Keeping Dr. Laura and the Dixie Chicks Off the Air

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The other night, the Dixie Chicks appeared on 60 Minutes. After TiVo recorded it, I could hardly fast-forward through the other two segments quickly enough. Anyone who knows me well knows that the Dixie Chicks have been my favorite band since early 2000, when I was first “forced” by my friend Amelia to listen to one of their songs. Like a lot of people at the time (or, well, maybe just like a lot of people, period), I was highly skeptical, often derisive, of all country music. Growing up in the South you learn that country is associated with rednecks and racists, and lord knows I wanted no part of any of that. Okay, I said to Amelia, after raising my eyebrow at her for buying this album at all, one song. After that one song, “Cowboy Take Me Away,” I said, well, okay, maybe we can listen to the whole album.

Amelia never got that CD back. That summer I saw the band on their Fly tour twice — in Lafayette, Louisiana and in Atlanta. I put an “Earl’s in the trunk” bumper sticker on my car. I was a true believer. When “Home” was released in August 2002, I snapped it right up. It was their best album yet, and I listened to it constantly. I joined their fan club so that I could have access to pre-sale tickets for the “Top of the World” tour and arranged for my friend Lilian and myself to see the show in Little Rock. I think the tickets went on sale in February 2003.

I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard about the debacle — in the car on my way to meet a friend for dinner, pulling into a parking spot and catching the tail end of the segment on the radio, going “what? what did she say?” Upon learning more about it the next day, I figured it was a classic Rush Limbaugh moment and would soon pass. I had no idea of what was coming. I mean, when the name of your band becomes a verb meaning “to be shunned, retaliated against, sent death threats, and banned from the radio for making a political statement,” you know something significant has happened.

It put me in mind of something that had happened when I was in law school that I never completely resolved my feelings about. I don’t remember the specific details, but I think it had something to do with a threatened boycott of products advertised during Dr. Laura Schlesinger’s television show (which either never went on the air or was quickly cancelled, I don’t remember which). I do remember there being much hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing among my classmates about whether it was okay to silence someone in this way. Even though this was consumer and organizational action applying pressure to a television network and advertisers and there was no government action involved at all, the argument was made that it was the functional equivalent of prior-restraint censorship. So, although there was no legal obligation to refrain from such activity, there was some sort of ethical obligation to allow people to say their piece and not silence them through coercive tactics. Just sort of a general sense that this was a moral shortcut, not something that complied with basic principles of democracy, community, and fair dealing. And this from people who abhor everything that that woman stands for. (In case you’re wondering, I’m pretty sure it was her homophobic stuff rather than any of her other offensive views that drove this effort). There were only about six vocal conservatives in the whole law school, so I don’t know that we got that perspective.

So I guess my question is, what are the boundaries of acceptable responses to views that we disagree with from celebrities? Is it ethical to use threats of boycotts and other economic tactics to silence people who say things we don’t want to hear? The core principle that undergirds the First Amendment is that you counter bad speech with good speech and that the right answer is always more speech rather than less. I have sometimes felt that this is not an adequate response to harmful speech in a society in which power and money are so unequally allocated. On the other hand, what is the alternative when the question of what is harmful is so subjective? Maybe the people who sent her death threats really believed that Natalie’s offhand remark that she was ashamed that President Bush was from Texas (which is not even really true, but anyway) was harmful in a way that deserved a draconian response. I know that a lot of people believed that about Dr. Laura’s homophobia too. Some will say, all’s fair in love and capitalism. Others might say, what’s the harm here? Neither party was completely silenced — they both still have strong careers and millions of fans. No harm, no foul.

But the backlash against the Dixie Chicks, like the war that precipitated it, is not over despite the shift in public opinion against the Iraq war. Some radio stations still refuse to play their music, acquiescing to a few vocal callers with an irrational grudge. For their part, the Chicks responded to the furor like artists do — they wrote a song, which you can hear on their website (and see the video). It’s a little pop, a little oversimplified, but it makes clear that they’re not sorry. Their new album, Taking the Long Way, comes out next Tuesday. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy.

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22 Responses to “Keeping Dr. Laura and the Dixie Chicks Off the Air”

  1. Michael Lasley Says:

    I’ll plead almost complete ignorance on this one, Sandi. I remember when the lead singer made her statement, but I haven’t followed the situation since then (I didn’t know it was still a deal). I don’t listen to the radio or to country music.

