“You can’t get beyond the fact that she’s very unique in her ability to communicate,” says J. Max Robins, editor in chief of Broadcasting & Cable magazine. “The glamour and the power that she has serves almost like a wish fulfillment for her audience.... She’s magnetic in a way few performers are.”
Thompson says Winfrey’s clout conjures up several other TV icons, including newscaster Walter Cronkite, talk-show host Johnny Carson, and kiddie-show host Mister Rogers. But television historian Alex McNeil makes a more interesting point by comparing her to Arthur Godfrey, the folksy, affable (on camera, at least), and ubiquitous variety-show host of the ’50s who had an uncanny ability to convince Americans to purchase the things that he endorsed — from cigarettes to appliances.
“When he personally pitched a product, you bought it,” recalls McNeil. That’s Oprah’s calling card.
Like many cult-like leaders, Oprah has also skillfully seized on broader problems in society and smaller voids in people’s lives. Asked to account for her influence, Celeste Gertsen, a clinical psychologist who specializes in self-esteem issues, says, “I think there’s a lot of alienation, a lot of isolation. Families have broken down a lot. People are really lonely.... So it kind of opens up to her being a family member.”
Marcia Nelson, a professional religion writer who penned the book The Gospel According to Oprah,” says her fans are “looking for somebody to trust.... Her language has always been more or less laden with spirituality.” For the record, both Gertsen and Nelson admire Oprah.
And like a number of powerful persuaders, Oprah skillfully and aggressively controls her public image and puts perceived perpetrators firmly in line, with the Hermès CEO’s mea culpa a classic example.
After winning a legal battle against Texas cattlemen who sued her after a 1996 show in which she observed that mad-cow disease deterred her from eating another burger, Oprah, according to news reports, rejoiced that “Free speech not only lives, it rocks.” (In another example of her commercial power, Oprah’s hamburger denunciation helped depress cattle prices.) But Oprah was on the other side of the free-speech issue when she waged a successful legal battle against a former employee who was trying to overturn a confidentiality agreement that bars her employees from writing about Oprah’s business or personal affairs for the rest of their lives.
The Frey fracas
Of course, one of Oprah’s most dramatic efforts at spin was her January 26 public humiliation of James Frey, whose transgressions threatened her credibility in a way that few situations had.
“It was just a total self-preservation move,” says William Bastone, editor of TheSmokingGun.com, which uncovered Frey’s fakery. “Probably for one of the few times in her career, she struck a sour note.”
As the Smoking Gun reported, thanks to the huge boost from Oprah’s endorsement, A Million Little Pieces sold more books in the US last year than anything except the most recent Harry Potter offering. And after initially standing by Frey, Oprah, in a cold fury, stripped the bark off the hapless author sitting impassively next to her on the couch. Viewers winced at the spectacle.