On '60 Minutes,' Oprah May Use Populism

Oprah Winfrey will become a special contributor to the weekly news show “60 Minutes” in fall 2017, CBS News reported recently. With this prominent role, she will hopefully unite Americans with her sensible and accessible journalism.

“The Oprah Winfrey Show” went off the air in 2011, after running 25 seasons and drawing record ratings. A former newscaster, Oprah possessed an authoritative voice but was also able to project empathy and optimism. Some academics criticized Oprah for dallying too much in popular culture and for lacking substance. But each episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” appealingly blended segments on health, current events and — yes — entertainment and beauty. Many Americans got their news from Oprah and developed a love of reading through her book recommendations.

The story of Oprah’s life is itself inspirational. Born in 1954 in Mississippi, Oprah grew up impoverished and was, she has stated on multiple occasions, sexually abused. She gained a scholarship to college and worked both during and after her studies.

Coming on the heels of Phil Donahue, who pioneered the daytime talk show format in the early 1970s, Oprah made herself a one-woman empire and was ultimately named by Forbes magazine as the wealthiest self-made American woman. On her show, Oprah exposed mainstream Americans to Pulitzer Prize–winning authors, scientists and professors. Like the president at the time, she was the Great Communicator.

In America, celebrities have unique influence. A BBC News column by social anthropologist Jamie Tehrani stated, “(Prestige) evolved as part of a package of psychological adaptations for cultural learning. It allowed our ancestors to recognise and reward individuals with superior skills and knowledge, and learn from them.” In other words, people generally admire and learn from celebrities, whose accomplishments grant them social status. This phenomenon applies not only to celebrity journalists and television personalities but also to musicians and film stars.

Also during the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen celebrated the American working man on the radio, earning Grammies for songs whose protagonists worked in construction or were “looking for a job / but it’s hard to find.” John Mellencamp wrote songs about heartland Americans who found meaning in their lives despite having “an interstate running through (their) front yard.” Billy Joel had another hit with “Allentown,” which gave voice to the frustrations of unemployed steelworkers who realized they may not “have a pretty good shot / to get at least as far as their old man got.”

Though some academics and critics thought pop culture was low-brow, television programs and radio airwaves reflected mainstream America.

Then something happened. The outlets where most Americans received their entertainment and information became fragmented. Certain shows and songs no longer even pretended to be tasteful or edifying. To try to control the flow of content, Tipper Gore and other political spouses from both main parties founded the Parents Resource Media Center (PRMC), which aimed to place parental advisory stickers on music albums. The effort was not highly successful. Free expression reigned, and some preteens and teens were drawn to the taboo factor that the parental advisory sticker lent the albums.

Of course, the album fell a bit by the wayside when the internet grew and exposed us to all sorts of information — not all tasteful or even true.

We all know what came next. A real estate developer named Donald Trump, whose companies had gone bankrupt a few times, starred on a reality show named “The Apprentice.” He then ran against “the Establishment,” promised to “make America great again” and won the electoral vote. Cultural critics have gone from hand-wringing to panic.

Though Trump can certainly be judged for his words, policies and actions, I do not believe he should be criticized for being a celebrity.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan are entertainers who won public office due to their celebrity and communications skills. Progressive documentary filmmaker Michael Moore told The Guardian in 2011, “The Republicans have certainly shown the way that when you run someone who is popular, you win. Sometimes even when you run an actor, you win.”

Democratic President John F. Kennedy had already proved in 1960 that a telegenic newcomer can beat a more experienced Republican opponent. A younger Massachusetts native, actor Matt Damon, may have what it takes to engage a cynical and anxious populace. In a 2016 commencement address, Damon told MIT students:

“You got congressmen in a two-year election cycle who are incentivized to think short term and simply do not engage with long-term problems, and add to that a media that thrives on scandal and people with their pants down, anything they can get you to tune in so they can hawk you products you don’t need, and add to that a banking system that steals people’s money.”

Matt Damon’s viewpoints indicate an open mind and a global perspective. The 46-year-old co-founded the not-for-profit organization Water.org to provide clean water to developing nations. Damon’s accomplishments earned him a UNICEF Humanitarian Award and a Davos World Economic Forum Crystal Award.

Tom Hanks was recently named “America’s Dad” by Esquire magazine and was praised by Vanity Fair for giving us a pep-talk on Saturday Night Live, where he said “you’re all gonna be fine.” The award-winning actor recently gained positive reviews for his portrayal of real-life pilot Chesley Sullenberger.

Meryl Streep garnered headlines in January when, at the Golden Globes, she criticized the manner in which President-elect Trump mocked a disabled reporter during the presidential race. Streep stated, “Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.” The actress has been criticized for her advocacy positions but never for a lack of poise or graceful engagement. When Streep speaks, people listen.

The media age has blurred the line between politics and entertainment. The venerable media scholar Marshall McLuhan foresaw this phenomenon in 1969 when he told an interviewer, “TV is revolutionizing every political system in the Western world. For one thing, it’s creating a totally new type of national leader... Through radio, TV and the computer, we are already entering a global theater in which the entire world is a Happening.”

More hype is not needed. Nor are more tweets or rambling public appearances. As actor Richard Dreyfuss has noted, there are tens of millions of adult Americans who have never taken a civics course. A reformed educational system can teach them, as can a vigilant press media. But if an appealing and grounded celebrity were to continue Oprah Winfrey’s legacy of explaining complex issues to mainstream Americans, it would help.