Criticizing Oprah: A Media Curmudgeon Takes on the Patron Saint of Celebrity

Oprah Winfrey is part of the very problem she criticizes. Who is celebrated the most in our culture? Is it the intellectuals and thinkers -- scientists and doctors and great writers? Or is it celebrities?
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It's the curse of the critic to be a perpetual cynic.

Where others see stardust, we must see ego and opportunity. Where others see altruism, we must look for the self-interest and hypocrisy. It's the gig, people.

Nowhere has this cynicism loomed larger for me than in considering the Queen of All Media, Oprah Winfrey.

Much as I've admired her altruism and principled stands, I find myself quite ambivalent about O's overall impact as a media figure. When she brought her big-ticket, five-hour motivational Live Your Best Life tour to my town a few years ago, I wrote about how fan worship of her work seemed almost religious; and among all the journalists who covered her that day, I was the only one so cynical that my photographer, Jaime Francis, snapped a pic of my scowling at the Queen and taped it to my office door.

So, as I have waded through the orgy of media coverage on O's new school for girls in South Africa, I was struck by a particular comment she made about education in America.

Here's what she said, according to Newsweek magazine: ""I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools [in America] that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn't there," she said. "If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don't ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school."

This, of course, caused quite a ripple through the punditocracy, wininng kudos from, among others, conservative blowhard Rush Limbaugh, Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page and HuffPost blogger Karen Russell.

And why not? the materialism of American kids -- even those who are dirt poor -- has been well-documented. A reporter pal told me yesterday that he's even seen some homeless people with laptops and email accounts. Frustration over the country's growing education problems makes it easy to wish these kids would just get wise, already, and start cracking the books.

It is tough to argue with a media figure who puts her money where her mores are like Winfrey. Her $40 million pledge to build a much-needed quality school for girls is the kind of direct, involved altruism we have come to expect from a billlionaire who handed out new homes to Katrina victims and prodded her sizable following to buy goods through U2 singer Bono's Red campaign, where some proceed went to fight AIDS in Africa (only Oprah could make the slogan "save lives while you shop" feel like bona fide philanthropy)

But then the critic in me rears it's ugly head, and I have to point out a truth that is both inconvenient and troubling.

Winfrey is part of the very problem she criticizes.

When you consider why American kids might react so differently from their South African counterparts, the pervasiveness of media -- and the very specific media of American pop culture -- must be a factor. And I don't just mean the rap videos clogging BET and elsewhere.

Who is celebrated the most in our culture? Is it the intellectuals and thinkers -- scientists and doctors and great writers? Or is it celebrities like Britney and Paris and Brad and Jennifer and, oh yeah, Oprah?

When a recent episode on Winfrey's own show centered on the homeless, she didn't get a report on the issue from the great journalists at the Chicago Reporter who have written well about this plight in her own backyard, or from somebody else with a long track record of exploring these issues.

She asked Anderson Cooper, who fit the report in-between his work for 60 Minutes and his day job on CNN. When she needs emotive reporting on issues overseas, she doesn't often tap folks who have been in the trenches for decades and know the issues intimately, she gives precious airtime to former View co-host Lisa Ling.

Not that I don't love me some Coop and Ling. But those moves also provide a lesson; that celebrity -- and an image which resonates with Winfrey's audience demographic -- matters nearly as much as expertise.

We have huge industries which generate massive profits by selling products as a lifestyle. These days, you don't just buy an iPod; that purchase is a gateway into a tech-savvy life that is cool, cutting edge and effortlessly stylish. Everything from video games to sneakers and gum is sold this way, using media which follows kids everywhere -- on cellphones, on the Internet, on the backs of their friends' clothing and in the lyrics of the songs they love.

And many of the sponsors Oprah does business with are the prime cultivators of these messages.

So much in our culture tells young people they should lust after the latest product by Apple, Verizon, Jimmy Choo or Martha Stewart. And Oprah, whose fetishizing of celebrity and high-end consumer goods is legend, has fed that jones as much as anyone in modern media. I have seen the list of her favorite things -- which has its own website here -- and it ranges from a $20 pair of cashmere socks to a $600 Philip Stein teslar watch and beyond.

In Africa, they learn education is the gateway to a better life. In America, kids learn an iPod or Michael Jordan sneakers deliver that pathway -- lessons taught, in part, by the commercials packed into TV shows which they spend more than four hours every day consuming. The heroes they see feted on magazine covers and TV talk shows aren't geneticists, college professors, lawyers or accountants; they are the the Jessica Simpsons, the P. Diddys and even the K-Feds.

Can we really look at our most underprivileged young people and fault them for learning the lessons of materialism and celebrity obsession that our media culture feeds them every day?

Oprah, who manipulates her image deftly as any celebrity in modern times, knows this. So why is she criticizing America's youth for serving a beast she helped create?

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