City Life: A lesson learned from a bad word

Leonard Schneider made a successful career out of pointing out the contradictions in the use of our language. Schneider, who was white, often used the "N-word" in his stage act, and made people laugh while doing so. One of his routines was called "Any [N-word] here tonight?"

You know Schneider as Lenny Bruce.

By repeating forbidden words over and over again, Bruce believed that their power to hurt would disappear. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to give his theory a full test.

I doubt that Dr. Laura Schlessinger was channeling Bruce when she uttered the "N-word" on the air 11 times to one caller last week. In the context of the call, she was trying to make a point about the uneven use of the N-word and how it was acceptable in one context but not in another.

This was not a ploy to increase attention to the program; it was just a really bad idea, for there is not a racist bone in her body.

Schlessinger does not need me to tell her that what she did was wrong — she knew it the moment the call ended and penalized herself, big time.

There is irony in the fact that in its own attempt to win the 24/7 daily news ratings war, the mainstream media has continued to pile on Schlessinger, even after her instant on-the-air self-policing and a broad, sincere, and very public apology.

OK, so a radio talk show host said something provocative on their air. This is news? Is it worse for Schlessinger to repeat the N-word 11 times or for another talk show host to continue to fuel the debate that Barack Obama was not born in this country and therefore does not deserve to be president? Which does more long-term damage to the nation?

Schlessinger's call is already being forgotten, but millions of Americans will still have lingering doubts about whether our president really is a natural-born citizen, thanks to these ratings jockeys. Yet, no one is calling for the heads of these other, extremely divisive talk show hosts.

But that's not the real story here, which has been missed by the media.

The story now is not the N-word Schlessinger repeated but what she did immediately after the call — and I mean immediately. Without anyone handing her a tracking poll indicating lower ratings, without a switchboard that lit up with irate callers, without a single sponsor calling threatening to pull its ads and even without her husband calling her to say, "Honey, what were you thinking?", Schlessinger self-policed her mistake by taking herself off the air for the last hour of her program. Unheard of.

This is where the lesson is lost. When was the last time you heard a politician apologize for a mistake without doing so for the purpose of damage control? It doesn't happen.

Athletes do not admit steroid use because they've suddenly had a moment of clarity; they do it because investigators are at their door.

The officials in the city of Bell would have continued to collect their ridiculously fat salaries had it not been for a Los Angeles Times investigation.

The list is endless.

If we take away anything from Schlessinger's bad week, we should remember the national example she has set for anyone in the public eye who has screwed up and knows it before anyone else does: Own it immediately, 'fess up and try to make it right.

Schlessinger will pay the price for her mistake by having to live with it forever. But she has given us the gift of a perfect example of how to behave when faced with a challenge.

Editor's note: Columnist Steve Smith worked for Dr. Laura about 10 years ago as an editor on one of her publications, The Perspective.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to

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