    All of that to ask maybe a stupid question. Has the publicity generated from Nathalie’s statement caused a sharp decline in their record sales? Sometimes these types of things can actually boost record sales. Of course, death threats are a much bigger issue and should never happen. But I was just wondering if the backlash was really hurting the bands ability to have their voice heard. Maybe it does — I haven’t heard one of their songs since their first album when this girl I had a crush on made me listen to it repeatedly on a trip to Nashville.

  2. Whitney Says:

    Is it ethical to use threats of boycotts and other economic tactics to silence people who say things we don’t want to hear?

    Sandi,
    I’m not sure what you’re saying here. Is it ethical for people to choose to not buy their products when they don’t agree with a person…of course. It’s freedom of expression. And does it hit them in the pocketbook. Of course. Does this make it an economic tactic? Does it matter?

    I still like the Dixie Chicks music. I think they made a bad PR call, but that’s their stupidity. (BTW, the death threats and hate mail were unacceptable.) I don’t agree with the politics or morals of a lot of my favorite entertainers. But they’re entertaining me, not enlightening me. The idea that celebrities are somehow intelligent or more enlightened than the rest of us just because they’re celebrities is so absurd. I don’t base my financial support for entertainers on their political leanings. Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon bug me to death, but I think they’re both great actors. I watch their movies.

    Anyway, you know what I’m saying. In the aftermath of the Dixie Chicks debacle, what irritated me the most was people who said it was wrong for fans to stop buying their albums. These were the same people who said that the Chicks were free to say/express whatever they wanted because this is a free country. Yet, somehow, fans were wrong when they expressed themselves (in light of the free country thing) by not buying albums. HUGE DOUBLE STANDARD!!!

    This is what irked me the most. Will I buy their next album? I don’t know. I’ve only heard one angry, bitter song that really turns me off to a group I have always loved. You probably think they deserve to be angry and bitter. I think they need to get off their pedestal and quit trying to make political statements and just make good music. They’re here to entertain me, not try to influence me as a person. Please. Celebrities give themselves way too much credit for being important for anything other than what they’re really good at (but unfortunately, so do a lot of other people.)

  3. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Folks were well within their rights to stop buying Dixie Chicks albums and to tell radio stations that they would stop listening if they played their music.

    And the Dixie Chicks are well within their rights to keep on looking down their noses at the President and a large portion of their original fan base. I saw most of the 60 minutes segment and was a little taken aback at Natalie’s petulance and defiance. I mean, the whole “Not Ready to Make Nice” thing is just a little too “in your face” for me.

    Just remember one thing… no one “deserves” a national audience just to have their views heard. They have to earn that audience either through talent or the power of their message. With enough talent, you can spout a pretty unpopular message and still make it. A powerful or timely message can overcome a lack of talent. I mean have you ever heard Bob Dylan sing? But there are limits. An artist can’t sing songs or make statements advocating a return to slavery and then act surprised when a substantial portion of the audience stops listening.

    Disclaimer: I still like the Dixie Chicks’ music and will probably buy the new CD. I found Natalie’s comments to be pretty benign and not too big of a deal really. Their talent still outweighs their “message” in my estimation. Now if they start leading “Bush lied. People died.” chants during their concerts, I’ll have to re-evaluate.

  4. Sandi Says:

    Hi Whitney,

    To clarify, I was talking about collective action, not about the choice of an individual not to buy a record. For example, my Dr. Laura story was about gay rights groups calling for massive boycotts of any advertiser that ran ads during the Dr. Laura show. I wasn’t making a statement one way or the other about whether this is okay — I was asking the question about what other people thought about this specific practice, and about in general what we should do when someone who is famous and has a great deal of influence says things that we think are out of bounds. I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I was trying to look at it from both sides of the fence and ask for others’ views on it.

    Hi Michael, it has been argued that the publicity surrounding the incident dampened record sales of “Home.” I’m not sure whether that is the case or not since it was released so far in advance of the controversy and sold 6 million copies. It could be argued that the stylistic changes on “Home” compared to their other two albums could account for some of the drop-off in sales (their previous two albums topped 10 million copies). Certainly their tour, which took place just after the controversy, was highly successful. I think the key aspects of the backlash were the demonstrations (i.e., organized events where people brought their CDs and ran over them with a bulldozer) and the way the country music industry completely turned on them. The Wikipedia entry on the Chicks explains some of what happened. That plus the death threats makes this sort of an exceptional case — celebrities make political statements all the time, and normally there are not organized boycotts of their work because of it. Overall, I think that their ability to have their voice heard has been affected relative to what it was previously because of the reluctance of radio stations and CMT to play their music and the fact that the country music industry has exiled them. Relative to 99.9% of the bands out there in the world, their exposure is still huge, of course.

