Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Newsweek Oprah Story: What Do Celebrities Owe Us?

Newsweek carries a scathing article in its latest edition, about Oprah and the 'bad', 'wrong', 'risky' health advice she dishes on her daily TV show:
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.

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.
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?

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.)

"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."
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?

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.


Sniffles and Smiles said...

Sujatha...This is wonderful!!! What a powerful opinion piece! You are an excellent writer!!! This belongs on an editorial page of a local newspaper!! You make a very compelling argument here! Bravo! You should be extremely proud of this post because it's outstanding! ~Janine XO

Eleonora Baldwin said...

Superb, Sujatha. Janine is right, this opinionated report belongs to the printed page, in everyone's home!

Here in Italy we don't get Oprah and her dogmas. But it's very interesting for me to read your account of this mediatic phenomenon.

Brava, you are an exceptional writer/reporter. And I mean this in the absolute best possible way.

Big hug,

Midlife Roadtripper said...

Fine essay, Sujatha.

"The complaints against the show appear lame and the author and the experts he consults indulge in some heavy patronizing"

I'm not sure why, but Oprah's scope of followers intimidates many (can I say men?) Well, maybe I do know why. If the gripe is really about the health items on her show, why not an article on the drug commercials that invade the small screen.

Glad to see you posting.

rads said...

Oh absolutely. I donno if its the cynic in me but I don't believe all that's touted on media especially by a celebrity. It isn't even a conscious decision.

Lovely article and well written as always :)

Sylvia K said...

I can only echo what the others have said, Sujatha, this is a powerful and superb post. I've never been a fan of Oprah's, but then I'm not a TV watcher period -- we don't even have cable or local service. I prefer to choose my entertainment with no commercials. I have seen some of her shows over the years, but was never impressed for whatever reason. I do think she wields far too much power and that her followers don't really use their own heads -- if indeed they even know how to think for themselves. Maybe that's harsh, but I'm afraid that's how I see it. So I would love to see your post on the printed page for full public view.

Bhel Puri & Seekh Kabab said...

Sujatha, I have to disagree.

Comparing Phelps' ganja episode to Oprah is comparing apples to oranges. Phelps' drug photos damaged his image as an athlete and role model. Oprah is not famous for her athletic ability; she is famous for being a newsperson. Fundamentally different.

Another interesting line in your piece - "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?" - so carrying this argument to its logical conclusion, Arianna Huffington who you have on your blogroll, should be read only because she is a celebrity, and was once married to a bisexual millionaire. Hence, anything she says should be taken "with a pinch of salt".

My point is, Oprah is not a Maury or a Jerry Springer - a carnival clown whom you go to watch for entertainment. Her standing in US society is more like the village wise woman, or the Oracle in "The Matrix". She has a responsibility to society to inform, not just to entertain.

clueless comrades said...

Well written.

Also, listing all the caveats would kill the persona she has created.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Janine, awww, thank you for that encouraging comment! You are so sweet!

Lola, thank you sweets! I cannot belive Oprah is not on in Italy!

Julie, thanks. And I agree. Come to think of it, why not an article about Bill O'Reilly?

Rads, thanks. I'm the same way!

Sylvia, I see what you're saying, but should Oprah be held responsible for a few members of her audience 'not using their heads'?

BPSK, thanks for reading. Oprah is many things to many people, but by no stretch of the imagination is she a newsperson. She is a talk show host, an entertainer. And yes, I read Arianna, but I do take everything she says with my pinch of salt. I have her on my blogroll, but I don't think that means I endorse whatever she has to say. She writes opinions and she has her own biases and blinders. I am aware of that.

Comrade, thank you. That was the point I was trying to make.

Dr. Argus said...

Hi Sujatha,
Came via DesiPundit. I agree with your view that people should investigate for themselves, especially when it comes to medicine or cosmetic treatments. People should not look at Oprah as an oracle. Fair and very true.
But Oprah has consistently put people on her show who prompt pseudoscience. With Jenny McCarthy talk show, she has now opened doors to really dangerous situation - just because a celebrity(I doubt Jenny is one but still) says so and Oprah endorses it -there have been women who are not vaccinating their kids.
Now you may say why blame Oprah for this? Its the parent's fault. Yes and no. Yes, because anyone with any sense of objective thinking would not take a celebrity's word for science. And no, because it is true that celerity endorsements sells - even science- to the masses. That is why you have actors in america telling you not to drink and drive (isnt that basic common sense?) and celebrities like Amitabh asking you to give your kid a polio dose. In reality, people tend to listen to famous people (often or most likely) who are not EXPERTS rather than those people who know what they are talking about.
I think people trust Oprah to give them the right opinion just because she has used her wealth and power for the good, for the most part. And so her (indirect) endorsements of bad science is dangerous. Especially, when you watch her show and see how condescending she is to the experts (I distinctly remember James Randi, the skeptic who debunks psychics, had written a blogpost of how the producers of her show lied to get him unprepared on the show and how she basically allowed the experts to be yelled and talked down to when they did the autism caused by vaccination show). Does she need to change her format? No, she is doing what makes her show sell. Should more articles be written in mainstream media about her show - YES! Her show needs to be shown for what it is - an entertainment show based on no reality.
Sorry for the longish comment.

Bhel Puri & Seekh Kabab said...

Ok, I see your point. Btw, I still view this blog as a news-source, so hopefully we will not see any bong-pipe pictures of you like Michael Phelps. :D

Sujatha Bagal said...


