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Chicago - May. 22, 2018
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The Truth About Oprah

I've always thought the most essential reading about Oprah was Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's piece in The New York Times Magazine in 1989. It still holds today.

It's not available online, but I found it in an archive and will present excerpts here, along with some other Oprah material afterward. In short, she's a contradictory con woman who thinks both that the universe intended her to be great and that she alone manifested that greatness. Shorter: She's full of hooey, and America's rubes, including its media, are happy to go along for the ride. She's the modern-day snake oil salesperson exemplar.

To wit:

"Her audiences are co-creators of the self and the persona she crafts. Her studio is a laboratory. She says hosting a talk show is as easy as breathing. Here she is, an icon, speaking: ''I just do what I do - it's amazing . . . But so does Madonna. . . . Everybody's greatness is relative to what the Universe put them here to do. I always knew that I was born for greatness. . . .

''If it's not possible for everybody to be the best that they can be, then it has to mean that I'm special, and if I'm special then it means the Universe just goes and picks people, which you know it doesn't do . . . I've been blessed - but I create the blessings . . . Most people don't seek discernment; it doesn't matter to them what the Universe intended for them to do. I hear the voice, I get the feeling. If someone without discernment thinks she hears a voice and winds up being a hooker on Hollywood and Vine, it is meaningful for the person doing it, right now. She is where the Universe wants her to be . . .

''According to the laws of the Universe, I am not likely to get mugged, because I am helping people be all that they can be. I am all that I can be. . . . I am not God - I hope I don't give that impression - I'm not God. I keep telling Shirley MacLaine, 'You can't go around telling people you are God.' It's a very difficult concept to accept.''

Just to be clear, she's not God.

*

"Her amber eyes fill with tears. We are talking about the fact of human misery, and about her phenomenal success; and she has adopted a metaphysical theory that encompasses both - several metaphysical theories, actually, partaking of Eastern religion and Western religion and of what is called New Age. She says she has achieved peace and the serenity of total understanding. (She is 35.) Knotty contradictions in the fabric of her belief have not, up to now, impeded the progress of what she calls a 'triumphal' life. If her comfortable truths do not entirely cohere - if on occasion they collide - they are, nevertheless, perfect for the age of the soundbite. They make up in pith for what they lack in profundity.

"She is as likely to rest her beliefs on Ayn Rand as on Baba Ram Dass. She brings the baggage of her contradictions to her television talk show, which she calls her 'ministry.' An avowed feminist, she does not challenge or contradict when a guest psychologist repeatedly attributes lack of self-esteem (a favorite daytime talk-show subject) to a negative ''tape' . . . 'the internalized mother' (talk shows are full of language like this). Her contradictions work for her: they act to establish kinship with an avid audience, whose perplexities they reflect; they insure that she will be regarded as spontaneous, undogmatic."

As far as I know, she's not trained as a therapist, by the way. She just reads a lot of bad books.

*

"Her great gift for making herself likable is married to a message smooth as silk: Nothing is random. Whether Oprah Winfrey is in her fatalistic mode ('if you were abused as a child, you will abuse someone else as an adult') or espousing free will ('I was a welfare daughter, just like you . . . how did you let yourselves become welfare mothers? Why did you choose this? I didn't'), she chases away the fear that things may sometimes happen by malicious accident, or by the evil offices of others. In Winfrey's scheme of things, the mugger and the mugged were fated to meet - and they chose this fate . . . the starving man from India chose the path that led to his death. The fact of human suffering she manages to erase by divesting it of its apparent aimlessness. This is what commercially successful television programs do, no matter what the format: in an hour or less, they resolve.

'''I want it to be for a reason, Oprah . . .'' a recovering alcoholic (with four alcoholic children) says, deploring the anarchy of fate. By the time the hour is over, the audience, if not the woman, will be convinced both that it had to be and that it has been for a reason. Oprah Winfrey - sassy, sisterly, confiding - has said so."

Hitler was for a reason too. He manifested his dream; he was fated to meet with six million Jews who manifested their deaths, or simply failed to discern what the universe wanted from them. Oprah (might as well have) said so.