    To get back to some of what you were saying, Whitney, I find puzzling some of the sentiments you describe. I never heard anyone say that is was wrong to stop buying their albums. I am sometimes influenced by the politics of celebrities in terms of what entertainment I will purchase, so I definitely don’t think there’s anything wrong with that on an individual level. My question was whether trying to strong-arm people into not expressing their views in an organized, coercive fashion is something that is ethical to do for people who believe in free speech. There’s no question that it’s legal; but is it moral? What kind of precedent does it set? What are the potential implications for performers and artists of all political stripes?

    Also, I don’t think that the band ever set out to be political or to make political statements — I never got the remotest hint of that until this one offhand remark was made and there was an overwrought reaction to it. I mean, once you get death threats and are completely shunned overnight by an industry that once embraced you for making one small comment at a concert, I think you have to stand up for your right to say what you think. So being political was more forced on them than anything. I am proud of the way they have handled it and glad that they weren’t cowed into submission. Yes, of course they deserve to be angry. The negligible nature of the remark versus the consequences was completely out of whack. And living through death threats and having your family’s safety threatened as well is extremely traumatic. My understanding is that they felt they had to write a song to address it, and that they put a lot of thought and care into it, and then once they did that they got on with making the rest of the album. Hell, if Eminem can write a whole album about how hard it is to be famous, they can write one song about this incident that completely transformed their lives and careers.

  5. Whitney Says:

    Al Gore basically said that the economic backlash was a threat to democracy when the only real backlash they got was from people who didn’t want to see them or hear their music. So essentially he was saying that people having an opinion about something they don’t like is a threat to democracy, which is oxymoronic. (Of course, if it weren’t for Gore, we wouldn’t have this blog on this Internet, so I should be eternally grateful to him. Sorry, I had to take the cheap shot! Smile.)

    Radio and TV stations do what they have to to keep listeners/viewers. In this case it was listening to their listeners/viewers.

    People not wanting to see or hear them, well, that’s their right. And it’s the stations’ right to not play them if it affects the bottom line. Ahhh, capitalism.

    I don’t really know the answer to your question either. Frankly, I think if stations had continued to play the Chicks, people wouldn’t have boycotted. They were just screaming foul, ’cause you know people gotta have their radio for the morning commute. I really think a lot of people were blowing hot air so far as radio goes. Who knows?

  6. Sandi Says:

    Whitney, I didn’t know that Al Gore said that. Was it in relation to the Dixie Chicks specifically or a general comment?

    And I agree that people would not have boycotted. It’s really hard to get that kind of collective action going enough for it to have a real effect … not sure which way this cuts for the ethics of making the collective threat.

    I know I’m asking a hard question and from an unusual angle. I find the issue interesting because so many people are just very laissez faire about such things, and because people often conflate moral and legal standards. I.e., just because something is legal doesn’t mean we should do it. There’s a whole sphere of things that we allow legally that are not moral and don’t promote the common good or human happiness. So I’m interested in a general way in examining, beyond the legalities and beyond what people are “within their rights” to do, what we should do as opposed to what we can do. Being an attorney has shown me especially clearly the limits of the law’s reach.

    A good example of this is pornography. I find it very frustrating (and I think I’ve posted about this before) that a lot of people who I otherwise have a lot in common with politically feel that any moral condemnation of pornography is equivalent to endorsing government censorship. So I try, as much as I can, to look at issues apart from what the law has to say about them.

    Here, the correct answer could be that it is immoral to financially support speech you believe is harmful, or immoral not to do what you can, with whatever tactics you have available, to minimize the influence of such speech. But it definitely challenges you to think about how your perspective might differ if the shoe were on the other foot, which is why I said what I did about the subjective nature of harm. That’s why free speech is such a challenging concept — because words and ideas are powerful things.

  7. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Boycotts are an interesting topic. They can be an effective and ethical method of political expression, and they can be used for intimidation and extortion. Where does one draw the line? I’d say that grass roots boycotts hold a bit more legitimacy than those spearheaded by political organizations. I think the Dixie Chicks thing was mostly a “grass roots” effort.

    I’m interested to hear your take on the back in 2002. Seems like one guy in a position of power was able to keep Toby from putting out his message. That’s worse to me than the whole boycott thing.

