraisers and friends, demanding that they turn over letters, checks, financial documents and any other evidence of contacts with the Torricelli campaign. It's clearly a sign of growing interest in Torricelli, which is making plenty of Democrats?and not just those in New Jersey?nervous.
The case began with a man named David Chang, a businessman based in Englewood Cliffs. Chang is an enthusiastic and impressively bipartisan contributor to political campaigns. In 1996, according to Federal Election Commission records, he contributed to the Torricelli campaign, the National Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee?and threw in $1000 to the Dole for President campaign for good measure. In 1998, he contributed to the congressional campaigns of Richard Gephardt, John McCain, Al D'Amato, Charlie Rangel and Newt Gingrich. And this election season he has already given generously to McCain and Gore 2000.
The problem for Torricelli is that Chang apparently wanted to give more than the law allows. In the spring of 1999, an attorney for one of Chang's businesses and a former chairman of the Bergen County Republican Party named Berek Paul Don, pleaded guilty to charges that he laundered $11,000 in illegal contributions from Chang to the Torricelli campaign. Then last December, a former law partner of Don's, Carmine Alampi, who used to be the treasurer of the Bergen County Democratic Party, pleaded guilty to helping Don make the illegal contributions. Prosecutors suspected that Chang destroyed records of his illegal donations to Torricelli. FBI agents staked out the parking lot behind Chang's office and watched as Chang's employees brought out plastic trash bags filled with shredded documents. The agents grabbed the bags and painstakingly reconstructed the papers, giving them the evidence they needed to start arresting people.
On Dec. 3, one of Chang's employees, Audrey Yu, was charged with perjury for telling a grand jury she knew nothing about the destruction of any records. A week later, Chang himself was arrested and charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice. More charges came later, when Chang was accused of trying to enlist two witnesses to lie and withhold documents from the grand jury so that their stories would jibe with the allegedly false testimony Chang had already given to the grand jury.
For Torricelli, there's a worrisome precedent in all this. Three years ago, Chang confessed that he had slipped $12,000 in illegal contributions into the reelection campaign of California Republican Rep. Jay Kim. Chang cooperated with prosecutors, who eventually charged Kim with campaign finance violations. Kim pleaded guilty, was sentenced to home detention and had to wear an electronic ankle bracelet whenever he went to his office on Capitol Hill. And by the way, he lost his bid for reelection.
All that would be bad enough, but Chang and his associates aren't Torricelli's only problem. Back in October, another New Jersey businessman, Lawrence Penna, pleaded guilty to funneling $20,000 in illegal cash into the 1996 Senate campaign (he also gave $12,000 in illegal contributions to the Clinton/Gore campaign). Penna also admitted manipulating stock prices in a one-day transaction that earned Torricelli $50,000. And another Clinton/Gore moneyman, Miami computer company executive Mark Jimenez, has fled the country after being indicted for making illegal contributions to several 1996 campaigns, including Torricelli's.
And now the wave of new subpoenas. At this rate, Torricelli donors might be in court all the way until his reelection campaign in 2002. And Torricelli can certainly forget any hopes he had?however fanciful?of being selected as Al Gore's runningmate this year. Torricelli's Washington lawyer, Abbe Lowell?you might remember him as the chief Clinton defender at the House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings?says Torricelli was unaware of any of the illegal donations. Lowell has told reporters that he's been assured by the Justice Dept. that Torricelli is not the target of any investigation. And Torricelli's office says the Senator is actually glad that his supporters are being brought to justice. "Sen. Torricelli won't tolerate even a single incident, no matter how small the donation," a spokesman told the Associated Press last year. In addition, most of the donors have said Torricelli didn't know about their illegal contributions. Maybe so, but a few more of these questionable transactions and it will appear that Torricelli?known by all as an exceptionally savvy fundraiser?is unusually unaware of who is giving him large amounts of money. In the end, it may turn out that he was the only Democratic bigwig that Janet Reno couldn't protect.
Byron York is senior writer for The American Spectator.