The Oprah Winfrey Show

This past summer, Hermes denied talk show host Oprah Winfrey the opportunity to shop after hours. The Parisian store maintained that a fashion show prevented it from accommodating her, as she showed up without prior notice. Yet, many bloggers and reporters weren’t satisfied with the explanation and called the refusal racist. Controversy swirled again when Winfrey failed to attend the funeral of Jet founder and publishing icon John H. Johnson. Accused of snubbing his memory, she pointed out that she was in Hawaii at the time of Johnson’s death and unable to return in time. However, she did send cards and flowers and planned a tribute to Johnson once her talk show resumed original programming this fall.

My initial response to both events was “So what?” Many of us can’t shop at particular stores (especially when they’re closed), and most of us have had to miss funerals we wanted to attend. What makes Oprah so special that these situations created media frenzies?

I decided to spend some time with Oprah. My indifference to her has kept me from tuning in regularly to The Oprah Winfrey Show, starting its 20th season this year, although I am well aware of the humanitarian work she has done and how she has turned a tv-addicted nation on to the joy of reading. Still, while Oprah may be best known for its celebrity interviews, it also tackles socially significant topics, such as mental illness and homophobia, and tends to showcase “bad men” (“Were You Conned by Your Man?”, “Do You Have a Lazy Husband?”). I saw only one episode planned for the new season in which women appeared as “villains,” dealing with mistresses offering advice to married women.

As a man who is sensitive to negative portrayals of men on television, I was irritated before the first episode I watched for this project. Focused on “making dreams come true,” it opened with Winfrey’s best friend, Gayle King, apparently a squealing, get-wet-in-the-crotch Josh Groban fan. Oprah arranged for Groban to surprise King in her office and give her a private concert. King’s friendship with Winfrey has allowed her to have more than a few dreams fulfilled, including getting her own short-lived show, and most likely could have met the singer without Winfrey’s help, so why not allow Groban to serenade one of his numerous fans who don’t have such opportunities? A final segment came across as equally selfish, as Winfrey talked with Halle Berry about her latest tv movie, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which Winfrey had co-produced. The interview was little more than a plug for the then upcoming film.

Two other segments were touching, however. One featured 12-year-old Paul, who dreamed of being a singer. He was taken into a recording studio to be coached by his idol, Mariah Carey. After rehearsing Carey’s “Hero,” Paul performed the song on the show, at which point Carey offered to produce a CD for him. Lauren, a young girl battling cancer, also saw her dream come true when her bedroom was given a makeover by hunky Nate Berkus, an interior designer who garnered a following after telling his harrowing story of surviving last year’s tsunami on a previous episode of Oprah. All very nice.

And then Hurricane Katrina hit. Although Oprah is not scheduled to air new episodes until late September, Winfrey got on the phone and rounded up celebrity friends John Travolta, Jamie Foxx, Faith Hill, Matthew McConaughey, and Berkus, among others, to travel to New Orleans and Biloxi with her. I’m sure that the celebs genuinely wanted to help, but some, such as Hill, whose latest single emphasizes she is a “Mississippi Girl,” came across as more sincere and less publicity-seeking than others.

Winfrey’s report from New Orleans (part one of two) was undoubtedly one of the most devastating hours of television I have seen. Winfrey stated she wanted to show the stories viewers hadn’t seen elsewhere, and she succeeded in doing so. The power of Being Oprah gained her access to the Superdome; despite warnings from both Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Chief Edwin Compass III that she really did not want to go inside, Winfrey was adamant. Winfrey, Nagin, and Compass all broke down at various points while discussing the bodies left inside after evacuees were moved out, the inhumane behavior of a handful of citizens (including the rape of babies, according to Compass), and the countless deaths resulting from the storm and the disorder which followed.

Throughout the show, I felt disgust, anger, and overwhelming sorrow. I haven’t shielded myself from coverage of the hurricane, but Oprah revealed situations about which I had heard nothing previously. Among the most disturbing was a report from Dr. Mehmet Oz, a frequent Oprah guest, detailing how those who were beyond medical treatment were taken to makeshift morgues where they were left alone to die among the growing piles of bodies. Wisely, Oprah didn’t accuse local or federal officials of gross incompetence; instead, she sought to show how fundamental human rights and dignity had been compromised by that incompetence.

Winfrey was quick to point out that only a small number of victims behaved poorly, and that most had responded admirably. The more upbeat stories were related by her posse of stars, who fanned out to various locations, where they assisted in feeding and comforting victims. At the request of displaced victims, Hill led a sing-along of “Amazing Grace.” Foxx was able to reconnect one woman with her family via phone. Lisa Ling talked with a family who had been traveling by foot for days, hungry and headed to who-knows-where but grateful to be alive.

Berkus, in particular, endeared himself to me. He encountered a 24-year-old man who refused to be evacuated because it meant leaving behind his best friend, his dog of 14 years. To convince the man to move to safety, Berkus offered to take the dog overnight and reunite the young man with it the next day, which he did. Watching the man sob with gratitude had me in tears as well, and I was impressed that Berkus would volunteer to go into a situation that so closely resembled the distressing conditions he had barely survived last December.

After this hour, I knew that the legions of fans who made her book recommendations best sellers were opening up their checkbooks and contributing to the relief effort in other ways. Oprah is not alone in telling heart-tugging stories, but the structure of her show focuses on personal details, not statistics or editorializing, so prevalent in news reports.

I have a new respect for Oprah and Oprah. I won’t be watching the show regularly, but I have learned one thing. When disaster strikes, as it surely will again, CNN will tell me the projected financial costs and death toll, but Oprah will tell me the human costs and reaffirm that, in the words of Anne Frank, “People are really good at heart.”