Dr. Argus, I really appreciate your taking the time to write down your thoughts.

I struggle with the idea that private citizens have a responsibility to the world at large, especially when we make them responsible for what average citizens might do in response to their words and actions. On some moral level, we all have a duty to do good by our fellow citizens. But who decides what 'good' is? Oprah might think that by giving a platform for the idea that for some children vaccinations and autism may have a link, she is performing a desirable service. It may make some people in her audience do some thinking for themselves. Perhaps McCarthy's personal story resonated with her. Isn't that what the show is about? How one person's personal struggle might be of some value to another? It is impossible to guage how some elements of her audience might react to this information. If she aimed to make her show ideal for the fringe element of her audience, then mounting a show such as hers is useless. For what it's worth, her show has shed some light on topics that it would serve her audience well to chew on. What they do with it should not be her concern. As long as she is being honest and she is not violating any laws, we should just let her be.

The Newsweek article achieved what it set out to do. Newsweek is launching a new model of doing business. It has tweaked its format. Now all it needed was some publicity. So it went after one of the biggest draws - Oprah. What better way to generate buzz, eh?

Usha said...

Very thought provoking and well written as always.
Ya Oprah is not in the same league as Aishwarya Rai selling a hair colour or shampoo whether she uses it or not. She is an opinion maker of sorts albeit among people who are too lazy or do not care to think for themselves. All the more responsibility on her.

Anonymous said...


I waited to comment until I read the article.

While I agree that in general people should be responsible for their own actions, I would argue that the newsweek article *was* right in stating that Oprah has a greater responsibility. Her attitude is not one of a friend saying I love this, you should try this...she actively recommends some of the dubious things on her show - and given her popularity, this is unconscionable, in my opinion...I don't consider Phelps on par with her, though he does have a sphere of influence as well. Oprah makes it her business to recommend various things, and this has a greater responsibility.


Anonymous said...


Nice thought provoking piece. You have put your thoughts very eloquently and it show how strongly you feel about this topic. Good read.

I would say that Oprah does have a responsibility as she is looked up to as a role model for many many people who may not have access to all the material that you or me can access from several sources. They could follow what she says believing that she would have read enough material and hence the studied recommendation. Although, i fall in the category of "will use my own judgement", i do believe that there is a huge mass of women especially in case of Oprah which puts more responsibility on her when she espouses certain health related things.


Sujatha Bagal said...

M, thank you for reading and commenting. I was hoping you would, given our discussion on the Phelps post.

Yes, in a case such as Oprah (and Bill O'Reilly vis-a-vis the Tiller case) the first thought that occurs is that they should think about how their audience might react and prepare their presentations in such a way that the audience reacts in a desirable way. But when you think about implementing such a scenario, you will see what an impossible task it is. Oprah is on TV to present her opinion, her view of life, her take on the issues that are important to her. Does she have influence? Yes, she does. The influcence is something she built up painstakingly over a number of years do exactly the thing she is being blamed for now - telling her audience what she thinks, what makes her happy and what fascinates her. If she has to now think about all the myriad ways in which her audience might misuse the information, she has to transform herself into something she has not been in years.

As I mentioned in my post, how is she going to assess which piece of information a member of her audience might take to heart? What is "dubious" to us, might not be to her at all. I would take serious umbrage with her show if she were dishonest or wantonly misleading people about her intentions or impressions about a particular topic.

Moreover, who are the people we are thinking about needing to protect from Oprah? These are not voiceless children. They are not oppressed. They are not mute animals. These are full-grown human beings fully capable of making decisions. For whatever reason they've decided to switch off their mental faculties and ignore the disclaimers on her show. That the fact that they follow Oprah blindly doesn't sit well with the likes of us should not be the determining factor.

Sorry for this long and, I'm sure, rambling response, M.

@ Usha, thanks for reading. For the reasons I explained to BPSK, Dr. Argus and M, I don't agree that she has a higher responsibility.

@ Shree, welcome to my blog! thank you for your comment and thank you for reading. The Newsweek article talks about health issues. If her audience members have the access to try out the (expensive)procedures she showcases on her show, then they surely have access to a doctor, most of whom the article says would disagree with those procedures?

Anonymous said...


I agree it is impossible to come up with an objective list of issues on which Oprah's (or any public figure) opinion must be measured carefully, but in my opinion, anything medical should fall into that bucket. Oprah's show has always been about her "ordinary-ness", she's like the nice neighbour/auntie whose tips and tricks you always try because you trust her. If Jerry Springer (for example, I know his is not that kind of show) were to recommend something, given the kind of image he has, I wouldn't be as concerned.

Oprah in this respect falls into the same category as Jim Kramer.


SunflowerPipes.com said...

Michael Phelps is an American hero; he personifies hard work and a desire to succeed. Michael earned what he has unlike the wall street barons and crooked politicians of the world. The man is an American hero and most of us are proud and awed by his accomplishments in the pool. the fact that Phelps likes a glass smoking pipe, a hand rolled cigarette or big fat bong should in no way diminish the way we feel of the man’s accomplishments. Michael Phelps is doing his job and doing it to the degree of historical human greatness. Our admiration of this man does not give us the right to control his individual destiny or to judge his private choices through a lens of misguided morality. If one can achieve our world’s highest honors then they should be "free" in this country to their own pursuit of happiness.