*

"She brings a practiced wit, an evangelist's anecdotal flair and a revivalist fervor to the dozens of speeches she gives every year. When she spoke to 6,000 women who attended an AWED (American Woman's Economic Development Corporation) conference in New York in February, the audience - nearly half of whom were black, atypical for an AWED gathering - loved her from the moment she bounded onto the stage in form-hugging black and peach. Her speech didn't bear close scrutiny, as it advanced at least two opposing ideas, which may, in fact, be part of her appeal - her audiences are seldom called upon to follow a difficult path either of reasoning or of action; they seem to be able to draw from her words an affirmation of that which they already believe to be true."

Isn't this what drives some of us nuts about Donald Trump's followers?

*

'''There is,' she said, 'a false notion that you can do and be anything you want to be . . . a very false notion we are fed in this country . . . there's a condition that comes with being and doing all you can: you first have to know who you are before you can do that . . . The life I lead is good, it is good . . . people ask me what temperature I would like to have my tea . . . What the Universe is trying to get you to do is . . . to look inside and see what you feel . . . all things are possible.'''

The universe is trying to get you to do things. The universe has a will - beyond its laws of physics. The universe says it's not true that you can be anything you want - while also saying that all things are possible. That's some universe!

*

"[S]he is, her flamboyance notwithstanding, deeply conventional in her thinking: a born-again capitalist, she believes goodness is always rewarded, and that the reward takes the form of money, 'if you expect it to take the form of money.'"

*

"A rebellious teenager - she was sent to a juvenile detention home when she was 13 and turned away only because there were no available beds - she went to live with her father, Vernon Winfrey, a barber and city councilman in Nashville, and a strict disciplinarian who strongly encouraged her to read a book each week and to write a book report and to learn a word a day.

"This is the story as she has crafted it and as she tells it. Her half-sister and her half-brother have no place in this story. Her candor is more apparent than real."

*

"Quincy Jones, in Chicago on business in 1985, flipped the television dial and saw Winfrey. He arranged an audition for the role of Sofia in the screen adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, a role Winfrey says she coveted from the moment she read the book. Her acting in the film earned her an Academy Award nomination. 'Luck,' she says, 'is a matter of preparation. I am highly attuned to my divine self.'''

*

"Members of her staff - who speak in the corporate, adoring 'we' - see these things as a matter of 'divine convergence.'

"Winfrey's interest in herself is vivid. She is inclined to believe - her friend, the author Maya Angelou, has recently suggested this theory - that what got her from there to here is 'obedience.' As a child, she was obedient ''o escape a whipping.' Now she is 'obedient to my calling. One of my favorite Bible verses is: I press toward the mark . . . of the high calling of God . . . .'' (Philippians 3:14) . . .

'''Well, each person gets God at whatever level they're able to accept. That's why there are all these people - Holy Rollers, Episcopalians, Baptists - who can only accept God as a man with a long white beard and a black book checking off the things you can do. And that's really okay, that's okay if that's as big as God is for you and that keeps you under control. Not everyone can be what we want them to be. You still benefit, but your benefit will be as limited as your vision is.'''

*

"She is convinced that, had she not attended to the will of the Universe, she'd still be making 'a nice little six-figure income.'

'''Jesus says He knows how much we can bear, and He won't put any more on us than we're able to bear. The slaves used to sing it. And before I had a studio - when I was just talent - I had a slave mentality. He won't give you more than you can handle.'''

He won't give you more money than you can handle?

*

"If money has, as she says, a 'deep spiritual' meaning, perhaps ratings have spiritual import, too; that would explain why Winfrey is so remarkably casual about criticism she does not construe as personal."

*

"She accepts Stedman's observation that black men - 'I don't see them' - respond to her 'very well.' She is hurt by what she calls 'negativity from black women' . . . 'talks and rumors,' stemming in large part from 'the whole overweight thing. I was overweight and Stedman is gorgeous. It would have been easier on me if Stedman wasn't gorgeous.'''

