Her viewers follow her guidance because they like and admire her, sure. But also because they believe that Oprah, with her billions and her Rolodex of experts, doesn't have to settle for second best. If she says something is good, it must be.Yes, Oprah is popular. Wildly so. Yes, she has a broad-based, ardent following for her TV show. Yes, the things she recommends on her show have the habit of flying off the shelves (or whatever the equivalent is on Amazon). But does any of this mean that she owes anything to her audience other than being honest when she says she tried such and such product or when she says she loved the book she picked for her book club?
This is where things get tricky. Because the truth is, some of what Oprah promotes isn't good, and a lot of the advice her guests dispense on the show is just bad. The Suzanne Somers episode wasn't an oddball occurrence. This kind of thing happens again and again on Oprah. Some of the many experts who cross her stage offer interesting and useful information (props to you, Dr. Oz). Others gush nonsense. Oprah, who holds up her guests as prophets, can't seem to tell the difference. She has the power to summon the most learned authorities on any subject; who would refuse her? Instead, all too often Oprah winds up putting herself and her trusting audience in the hands of celebrity authors and pop-science artists pitching wonder cures and miracle treatments that are questionable or flat-out wrong, and sometimes dangerous.
I am not an expert on Oprah. I watch clips from her shows off and on and read her and about her in magazines and on websites. From what I've seen and read, she comes across as the person who is enthusiastic about certain things (some ideas, some products, some services) and uses her show - a vehicle and brand she created from scratch and built to dish on her view of life and its struggles - to talk about them. That a million people rush off buy the thing she mentions on the show - what exactly does it require her to do? Worry that her audience might use the information blindly without investigating it further for themselves? Should she be responsible for the actions of her audience?
This is a question I've asked before in relation to the Phelps marijuana fiasco. Just because a celebrity is good at something and they make money off of it or are popular because of it, does it mean that they should be on their best behaviour, do the right things and say the right things?
The Newsweek article places a litany of demands on Oprah's show. A sampling:
""Because of the power and influence that Oprah's show has, she should make an extra effort to be clear."" (Comment on a show about the HPV vaccine.)Which leads me to believe that the audience has no responsibility for its own actions, that her viewers are gullible and unquestioning, that they will swallow every piece of advice that tumbles out of her mouth without assessing the pros and cons for their specific circumstances and health conditions. Is this really so? If that is the case, then Oprah and other celebrities like her are standing at the top of a very long, slippery slope. Which one of her audience members should she worry about? The ones that do not understand that medical or cosmetic procedures involve risks? The ones that do not get that medicines may have side effects? The ones that do not know enough to ask if such and such procedure is right for them? The ones that will refuse vaccinations for their children because Jenny McCarthy said so and she was on Oprah's show? Where do you start and where do you stop?
"Oprah said almost nothing about possible risks." (Comment on a show about 'thread-lifting'.)
"Fanning believes Oprah should have made it clear that Thermage isn't for everyone."
The article gives off a whiff of wanting to take the contrarian view just because. The complaints against the show appear lame and the authors and the experts they consult indulge in some heavy patronizing. The recommendations for alterations to Oprah's show (listing a procedure's side effects, introducing experts who take the opposite view on the medication being discussed, among other things) are great - if you are a C-SPAN show or a medicine ad that must follow the Federal Trade Commission rules or one of those public TV channels that no one watches. Not if you are Oprah and all you are selling is escapism in doses of an hour a day and the idea that we are all in the same boat (so what if she is super rich and super connected and super famous while most of her audience is thoroughly entrenched in the middle class?), and believe strongly in stories about wanting to be the best you can be.
So let's hang back and take Oprah's health advice with a pinch of salt. As we should. And as I'm sure she would want her audience to.
Updated June 2: Changed 'author' to 'authors' in the penultimate paragraph. The Newsweek article is credited to two writers.