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March 23, 2000

When the Oven Gets Hot
By Donna Ladd
Donna Ladd writes about technology from New York City.

WHEN THE OVEN GETS HOT, edit your Web site. Thatís what Dr. Laura Schlessinger did, deleting all her anti-gay rhetoric on March 10 after the media and the gay community made her the focus of a scorching spotlight. The purge at came after an on-line campaign,, sought to expose the radio broadcasterís anti-gay talk and tried to convince Paramount Television to drop Dr. Laura's new syndicated TV show, slated to launch this fall. Poof! Suddenly gone were all of Dr. Laura's radio-show transcripts containing her labeling of homosexuals as "biological errors," "deviants," and "dysfunctional." The pages are now blank, with no explanation. No wonder public trust of the media is waning.

The cleansing came amid media reports in which Dr. Laura, who has a Ph.D. in physiology from Columbia University, denied having disparaged homosexuals on her show. Talk about burying the evidence. A pop-psych broadcaster who preaches her tough-responsibility message on the radio waves five days a week suddenly hides the public record of her comments when someone calls her on them.

Dr. Laura's views on homosexuality -- and her steady shift to the right -- are all public knowledge by now. ("America's 'Mommy' and the conscience of talk radio," as her Web site calls her, just published a new book, The Ten Commandments: The Significance of God's Laws In Everyday Life.) And her hypocrisy has surfaced before, when the morality queen's nudie photos appeared on the Internet, confirming, once again, that everyone has a closet in their past, particularly those who fulminate against other people's closets. And many of Dr. Lauraís statements about homosexuality are still on-line, thanks to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

But, in a time when journalistic ethics -- especially the on-line version -- are parsed ad nauseum, Dr. Lauraís site cleanup may have wider implications. Is it okay to hide behind the ease of the medium? Should Web sites have strict self-regulation policies to deter editors and writers from revising the public record at will? Or should we take a more postmodern view that the Internet is a medium of change displaying different versions of the "truth"? In practice, corrections often are not a high priority for some Web sites, and are not always treated consistently. Many on-line journalists have sent corrections -- small and large -- to their own stories to some on-line publications, only to have them ignored. Or, the publications correct the error on-line without attaching a correction notice. Some, like Dr. Laura, just yank controversy off-line when the flames get too high.

"I believe that strong editorial ethics policies are lacking in the majority of Web sites," says Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor of new media at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. "On too many sites I see corrections listed for what seems like minutes and then they disappear -- if done at all." And what if a story has already been archived -- will users later access corrected versions for their research? According to a recent study, only 9.4 percent of news outlets surveyed actually update their on-line archives for accuracy.

Sreenivasan says too many Web sites are too caught up in the day-to-day of trying to publish in a new medium to pay enough attention to corrections policies. But they need to. "Until new media sites get burned with this," Sreenivasan says, "the practice will continue." Donna Ladd writes about technology from New York City.

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