  8. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Al Gore made his comments in direct reference to the Dixie Chicks incident.

  9. DeJon Redd Says:

    Interesting question. Reminds me of the discussion relating to the day without immigrants … a decidedly different issue with the similiarity being boycotting as a form of expression.

    I don’t see an ethical problem with the action. I know of no legal ramification. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was pretty effective.

    When two large political movements butt heads, boycotting seems like a better move than resorting to violence (or death threats.) But it does seem to be a manipulation of the capitalist system.

    When speaking generally, I balk at characterizing a boycott as right or wrong. Its mildly encouraging to see a group care enough about something (anything) to abstain from supporting it (directly or indirectly).

    Specifically, I think the Dixie Chicks demonstrate a poor understanding of the country music market segment when they disparage a conservative politician. I’m sure they see themselves as persevering in the face of ignorance and oppression, but if I were their business manager I would suggest a change in musical genre or put the kabash on the rhetoric.

    [As an aside, Natalie Maines is from Lubbock. I spent most of my college days there. I’m not a big fan of the town, but Maines seems to enjoy stirring up trouble there. Long before this political fiasco she was taking jabs at her home town. She’s never come across as particularly ingratiating nor intelligent.]

  10. Sandi Says:

    If Keith’s version of the story is true (and I have no reason to believe he’s not being honest), then I would say a couple of things: first, I think that people should do their homework before they book an act to be on a show so that they don’t feel compelled to “disinvite” them. Second, if Jennings felt that the lyrical content of the song was inappropriate for the show (for whatever reason), he could have done a couple of different things: he could have used a disclaimer to make explicit that he, the show, and the network did not endorse the lyrics; he could have asked him to sing a different song; or, the network could have been honest with the public about the reason they felt it was inappropriate for him to appear on the show and defended their choice. Any of those alternatives would have been better than taking the easy way out and turning it into a “he-said, he-said” thing.

    I would also respond that this is an example of the fact that the mainstream media wields a great deal of power in terms of what we see and don’t see. There are arguments that have been made and could be made about ensuring a diversity of viewpoints on the air, and I seem to recall that there was once some such regulation by the FCC but it was repealed at some point. (Does anyone know any details? My memory is hazyon this). In lieu of regulation, journalists need to (and I think that many do) take seriously their obligation to wield their power responsibly.

    Finally, this was a news show. If the reason that they initially booked Mr. Keith was because of the publicity (and controversy)surrounding the song, that seems newsworthy to me, and there are ways to cover the story without endorsing the content of the song. So uninviting him was not the right way to handle the situation.

  11. Sandi Says:

    Hi Dejon,

    They did make a change in musical direction. This album reportedly is a sharp departure from their previous country sound. I am a little saddened by that, since I really loved their country sound, but it’s possible that once this all blows over (as my dad always says, this too shall pass) they will go back to it. After all, Martie and Emily are very talented bluegrass/country musicians.

    Also, with respect to the market point, the comment was made at a concert in London. I don’t think she ever thought that it would be news in the U.S.

    Finally, I have to say, I can’t wait to hear the Lubbock song. Sounds like exactly how I feel about Jackson. If the jabs fit … 🙂

    And are you saying that all country music fans are rednecks? LOL.

  12. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I don’t really have much to add. I’m just enjoying being on the listening end of the conversation.

    But since censorship is part of the conversation, I would like to point out that DeJon said “butt heads.” You need to watch your language. Otherwise, I will use my pulpit (and blog power) to galvanize a boycott of the Chicago Cubs.

  13. juvenal_urbino Says:

    There are arguments that have been made and could be made about ensuring a diversity of viewpoints on the air, and I seem to recall that there was once some such regulation by the FCC but it was repealed at some point. (Does anyone know any details? My memory is hazyon this).

    Are you talking about the “fairness doctrine,” Sandi, or a more specific regulation? I don’t think the FD has been repealed. Not to my knowledge, anyway. It probably isn’t enforced much anymore, though.

  14. Whitney Says:

    I want to hear more about this “fairness doctrine.” There’s a classic rock station here in SD that plays great music, but I had to stop listening to them because they tried to make themselves listeners’ political mentors, and they were so stupid. They weren’t stupid because they were liberal (which they were). They were stupid because they thought that their radio platform made them intelligent. Their logic was all over the place. It is one thing to argue with and hear arguments from the likes of extremely intelligent liberals such as those of you on this board. But these guys would embarrass you. I’d love a fairness doctrine that made them talk about both sides of the issues, or make them just play some Aerosmith and Def Leppard!!! (Yeah, they’re considered “classic” I guess.)

