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Dishing on O and her dough

Published January 21, 2007


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, and her new $40-million school for girls in South Africa.

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 Tampa a few years ago, I wrote about how fan worship of her work seemed almost religious. Among all the journalists who covered her that day, I was the only one so cynical that the photographer, Jamie Francis, snapped a pic of my scowling mug 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 added: "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, winning kudos from, among others, conservative blowhard Rush Limbaugh and Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page.

And why not? The preoccupation of American kids with material stuff - even those who are dirt- poor - has been well documented. A reporter pal told me recently that he's even seen some homeless people with laptops and e-mail 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 in Africa is the kind of direct, involved altruism we have come to expect from her. Whether she's handing out new homes to Katrina victims or prodding her sizable following to buy goods to support U2 singer Bono's Red campaign (some proceeds given to fight AIDS in Africa), Winfrey combines doing good with doing well in a way few other celebrities have managed in modern times.

Part of the solution and problem

Only Oprah could make the slogan "save lives while you shop" feel like bona fide philanthropy.

But then the critic in me rears its 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 materialistic drumbeat 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 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 turn to substantive journalists who have explored the issue in her own backyard at the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Reporter or in local TV.

Instead, 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 an unintended lesson: that celebrity - and an image which resonates with Winfrey's audience demographic - matters nearly as much as expertise.

Materialism is the message

We have huge industries that generate massive profits by selling products as a lifestyle. These days, you don't just buy an iPod (or, soon, an iPhone); that purchase is a gateway to 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 that follows kids everywhere - on cell phones, on the Internet, on the backs of their friends' clothing and in the lyrics of the songs they love.

And many of Oprah's sponsors are the prime cultivators of these messages.

So much in our culture tells young people to lust after the latest product by Apple or Jimmy Choo. 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 Web site - 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 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, knows this. So why is she criticizing America's youth for serving a beast she helped create?

Eric Deggans can be reached at or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at

[Last modified January 22, 2007, 11:12:45]

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