Posted: November 21, 2011
On September 23, 2001, thousands of traumatized New Yorkers gathered in Yankee Stadium to pray for the victims of the World Trade Center attacks. Present were leaders from every major religion—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. But the master, or rather mistress, of ceremonies was not ordained in any faith. Neither was she a politician, pundit, or CEO. She was television talk show host Oprah Winfrey: the only person in America, writes one observer, with the right combination of "spiritual leadership, celebrity recognition, and consumer popularity" to preside over such a momentous occasion.
Since May, when The Oprah Winfrey Show aired its final episode, a passel of mid-size celebrities—Phil McGraw, Suze Orman, Rosie O'Donnell, Mehmet Oz, Ellen Degeneres, Gayle King, Katie Couric, Anderson Cooper—have been jostling to fill the vacuum. This is hardly surprising given Winfrey's longevity and success. Her program was rated number one in the United States for 23 of its 25 years, and in 2010 it was being aired in 149 countries. But none of these aspiring hosts will succeed, because Winfrey is a unique, at times indigestible, blend of distinctively American ingredients that nonetheless resonates with people, especially women, in every corner of the globe.
While writing this essay, I lent my computer to a house guest, a colleague and friend from Turkey, and as I was closing the screen he spotted the title and exclaimed, "Ah, Oprah! My mother's a big fan. She once wrote to Oprah, and was disappointed not to receive a reply." It is a measure of Winfrey's mystique that I found this hard to believe. Surely, I thought, there is someone on the payroll who answers every letter, even one from Istanbul! But then I realized that Harpo Productions must receive thousands of letters and emails every day.
Such is the nature of a mystique: to create an aura, persuasive but illusory, of special powers not granted to ordinary mortals. Yet despite her vast popularity, Oprah has failed to enchant her many critics.
Conservatives have not forgotten Winfrey's endorsement—nay, anointing—of Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary. Even the most diehard Obama supporter must cringe when reminded of Winfrey's prophetic announcement: "I think this is the One." Nor have the scales fallen from her eyes: she recently offered to campaign for the president in 2012. For the Right, this is enough to relegate Winfrey to the outer darkness of left-liberal hell. But unlike her old rival Phil Donahue, not to mention the usual stars with their pet causes, Winfrey has remained aloof from politics for most of her career. Her renewed eagerness to campaign for Obama surprised some Oprah-watchers, who assumed she would remain out of the limelight while her new venture, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), struggles to survive the cutthroat world of cable television.
The idea of Winfrey struggling may surprise those who see her as a saleswoman able, like Midas, to turn any product into gold. To advertisers and marketers, this gift for salesmanship is her most appealing trait. Between 1996 and 2002, when her show included a regular feature called "Oprah's Book Club," her recommendation meant instant best-sellerdom. One grateful publisher called this "Oprah effect" "the literary equivalent of inventing penicillin." The only author to refuse Winfrey's blessing was novelist Jonathan Franzen, in October 2001. But to judge by the amount of publicity he received, at a time when the media's attention was focused elsewhere, that gesture may have contained as much calculation as principle.
To academic critics, Winfrey's tireless shilling is her least appealing trait. Their complaints are not without merit. Whenever Winfrey and her guests discussed a book on the show, the conversation focus soon strayed to the food, wine, and home furnishings they were enjoying (and then, of course, to their own personal histories). And whenever she urged her viewers to read or keep a journal, these activities were presented as requiring costly accessories. She once sent a "gratitude" package to a New York City police officer who had served at Ground Zero which contained not only a writing journal but also "one of my favorite pens from Rebecca Moss, that store that carries beautiful pens." At times Winfrey can seem a crass creature of the bottom line. But in her defense, her kind of commercialism has roots in the American tradition of "taste makers," stretching back to the Jacksonian era-when, as Harper's editor Russell Lynes once wrote, the beginnings of mass production made "a great many people conscious of the niceties of taste who had never before had occasion to give the matter much thought." More than any other American (including Martha Stewart, whose TV show is seen in only 17 other countries) Winfrey represents the globalization of this taste-making tradition.
Yet before clearing Winfrey of all crassness, we must admit her responsibility for the flood of vulgar, outrageous talk shows that engulfed the American airwaves in the 1990s. When her program premiered in 1986, Winfrey's main rivals were the politically preachy Donahue and the folksy Sally Jesse Raphael. So Winfrey carved out a niche as the TV equivalent of the 19th-century "sob sister" reporter, hosting non-celebrity guests with sad, traumatic, sometimes sensationalist tales to tell. From there it was but a short step to Geraldo Rivera, Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Maury Povich, and Ricki Lake.
Each of these "trash talk" impresarios had a different shtick. But they all specialized in filling the screen with unhappy guests whose lives had been twisted by poverty, ignorance, and every conceivable human failing from incest to obesity, pedophilia to bestiality; then goading them to lose what little self-control they possessed. A former talk show producer described the job of finding such people:
I remember being on the phone with the mother, saying, you know, "The best thing for you to do is to come on this show and tell your story," that whole bullshit. It was going to be therapeutic, everybody's going to learn from it. I'm a good liar. I mean, I was convincing this woman to talk about the fact that while she was getting married to this guy, he was upstairs f---ing her 5-year-old daughter and giving her HIV.