  15. juvenal_urbino Says:

    There’s a classic rock station that doesn’t play Aerosmith? I think the legal doctrine you’re after is called “fraud.”

    The fairness doctrine is the one that says if a tv/radio station gives time to one candidate (or a spokesman for one side of a ballot issue), they have to give equal time to the other side. It was part of the federal goverment’s agreement to let stations (or networks) use the public airwaves. As best I recall, the concern was that if every station wasn’t required to provide equal time, communities that were served by only one station (tv or radio) would never hear both sides of the issues they were voting on.

    I’m guessing you’d have more luck organizing a boycott of your non-noyz-feeling classic rockers, Whitney, but you never know.

  16. DeJon Redd Says:

    Sandi, one of the only reasons I appreciate my marketing degree from college is this. It gives me license to make insensitive, prejudicial judgments base on non-“PC” factors such as race, age, socio-economic status or geographic region.

    So it is solely under the auspices of “market analysis” that I would say … yes. The average country music fan is (at this moment) wearing a stained wife-beater T-shirt, drinking RC cola, eating a moon pie and listening to Michael Savage, all while spouting homophobic references to Jeff Gordon and encouraging his or her friends to boycott the Dixie Chicks.

    However, I too like the Dixie Chicks brand of music. It is my opinion that talent and country music are all too often mutually exclusive. I kinda hope they keep a little bit of their twang.

    Al, my apologies for my explicit language. I found that pretty funny.

    Does anyone else think this idea of boycotting is akin to the willful disobedience practiced by Gandhi’s followers striving for the emancipation of India?

    I didn’t realize country music fans, Hispanic immigrants, the civil rights activists in the ‘60s and Gandhi had so much in common.

  17. Capt MidKnight Says:

    So it is solely under the auspices of “market analysis” that I would say … yes. The average country music fan is (at this moment) wearing a stained wife-beater T-shirt, drinking RC cola, eating a moon pie and listening to Michael Savage, all while spouting homophobic references to Jeff Gordon and encouraging his or her friends to boycott the Dixie Chicks.

    You forgot the Yosemite Sam mud flaps.

  18. juvenal_urbino Says:

    And peeing Calvin. And the bumper sticker that says, “Nice legs. What time do they open?”

  19. Duane McCrory Says:

    Sandi (and anyone else interested),

    My curiosity is piqued by your comment/question on the morality of situations such as boycotts. It seems to me that in our “postmodern” world, there is no foundation for morality upon which all people are agreed. What would be the basis of deciding whether or not anything is moral? What would make the basis of your morality more just (that might not be the right word) than someone else’s who might diagree with you?

    What is the foundation for morality and ethics?

  20. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Oh, nice question, Duane McBuzzkill.

  21. Duane McCrory Says:

    Thanks, Juvy, I’ll just keep questioning those things that I don’t think are settled. I like thinking through things as a group. I think it’s important.

    Oh, and the word toward the end of my last comment is supposed to be “disagree” not “diagree.” I hate when I don’t notice misspellings. I do read through my comments at least twice before I post them. That annoys me when I miss something.

  22. Mrs. Particular Says:

    I was bored and searching blogs for Dr. Laura, and found this. Hope it’s still okay to comment.

    I do not believe that the effort to boycott the Dixie Chicks was quite as organized as the one against Dr. Laura. If the Dixie Chicks’ album sales waned, I believe it was mostly a decision made by individuals to not purchase their albums. Yes, there were a lot of conservatives speaking out against them (or Natalie) but I do not recall hearing about any marches or demonstrations against them.

    But the difference is that Dr. Laura’s ordeal was very carefully and very deliberately orchestrated by several very large and very vocal liberal groups, most notably GLAAD, who organized a demonstration at Paramount studios. And yes, Dr. Laura did also receive death threats and had 24-hour surveillance on her home, and her son had a bodyguard escort him to school.

    In fact, the leader of GLAAD at the time was quoted as saying, “If she can’t be controlled, she must be stopped.” http://www.nationalreview.com/17apr00/derbyshire041700.html

    So, I believe that the effort to stop Dr. Laura was much more a violation of free speech- Dr. Laura’s free speech. The folks who tried to silence her did so because they were afraid that if she were allowed to continue her TV show, it may have actually been successful.

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