In defense of Oprah Winfrey
By Andy Kaiser
Article ID: 1330
Oprah Winfrey was nothing more to me than an unseen TV show. I knew she was there, but never wanted to watch. Why would I? Her show was usually about clothes and cooking and redecorating and various “women’s issues” that I just didn’t care about. I didn’t have time for all that. I was a MAN. I had to get things DONE. No time for what I saw as fluff. I had important video games to play.
Then years later, like some people do, I married a girl. My wife changed my viewpoint on many things, including how I felt about Oprah Winfrey. When I first realized my wife watched Oprah, I gave a long-suffering mental sigh. But, I figured I’d treat her Oprah-watching with the same respect she treated my video game playing: it would be tolerated, but never spoken about.
But as I overheard a few things and learned some facts, my viewpoint changed.
Oprah is a very good person.
In 2007, Oprah spent $40 million to build the “Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls” in South Africa. She did this to provide educational opportunities to gifted girls who may not normally have a chance to succeed.
In 2006, she raised money to help people recover from Hurricane Katrina. She got over $11 million in donations, and personally donated $10 million.
In 1998, she started “Oprah’s Angel Network“, a charity designed to improve the lives of the underprivileged. As of this writing, the charity has raised more than $51 million. And none of it is wasted – any overhead like administrative costs is personally covered by Oprah. 100% of donations actually get to those who need them.
She’s known to be an extremely philanthropic celebrity, if not the most philanthropic.
I’m telling you these facts to show that Oprah herself personally cares about people, and she’s willing to spend major chunks of her time and money to help others. I’m telling you this to make clear what I believe about her personality – that whatever she might believe or promote, she’s not malicious.
Now we come to the situation today. It was my wife that alerted me as to the events. She said, “I just read this really cool Newsweek article about Oprah. I think you might be interested.” The June 8, 2009 article was a long feature story on Oprah, detailing the medical quackery she’s had on her show, from ineffective New Age scams to dangerous anti-vaccination medical advice popularized in multiple interviews with Jenny McCarthy. It pulled no punches. The piece was titled, “Crazy Talk: Oprah, Wacky Cures and You”.
Then, just a few hours later, the skeptical community virtually exploded in glee. The big skeptical names brought out their big cannons, and fired. People in and outside of the skeptical community wrote their own “open letter to Oprah“, expressing well-reasoned arguments as to why Oprah shouldn’t be doing what she’s doing, essentially bolstering and supporting the Newsweek article.
So Oprah got slammed by the mass media. Hard. And don’t get me wrong – she should be held accountable for popularizing such claims. Particularly when those claims go against the consensus of the medical community. Particularly if those claims could cause harm to others, either by intention or negligence. Particularly when Oprah is so influential.
But in the press that followed the Newsweek article, people seemed to really hate Oprah herself. In my Inbox right now, I have an email from someone with the self-righteous subject line, “Oprah gets what is coming to her“. Reader’s Digest magazine followed up with an article, “The Trouble With Celebrity Science“. You’ll find plenty of not-so-polite opinion pieces. Some are intelligent. Some have titles like “Oprah is an idiot” and “Oprah fails at everything“.
Well, Oprah is not an idiot. She doesn’t “fail at everything”. This is clear. A smart person can be uncritical and taken in by ideas they hope are true. A good example is Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. The man who created the Holmes mythos is not an idiot. But Doyle was a spiritualist who believed in all sorts of kooky things, like the existence of fairies, and that his friend – magician Harry Houdini – wasn’t doing tricks. Doyle believed Houdini was lying, and that Houdini actually practiced real magic.
I’m not defending Oprah’s stance on the supernatural, self-help, or her support of people like Jenny McCarthy. She should be criticized. I’ve criticized her myself: in 2008, I wrote two DBSkeptic articles critical of Oprah-popularized nonsense, one about electric “vampire power” and the other one about the New Age scam “The Secret“.
Oprah is not evil – she does genuinely good things for a lot of people – probably more than I will ever do to help anyone, even if I could live five times as long. That’s not meant to criticize me, but to compliment Oprah.
The problem is that Oprah Winfrey has a completely uncritical mind. What could be a forgettable eccentricity in a single person becomes in Oprah the ability to harm a lot of people.
I honestly believe that Oprah Winfrey is doing what she believes is right, and is doing what she thinks will help others live better lives. She’s not intentionally scamming or abusing anyone. Unfortunately, her lack of both skepticism and a science education is a dangerous combination.
Look at the big picture. Oprah is wrong on a lot of things. And we should bash her for the things she’s wrong about. But I’m frankly angry at the blanket assumption of so many that Oprah is evil incarnate, a horrible person who deserves to be punished. In just this recent example, I saw many skeptics who were – embarrassingly - unskeptical, eager to slap a label on Oprah that I don’t think is deserving.
If you call someone an idiot, and are later proved wrong, take a guess as to who the idiot actually is. Let’s focus the anger and energy where it belongs. Attack the issues, not the person.