Oprah: Friend or Foe?

Said Slate writer Arthur Allen as he was about to criticize Oprah Winfrey, “Chastising a celebrity is an exercise in futility. You feel like a kitten being held by the scruff of its neck, scrabbling wildly in the air without drawing blood.” The man has a point. What other celebrity out there has a daily invitation into American homes, whose mere mention of a tip or product can inspire hysterics? Sure, one could argue that Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck might impose the same influence on a select group of Americans. But then, Oprah isn’t as politically polarizing as Palin or Beck. Or is she?

The career of a media mogul inevitably will be marked with scandal and lawsuits, particularly with a figure who commands as much influence as Oprah Winfrey. There is no denying that she can throw down some serious authority when she’s up for it. A mere mention of mad cow disease on her show in the 1990s brought on an infamous defamation suit from the Texas cattle industry. Angry cattle rustlers claimed her show caused the industry to lose 11 million. Free speech prevailed and Oprah was exonerated, but it showed the world that this woman has a voice that could be instantly magnified by millions.

Just how loud is Oprah’s voice? Just one example is her book club which got America reading and made instant celebrities and sometimes millionaires of the authors. (This includes EcoSalon’s January Man We Love, Jonathan Franzen.) Critics of her book club tutt-tutted what seemed to be blind masses following her every word. Even Franzen notoriously worried that her selections, essentially perceived as “chick lit,” may alienate a male audience. But others pointed out she was getting people to read. So what’s the problem?

And there’s the charm of Oprah. To many, she is “everywoman.” To others, she’s mocked as “everywoman.” With a media empire and range of influence that remains unchallenged, she still oozes reliability and empathy with every interview. You feel like you could tell her anything – and hundreds of her guests have done just that. And when she’s dealing with an uncomfortable subject, she is quick to express some variation of “we’re here to learn from your experience, not to exploit your pain.”

And, people respond. Hell, do they respond. Even when she gave away a car at her final “favorite things” show in 2010, she proposed that the utter hysterics in the audience, which she herself called a parody and Saturday Night Live skit, was really about the joy of something unexpected happening during the day. And not, you know, about the free cars.

But when has she gotten it wrong? She publicly scolded author James Frey for fabricating his supposed memoir of drug abuse, A Million Little Pieces. She later apologized for doing so, saying she had felt personally duped and therefore lashed out.

Oprah also infamously featured Jenny McCarthy on her show, an actress on a quest to link vaccines and autism. Vaccines have been completely exonerated in their connection to autism. But has the damage been done? David T. Tayloe is president of the 60,000-member American Academy of Pediatricians. As he told Slate in 2009, even before this latest information came to light, “If you give her a bully pulpit, McCarthy is going to make people hesitate to vaccinate their children. She has no medical or scientific credentials. It disturbs us that she’s given all these opportunities to make her pitch about vaccines on Oprah or Larry King or U.S. News or whatever?”

For better or for worse, Oprah is a cultural force that cannot be ignored. Her power (or empowerment, perspective!) shows no sign of abating. As her epic show ends its run, the media mogul has turned her sights on an entire network, OWN. Now the world of basic cable can hold the hand of the media queen and her all-star spawns, such as Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Suzy Orman and more. Will it be a success? That remains to be seen. I’m willing to bet on the Big O before I discount her. Now excuse me while I get shaken like a kitten.

Image: Fuzzcat

Katherine Butler

Katherine Butler is the Beauty Editor of EcoSalon and currently resides in Los Angeles, California.