Monday, Apr. 18, 2005

Oprah Winfrey

If you're one of the 30 million Americans who tune in to Oprah every week—not to mention the millions more in 100 other countries — you have seen an empathetic and street-smart human being who brings an unmatched range of people and information into our lives.

From pop-culture icons to unknown activists from half a world away, from survivors of childhood abuse (as Oprah is) to candidates for the U.S. presidency (as some suggest she could be), Oprah Winfrey, 51, a woman who defeated poverty, bias and self-doubt by taking orders from no one, talks to them all as equals.

I think her appeal can be traced to this creation of a living and breathing example of real — and rare — democracy. While the rest of the media focus on pro-con shouting matches and problems but not solutions, Oprah brings us the hard truths of life as well as the evidence for change. Her viewers feel as if they have crossed a desert of Fight or Flight and found an oasis of Tend and Befriend. Of course, her refusal to be uniformly negative — a frequent definition of objectivity — is exactly what keeps her influence from being taken seriously. Media pundits complain that TV has been "Oprahfied." If only. The Oprah Winfrey Show assumes cooperation as well as competition, turns more people on to serious fiction than all her critics combined and features such controversial subjects as Islam 101 and Is War the Only Answer?

Only when she leaves her authentic self behind does she lose trust, as when she aided the 2000 election of George W. Bush by asking him no tough questions. She has gained trust by being honest, about issues such as her (and our) weight problems and her trip to South Africa in 2002, including her funding of a Leadership Academy for Girls there.

Oprah Winfrey now has a media empire that is uniquely independent and a personal net worth of more than $1 billion. The question is: When will the rest of the media learn from her success?

Steinem is an author and co-founder of Ms. Magazine

From the Archive
Queen of All Media: Already a force on TV and in publishing, Oprah wants to bring her brand of inspiration to film