Thursday, June 11, 2009

Culture Shock 06.11.09: The anti-Oprah backlash goes mainstream

After years of expanding its influence into every aspect of our lives, the most powerful force in modern America finally is facing organized resistance.

I'm speaking, of course, of Oprah Winfrey.

Like Cher and Madonna, Oprah has long since grown beyond needing a last name, despite lacking any apparent musical talent. So, a backlash was inevitable. What's surprising is that it took so long to take shape.

Newsweek magazine kicked off the rebellion in earnest with a June 8 cover story featuring a photo of a deranged-looking Oprah below the big, bold words "Crazy Talk." It's the first time I can recall that any major news outlet has portrayed Oprah in such an unflattering light.

The article inside was an exhaustive expose of the dubious health advice Oprah and her guests regularly peddle to her millions of viewers — advice that could actually make you sick. Or worse.

Oprah responded with a mealy-mouthed press release that said, "I trust the viewers, and I know that they are smart and discerning enough to seek out medical opinions to determine what may be best for them."

As if that's a good excuse for dispensing questionable medical advice in the first place. Never mind that Oprah is downplaying her own influence.

Since launching her nationally syndicated talk show in 1986, Oprah has expanded her media empire into all corners. She dethroned Phil Donahue to become the undisputed ruler of daytime talk. But that wasn't enough. Soon, she moved on to producing movies — and even sometimes acting in them.

Anyone else would have been satisfied. But not Oprah. She had greater ambitions. She launched a magazine called — what else? — O, The Oprah Magazine, which has featured Oprah on every cover since its inception. She also co-founded the Oxygen TV channel, which she then sold to NBC Universal. And she recently entered into an agreement with Discovery Communications to take over the Discovery Health Channel, which will become OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.

Oprah has become an all-encompassing brand, and what she's selling is Oprah. Donald Trump has nothing on her.

Oprah's Book Club has choked the best-seller lists with mountains of middlebrow novels and tell-all confessionals. Even a scandal involving James Frey's alleged memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," couldn't stop her.

And finally, to the consternation of Hillary Clinton's supporters, Oprah arguably swayed the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries to Clinton's main rival, Barack Obama. And you know how that story ended.

That's real power. For all his reputation as a diabolical media mogul, News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, whose holdings include the Fox News Channel, only wishes he had Oprah's ability to sway viewers.

But the anti-Oprah revolt didn't really start until Oprah announced plans to launch a talk show hosted by former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy, who has gone from centerfold to anti-vaccination activist. McCarthy has already appeared numerous times on Oprah's TV show to promote her claim that preservatives in the MMR vaccine, which protects children against measles, mumps and rubella, cause autism.

Having already inflicted Dr. Phil McGraw on an unsuspecting public, Oprah now stands ready to give McCarthy a platform to promote her dangerous claims, which have absolutely no scientific backing but, if taken seriously, could leave children vulnerable to potentially deadly but easily preventable illnesses.

Bloggers and a few outspoken scientists have been taking Oprah to task for a while, but the Newsweek article has moved the fight against Oprah's destructive influence into the mainstream. All I can say is, it's about time.

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