Oprah’s not giving up quest for humane humanity

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 9, 2011

OXFORD — The most famous person in the world today was born in Kosciusko. The planet started 2011 with 6.9 billion people. Show any of them a picture of Oprah Winfrey holding a bottle of Coke in front of some golden arches and the universal response will be a smile of recognition.

Oprah is a brand. She’s a universal brand.

Five years ago this month I was standing in Baghdad near a giant, ornate and impressive memorial Saddam Hussein commissioned for Iraqi soldiers killed during the long war with Iran. Another reporter and I were pretty much alone in the giant plaza, so we started a casual conversation with an honor guard.

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The other reporter commented that the guard’s English was exceptionally good and the guard replied that his skills had been improved by watching American TV, including movies. As we parted, the burly guard whispered, “And ‘Oprah.’” We turned. He was smiling and added, “‘Oprah’ No. 1 in Baghdad.”

Later I verified this. Coalition officers and soldiers told me that Baghdad’s streets emptied and shopkeepers closed when ‘Oprah’ was on. I chatted with Blackhawk pilots, asking about changes they’d observed during their daily flights over the Iraqi capital. “The TV (satellite) dishes,” they said. “They sprout like mushrooms. Each day there are hundreds more.”

I’m not a world traveler, but when I have been out of the country one fact has been absolutely clear: In the minds of our neighbors on the planet, we are firmly defined by our culture — not as it is, but how it is depicted by movies, TV and news programs.

My work schedule has never allowed me to watch even a single episode of her show. It has about 8 million viewers just in the United States on an average afternoon and has made that little girl from Kosciusko worth $2.7 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

But Oprah is in the news now because (1) she launched OWN as her new network and (2) she plans to end her stint as a talk-show host after 25 years.

There’s a modicum of mockery going on. There always seems to be when it comes to Oprah. She doesn’t appeal to America’s intelligentsia. She doesn’t appeal to some in the religious right who accuse her of talking up the benefits of peace and good will without specifically including God as the author of those items. So to them, she’s a cultist and a heretic.

One person wishing her well, however, is Bernard Goldberg. He spent 30 years as a TV newsman before becoming a harsh if ineffective critic of big media liberalism and general laziness.

Goldberg notes the OWN’s programming is to follow the model of her talk show, at least in its last several years. Shows will focus on self-improvement, self-awareness and how to help others as opposed to the rancor, snarkiness, exploitiveness and judgmentalism that dominate social media as well as most TV programming.

“I hope her idealism, her desire for more civility in our culture, is contagious,” Goldberg wrote. “I hope it spreads — to other cable channels, to the guy walking down the street dropping F-bombs while shouting into his cell phone, and also to the dark halls of the worldwide web.”

Of course, Goldberg’s wistful wishes for the idealism of Oprah’s OWN to become infectious is, in itself, idealistic. And it’s also part of a pattern. In accepting the nomination and later, when inaugurated, the first President Bush called on us to cash in the peace dividend of his era by becoming “a kinder, gentler nation” with “1,000 points of light.”

Our society, it seems, always needs someone to carry the “do better” banner. It might as well be that little girl from Kosciusko. She’s pretty good at it — and given the reality of how 6.6 billion get their information about the 300 million of us who are Americans, it’s definitely good to have her in the mix.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.