Winfrey never sank this low, but she did host a fair number of dysfunctional guests before announcing, in the mid-1990s, that she was "tired of the crud." Declaring that her purpose had never been to exploit people but to help them solve their problems, she vowed to transform her show into "Change Your Life TV." As it turned out, this was a shrewd business move. Ratings were down; large segments of the audience were ready for something new; and with the end of the Cold War and the advent of satellite TV, vast new markets were opening overseas. Today Winfrey says her decision "was bigger than money or material interest," but she does not deny that her reasons were partly commercial.
By quitting the "crud" Winfrey assumed a very different mantle, that of lay minister to a global congregation of hundreds of millions, speaking from a pulpit the size of her vast media empire, including television, film, the internet, and print. The influence of a such a figure cannot be measured, but if it could, Winfrey would emerge as more influential in purveying "values" to Americans than any teacher or preacher, and more effective in conveying "American values" to the world than any diplomat or missionary.
Oprah's values have provoked the most trenchant criticism. Most of her critics are Christian thinkers and American historians, who rightly place her in yet another all-American tradition: that of "mind cure" healers and "positive thinkers" from Phineas Parkhurst Quimby to Mary Baker Eddy, and from Norman Vincent Peale to Eckhart Tolle. Like many of her predecessors, Winfrey abandoned the Protestantism of her youth (she was raised a Southern Baptist) to wander in the wilderness of a free-form spirituality that has deep roots in the New World. In the 19th century it was called New Thought; in the 20th and 21st, New Age. This tradition has many variations, but in all there is a quasi-gnostic element: the idea that it is more important to connect with one's inner spark of divinity than to beg mercy from a remote, wrathful God.
To Christian critics such as Catholic blogger Amy Wellborn, Winfrey's preoccupation with "a higher power, spirit, soul, ‘authentic power,' meaning, healing, affirmation, helping, miracles, meditation, journaling, and angels" is a betrayal of the true faith, whose focus ought to be on "sin, redemption, sacrifice, conversion, humility, worship, holiness, and Jesus Christ." To a certain school of American historians, Winfrey's ministry represents, in sociologist Philip Rieff's damning phrase, "the triumph of the therapeutic." To both sets of critics, Winfrey's shift from God to Self is part of a more general loss of what is most valuable about the the Puritan legacy: that mindfulness of human wickedness and of the profound otherness of God, which gives the American character its starch.
Yet there is another side to the story. Historian Stephanie Muravchik writes that "these critics have not recognized the degree to which psychotherapeutic ideas and techniques changed as they were popularized." In America, God and Self have long traveled on a two-way street: "As psychology moved into the mainstream, the mainstream—with its considerable religiosity—moved into psychology. Believers harnessed therapy to their own purposes." Even the most superficial comparison between Winfrey's style and that of most other talk show hosts reveals that, with a couple of exceptions, she's the only one with any starch.
Unlike her erstwhile rivals in the trash genre, Winfrey has never goaded poor sinners into spilling their guts for the sake of sensation and spectacle. Rather she prods her troubled guests to admit the truth, and when they do, she tells them to get a grip. This distinction may seem shallow compared with that between Calvinism and the power of positive thinking. But it's important nonetheless, because in every television market on earth, locally produced talk shows are now busy exposing human frailty. And they are doing it in either of two ways: the Jerry Springer way, which milks it for crude thrills and laughs; or the Oprah Winfrey way, which seeks to cure it in the context of a religious tradition, however vaguely defined.
Liberty and License
I realize this statement is a little like President Dwight Eisenhower's comment that America must remain "founded on a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is." But I am with Ike on this, because I have seen the alternative. At the risk of shocking libertarians who defend trash TV in the name of free speech and academics who extol it as a space for the blossoming of deviant identity, I submit the following: authoritarian regimes have no problem with trash TV, and the smarter authoritarians find it useful. In the words of journalist Arkady Ostrovsky, the Russian media under Putin use "softsoap and sensation" to "create an impression of free television where in fact there is none."
Ostrovsky recalls a segment of the Russian talk show Five Evenings, in which an 11-year-old girl confronts an 18-year-old boy who has gotten her pregnant. At one point the host exclaims, "I don't have time for political correctness here.... Let's say it: the boy is not Russian, the boy came from Tajikistan!" This is followed by applause, as another guest bursts out, "These people come to Moscow like locusts and abuse our women and girls!" Conceding that ugly spectacles are common in Western television, Ostrovsky observes that "in most western countries they coexist with serious TV journalism, including news and analysis," while in Russia, they "have substituted themselves for—and compromised the very concept of—free speech."
Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center agrees. "After the 2003 elections," she writes, "Russian television no longer needs trustworthy news, free journalism, the truth in general. It only needs what the Kremlin demands." And what the Kremlin demands is not "formal censorship" but a "sophisticated" way of "dealing with the media." In the Russian context, this means "ensuring that the big media managers are loyal, then leaving some of the small outlets free to let off steam, while ensuring they remain irrelevant."
One way to let off steam is to engage in outrageous, nasty, but non-political talk. The point is not lost on those academics who describe trash TV in Foucaultian terms as "ideological labor" aimed at dampening the rage of repressed minorities and other marginalized groups. Looking at the way trash TV is used by Putin and other smart authoritarians around the world, I'm tempted to say about these academics what my father used to say about broken clocks: they are right once in a while. The smarter authoritarians have also read Foucault—and they understand very well that when it comes to discrediting liberty, license works better than repression.
Oprah's Book Club never recommended Foucault. And compared to Five Evenings, The Oprah Winfrey Show looks positively high-minded, as well as much more entertaining. Perhaps the Voice of America could air re-runs?