*

"Stedman Graham is president of a North Carolina-based public relations firm called the Graham Williams Group; pressed, he says his corporation 'helps people to become all that they can be.' His firm 'maximizes resources and helps small firms become large corporations and large corporations become multinational, multimillion-dollar corporations.' Whatever this, in real terms, means, it is not surprising that he is a Republican."

*

"Stedman works with [Winnie] Mandela in a way he will not precisely define. He says suffering 'has nothing to do with being black or white. It's not a group thing. Each individual is responsible for his own life. All lessons are personal.'"

*

"There are set pieces she offers to interviewers. One knows when one is present at the birth of a new set piece -such as The Story of the Keys:

''I lost my keys to the farm. There's a map to my house in circulation, so when I go down the road jogging, one person calls another and the next thing you know, they're out there leaning over the fences - 'Hi Oprah!' So I said to Stedman, 'If the keys are found everybody will know they're my keys. I've got to find them.' He said, 'The question you ought to be asking yourself is why did you lose them.' Other people would just get aggravated, but I saw that I wasn't being aware enough. And that the keys are a way of making me see it. I think the Universe is saying something to me. And so the minute I said that - this kind of thing happens to me all the time - I found the keys. I found the lesson and I found the keys.''

"This story, one feels, will accrete."

*

"She wakes up at 5 or 5:30. She runs six miles along Lake Michigan or works out in a gym daily. She gets to the studio about 8. As she is prepared for the camera by her hairdresser and makeup man, she has a 'talk session' - which she terms 'redundant' - with her producer. By 9, she is in front of the cameras. She will have prepared for her show the night before for less than an hour. 'She wings it,' says Debra DiMaio, her executive producer. 'She gets on camera and asks the questions ordinary people would ask.'''

To the intelligent viewer, it shows.

*

"That many of the shows are as trivial as reruns of Gilligan's Island does not seem to matter to the ratings; what matters is Oprah's energetic, autobiographical presence.

"On a recent show, Winfrey talked to the mothers of mass and serial killers:

''So . . . this is your son we're speaking of, who boiled people, who tortured them mercilessly . . . and then dismembered them . . . Do you survive by going into some form of denial, even though they found 40 pounds of bones . . .?''

She pushes her questions through her guests' tears: ''Would you want to see the tapes'' of people tortured and killed? She says her shows serve a ''deep, divine purpose.''

"Coming on the show, Winfrey has said, is the first step in turning guests' lives around. Her concern is for the hour. The guests' concern is for their whole lives. The audience's concern is to have an experience. People like to have experiences; it saves them from having to think."

*

"Last month, on a show billed as 'Mexican Satanic Cult Murders,' Winfrey introduced a woman pseudonymously called Rachel, who claimed to have a multiple-personality disorder (multiple personalities being a talk-show staple). Rachel, Winfrey said, 'participated in human sacrifice rituals and cannibalism' as a child.

Rachel: ''My family has an extensive family tree, and they keep track of who's been involved . . . and it's gone back to like 1700.''

Winfrey: ". . . Does everyone else think it's a nice Jewish family? From the outside you appear to be a nice Jewish girl . . . And you all are worshipping the Devil inside the home?''

Rachel: '' . . . There's other Jewish families across the country'' ritualistically abusing and sacrificing children, ''It's not just my own family.''

Winfrey's responses to Rachel were feeble: ''. . . This is the first time I heard of any Jewish people sacrificing babies, but anyway - so you witnessed the sacrifice?''

Winfrey several times identified Rachel as a Jew, a washing of hands that served only to distance her from the woman's mad claims, not in any real way to challenge them.

Um, also, where are the dead bodies?

*

"When Winfrey was hired for AM Chicago, the station manager was, according to her executive producer, Debra DiMaio, delighted that he had managed to find someone who wasn't an 'Angela Davis type who'd picket the station with a gun in her hair.' But the real danger lay not in political ideology, but in the superficial quality of Winfrey's curiosity. We are as much beguiled by easy questions as we are by easy answers."

*

"'What I'm trying to make God know,' Winfrey tells me, 'is that I got it already. I don't need to learn anything new today.'"

God: Hold my beer.

