Wednesday, June 3, 2009


I was on a plane around 1985 or so when I read a feature in PEOPLE Magazine about a Chicago talk show host named Oprah Winfrey. She was reportedly taking Chicago by storm with her daily WLS-TV gab fest. At the time, the daytime talk show genre was inarguably ruled by Phil Donahue (below left), who also rose to national fame out of Chicago. A few years earlier, in my first job out of college, I worked for a St. Louis TV station. We had a TV in every office, and we were not allowed to turn the channel to any station other than our own. Still, every morning at 10AM, I locked my office door and switched the channel to Donahue. To me, he had the best job in the world. By the mid-1980s, Donahue was still going strong, but several others were vying for his top spot.

Around that time, TIME Magazine wrote this about Winfrey: "Few people would have bet on Oprah Winfrey's swift rise to host of the most popular talk show on TV. In a field dominated by white males, she is a black female of ample bulk. As interviewers go, she is no match for, say, Phil Donahue...What she lacks in journalistic toughness, she makes up for in plainspoken curiosity, robust humor and, above all empathy. Guests with sad stories to tell are apt to rouse a tear in Oprah's eye...They, in turn, often find themselves revealing things they would not imagine telling anyone, much less a national TV audience. It is the talk show as a group therapy session." In what seemed the blink of an eye, The Oprah Winfrey Show achieved national syndication. Fast forward to 2009: The show now airs in 140 countries around the world. I doubt anyone would call Oprah’s interviewing skills into question today. Winfrey is said to be the first black female billionaire in the world, has become her own brand, and is widely held to be a lifestyle/spiritual style guru to hundreds of millions of people.

Therein lies the problem. Every time a person achieves unprecedented success and off-the-map notoriety, it seems there is a segment of the population that needs to bring her or him down. (Think Susan Boyle, Martha Stewart, et al). Enter Newsweek Magazine, who only last week introduced their newly revamped periodical, promising a departure from breaking news and a focus on more in depth features, columns, etc. (You can read all about that here on Greenberg Rants [page left] in the blurb titled, “Whither Newsweek?”) This week’s cover story: “CRAZY TALK: Oprah Wacky Cures and You.” Evidently Newsweek is opting for a bit of sensationalism, doing whatever it takes to capture the newsstand crowd. Oprah will do that for you, you know.

The true story of Newsweek’s downhill slide is the content of the cover story. Written by two women who clearly have an agenda, the story is an abominable piece of journalism, and seems somewhat unnecessary. A good portion of the story deals with Oprah’s guest, Suzanne Somers, who appeared on the show to promote bio-identical hormones for menopausal women. The writers were severely critical of Somers, and more so of Oprah for her support of Somers. Admittedly, Oprah probably should have remained more objective on the show. She went so far as to have Somers on stage, but the doctors who disagreed with bio-identicals were seated in the audience and given minimal air time. But then the bomb hits: In parentheses, and evidently in the interest of full disclosure: “NEWSWEEK correspondent Pat Wingert, who worked on this article, and contributor Barbara Kantrowitz are coauthors of a book on menopause.” So, that’s the writers’ agenda. Oprah would call this point in the story an “Aha Moment.”

Where I come from in journalism, we would call that a conflict of interest. I can’t help wondering what they call that where Newsweek’s managing editor Jon Meacham comes from. Most discouraging is how obvious it is that the writers are not regular viewers of the show and have not closely or accurately followed Oprah’s career. I have, so I can see the inaccuracies and flaws in their reporting.

Regular Greenberg Rants readers know I am a big supporter of Oprah Winfrey. She is often kiddingly referred to herein as Our Holy St. Oprah of Chicago. I half-seriously refer to myself as the only middle-aged white guy in America who TIVOS Oprah every single day. (Although anecdotally I have found out that there is a huge, loyal contingent of male Oprah loyalists. They’re a little private society). Oprah and I are about the same age. We have some similar frames of reference. But most of all, I support Oprah because she built an empire entirely on words. She recognized the power of the spoken and written word and she became the pied piper of literacy, dialogue and an expanding mix of ideas in our culture.

Oprah gets people to think about the issues that directly affect them. She has re-energized a love of reading books in this country. She has launched the careers of authors, event planners, restaurateurs, chefs, talk show hosts, interior designers and many others. I can’t find a downside to any of that. And she did it with a positive attitude, great listening skills and a determination to lift people up, rather than pull them down. And really…aren’t there already enough forces in our culture trying to pull people down? Like the writers of the Newsweek cover story, for example. If some of Oprah’s detractors would funnel that negative energy into something akin to what she has done in her life, we would all be the better for it.

Newsweek is floundering. I’m sorry to see it happen, but I feel safe in my prediction that when the media dust settles, Newsweek will have a respectable place in the journalism history books, but Oprah will continue speaking and the masses will continue to tune in.


Joan Eisenstodt said...

Oprah: I don't own TIVO and don't watch; do admire her 'way with' words AND her ability to bring out issues.
Newsweek: I like the new design - it's cleaner for me to read and some of the in-depth articles have been better.
Does this put us at odds?

Paul A. Greenberg said...

No, of course not. I think Newsweek is going to suffer for its editorial decision to shift its focus from breaking news. I get why they did it,butI do not think it will work. The consumer is now accustomed to being in the know, and the consumer does not like to work too hard to get information. Newsweek is banking on some sort of throwback mentality. I have to say, it's not about the new design -- it's about the content. And judging by the shoddy work they did on the Oprah story, I'm not optimistic.