*

'''I don't foresee unhappiness coming to me. The chances are, if unhappiness befalls me, its going to be great, severe unhappiness, 'cause the test would be a very strong one, very severe. It would be God saying: Let's see how strong you really are.'''

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Also:

From Conor Friedersdorf's "The Difference Between Speaking 'Your Truth' and 'The Truth'" from the Atlantic:

"And yet, 'in her earnest spiritual seeking, Ms. Winfrey gave platforms to some rather questionable types,' Mark Oppenheimer observed in the New York Times, in another critical evaluation of The Oprah Winfrey Show published back in 2011 as it was ending:

She hosted the self-help author Louise Hay, who once said Holocaust victims may have been paying for sins in a previous life. She championed the "medical intuitive" Caroline Myss, who claims emotional distress causes cancer. She helped launch Rhonda Byrne, creator of the DVD and book The Secret, who teaches that just thinking about wealth can make you rich. She invited the "psychic medium" John Edward to help mourners in her audience talk to their dead relatives.

The Oprah Winfrey Show made viewers feel that they constantly had to "sculpt their best lives," Dr. Lofton writes. Yet in her religious exuberance Ms. Winfrey gave people some badly broken tools. Ms. Winfrey nodded along to the psychics and healers and intuitives. She rarely asked tough questions, and because she believed, millions of others did, too.

"An overlapping indictment appeared in Newsweek a couple years before. One section recounted Oprah appearances by Suzanne Somers, who was advocating for a highly unusual approach to health and medicine to stave off aging:

"Many people write Suzanne off as a quackadoo," Oprah said. "But she just might be a pioneer." Oprah acknowledged that Somers's claims "have been met with relentless criticism" from doctors. Several times during the show she gave physicians an opportunity to dispute what Somers was saying. But it wasn't quite a fair fight. The doctors who raised these concerns were seated down in the audience and had to wait to be called on. Somers sat onstage next to Oprah, who defended her from attack. "Suzanne swears by bioidenticals and refuses to keep quiet. She'll take on anyone, including any doctor who questions her."

"Somers was speaking 'her truth,' as was another celebrity guest, perhaps the most controversial to ever appear on Oprah Winfrey's show. As Newsweek recounted:

In 2007, Oprah invited Jenny McCarthy, the Playboy model and actress, to describe her struggle to find help for her young son . . . "So what do you think triggered the autism?" Oprah asked McCarthy. "I know you have a theory." McCarthy is certain that her son contracted autism from the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination he received as a baby. She told Oprah that the morning he went in for his checkup, her instincts told her not to allow the doctor to give him the vaccine. "I said to the doctor, I have a very bad feeling about this shot. This is the autism shot, isn't it? And he said no, that is ridiculous; it is a mother's desperate attempt to blame something on autism. And he swore at me." The nurse gave Evan the shot. "And not soon thereafter," McCarthy said, "boom, soul gone from his eyes."

. . . Yet researchers have not found a link between the vaccines and autism. Here is what we do know: before vaccinations, thousands of children died or got sick each year from measles, mumps, and rubella.

But back on the Oprah show, McCarthy's charges went virtually unchallenged. Oprah praised McCarthy's bravery and plugged her book, but did not invite a physician or scientist to explain to her audience the many studies that contradict the vaccines-autism link. Instead, Oprah read a brief statement from the Centers for Disease Control saying there was no science to prove a connection and that the government was continuing to study the problem. But McCarthy got the last word. "My science is named Evan, and he's at home. That's my science."

"McCarthy was sharing 'her truth.'"

-

From David Gorski's "How Low Can Oprah Go?":

Unfortunately, part of Oprah's equation for success has involved the promotion of quackery and New Age woo, so much so that last year I lamented about the Oprah-fication of medicine, which scored me a writing gig in the Toronto Star.

Whether it be promoting bio-identical hormones, The Secret (complete with a testimonial from someone who used The Secret to persuade herself not to pursue conventional therapy for breast cancer), Suzanne Somers, the highly dubious medicine promoted by Dr. Christiane Northrup, or foisting reiki aficionado Dr. Mehmet Oz or anti-vaccine "mother warrior" Jenny McCarthy onto a breathless public, arguably no one is a more powerful force for the promotion of pseudoscience in America, if not the world.

Truly, the ending of Oprah's TV show in the spring is a very good thing indeed for science and rationality. Or it would be, were it not for the fact that the reason Oprah is wrapping up her show after a quarter of a century is to start up her own cable channel, so that we can have Oprah-branded and -inspired programming 24/7.

The mind boggles.

Still, my dislike for how Oprah promotes New Age mysticism and pseudoscience on a distressingly regular basis aside, I actually did think there were limits to how low she would go. I actually thought there were limits to how egregiously vile a quackery Oprah would endorse. The operative word, of course, is "did," which now needs to be struck off after last Wednesday, which is when Oprah did an entire show entitled "Do You Believe in Miracles?" (Guess what answer was implicitly, if not explicitly, endorsed.) Featured prominently in that episode were several segments on the faith healer John of God.

John of God, of course, is a fraud. But Oprah is known to be devoted to him and his teachings.

*

Here's how psychic surgery is done:

*

Or, as Andy Kaufman learned, as told in Man on the Moon:

To be clear about that scene, because that clip is abbreviated, from the YouTube comments:

lulubeloo: "in this scene: he sees that these guys were running a scam operation, making people believe they would extract the cancer from their bodies. Andy sees the trick they use and starts laughing at the whole situation, everything in this world is a joke. It's the hilarity of false hope."

Kin Slayer: "his expression was that he was the victim in that prank and that's why he was laughing because he knew time had played the prank on him."

*

Also:

No Healing Miracles Found In 'John of God' Follow-Up Investigation.

*

"She puts the cult in popular culture," media critic Mark Jurkowitz once wrote.

See: Our Favorite Oprah Moments.

-

As for another Oprah favorite, Dr. Oz, let's just say this Washington Post article is being kind: "Half Of Dr. Oz's Medical Advice Is Baseless Or Wrong, Study Says."

-

I was on Chicago Tonight the week that Oprah endorsed Barack Obama, and the rest of the panel, along with moderator Carol Marin, expressed no skepticism or even curiosity about Oprah's first foray into politics - after all those years in Chicago. The discussion was focused only on the electoral calculus of such an endorsement. I suggested there were plenty of questions to be asked of Oprah in light of the move. Marin was incredulous. "What questions?" she asked me.

My reply: Has she ever voted? For whom, particularly among presidential candidates? How was it that no other candidate previously engaged her interest? What policy positions of Obama's specifically do you support? I mean, there's tons of questions. Why should Oprah, and no other endorser, get a pass?

Marin moved on.

-

See also: Where Was Oprah In 2016?

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And don't get me started on The Secret. I prefer Brian Griffin's Wish It, Want It, Do It.

Bill Maher: Actually, I mean, it seems that these sort of books tend to pander to the Iaziest kind of self-help within the narrowest socioeconomic range.

I mean, yeah, you can wish it, and you can do it, but only if you have the educational advantages, the societal advantages that, Iike, what, Well, yeah, you forgot "want it," which is such a big part of the book.

Brian: I mean, but you know, then again, you just said you haven't read it, so, you know.

Maher: Actually, since I said that, I did read it.

And that's another thing, I have to say, aren't "wish it" and "want it" really the same thing? I mean, your book basically makes three points, and two of them are the same point.

Brian: Well, you know, I mean, it does seem to be helping a Iot of people, Bill.

Maher: Well, "help" is a strong word.

How does this help people, Iike, with cancer or in Darfur? Well, I mean, it's not really for them.

Brian: It's for, Iike, if you want a car.

Maher: How does this help you get a car?

Brian: Well, I mean, it doesn't with that attitude. I mean, you have to do some of the work yourself. That's why there are 50 blank pages.

-

In other words, it's all your fault.

-

Oprah, speaking truth to power:

"On Monday, Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, told reporters she'd seen the tape. In fact, the Oprah Winfrey Network had provided it to the Senate on the condition that it not be made public."

Even the Reader's Ben Joravsky gave Oprah props instead of daggers for that one, go figure.

-

Finally, IPRA vs. Oprah.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on January 22, 2018


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