Saturday, September 13, 2008

The peasants are revolting

[With apologies to a very old Wizard of Id cartoon in which a minion runs into the palace shouting, “The peasants are revolting” and the King replies, “Oh, they’re not that bad.”]

On May 1, 2007, Oprah Winfrey endorsed Barack Obama for President. On September 8, 2007, she held a fundraiser for him at her home in Santa Barbara. In December of 2007, Winfrey appeared with Obama at a number of campaign rallies.

In January of 2008, ABC News posted a story headed:

Women Angry Over Oprah-Obama Campaign
Some Say Oprah is a "Traitor" for Endorsing Obama and not Clinton

The story itself quoted commenters on Winfrey’s site's message boards. According to ABC the reaction there seemed to be split about 50/50 with some of the commenters feeling betrayed and others supporting Winfrey’s decision - or at least her right to make that decision as she saw fit.

In April of 2008, a story on Politico claimed that Winfrey’s favorable ratings had dropped since her endorsement of Obama - and her unfavorable ratings had increased.

Now Winfrey has stated that she will not invite Sarah Palin to be a guest on her show until the election is over. After Drudge reported there was dissension among Winfrey’s staff about whether to have Palin on the show, Winfrey posted the following statement as an open thread on her website’s community board:

“The item in today’s Drudge Report is categorically untrue. There has been absolutely no discussion about having Sarah Palin on my show. At the beginning of this presidential campaign when I decided that I was going to take my first public stance in support of a candidate, I made the decision not to use my show as a platform for any of the candidates. I agree that Sarah Palin would be a fantastic interview, and I would love to have her on after the campaign is over.” – Oprah Winfrey, September 5, 2008

There are currently 6,773 comments in response to this statement. Based on my totally haphazard review of a handful of them, the breakdown looks close to that reported by ABC in January, maybe a 60/40 split between commenters who are either disappointed in or outraged about Winfrey’s decision and those who have no problem with it. Most of the disappointment and outrage seems to arise from the feeling that Winfrey has made her career and her fortune from women and therefore her refusal to have Palin as a guest is a slap in the face to women. Additionally, a few commenters accuse her of favoring her race over her gender. (I find this extremely sad - it is reminiscent of the idea that favoring blacks must mean disfavoring women and vice versa, a zero-sum view which dates back at least to the Civil War.) So it appears Winfrey has a gender problem and may have a race problem. Will she be able to recover?

I think she will. The election will be over on November 4 and Winfrey will then have more working room. She can invite Sarah Palin to her show; she can invite Todd Palin; she can invite Bristol Palin. Even more important, Winfrey can tell her audience her story about why she endorsed Obama and probably get them to understand. After all, this is what Winfrey does: she helps her audience empathize with people in difficult circumstances. She can point out quite truthfully that although Obama did appear on her show twice, those appearances were in January of 2005 and October of 2006, well before Obama announced his candidacy in February of 2007. She can talk to them about her roots in Chicago and her loyalty to her friends, the Obamas, and how much it hurt her when many of her viewers - the women she loves and who she thought loved her - abandoned her. She can lean heavily on how heartbreaking it was for her to not invite Sarah Palin given the similarities between their backgrounds: like Palin, Oprah won a beauty pageant; like Palin, Oprah studied communications in college. But, she can explain, she had vowed not to have candidates on her show and she had to keep that vow however much she might have wanted to have the whole wonderful Palin clan as guests. I think it will work.

To be clear, I don’t mean any of this cynically. I’ve probably watched a total of about 30 minutes of Oprah in my life but from the snippets I’ve seen and the stories I’ve read about her, her special gift seems to be that she can connect with her audience to an amazing extent. They believe she understands them, rejoices in their successes, empathizes with their failures, doesn’t judge them, and respects them and their lives. All she will be asking from them is that they return the favor.

So I believe Winfrey can overcome the gender problem and the race problem. However, her situation may get stickier if she ends up with a class problem.

According to an undated article:

The Oprah show is clearly the core of her business ... It's a mass-market megahit that appeals to the middle-aged, middlebrow audience that advertisers such as Procter & Gamble, Sears, and Wal-Mart are eager to reach.

I know what I’m reading on the Internet but I’m a Web junkie. What I don’t know is how much of what’s floating around out here is making it into the households of Winfrey’s audience. How many of her viewers are hearing people who support Obama refer to Sarah Palin - however they dress it up - as trash? Palin's hair, her glasses, her accent, her excessive childbearing, her birthing practices, her pregnant teenage daughter, her guns, her children’s names, her religion, her youngest daughter’s hair-grooming technique, her beauty contest scholarship, her college major, her multiple colleges, her small town, even her damning lack of European travel have all been subjected to the analysis of the progressive elite and found lacking. It’s painfully clear that far too many of the people who support Obama think women like Sarah Palin are hicks, rubes, hillbillies. In a word, revolting.

Yet if Winfrey’s viewers are “middlebrow” women who who shop at Sears and Wal-Mart and buy Procter & Gamble products to clean their own houses and do their own laundry, then a fair number of those viewers are an awful lot like Sarah Palin - or at least they believe they are. They probably like her hair and her glasses, think her children’s names are cute and Piper’s kitten-licking is adorable. They may wish they had the looks and the talent to earn a college scholarship in a beauty pageant and they admire Palin for getting her degree however many colleges it took. They know women who got pregnant before they got married (don’t we all) and they know teenage girls who got pregnant although the girls may not have chosen to continue the pregnancy. They think living in a small town with a large family sounds wonderful. They don’t believe going to Europe is an essential rite of passage and even if they don’t go to church themselves they think well of those who do. In other words, a good chunk of Winfrey’s audience may well watch her show while wearing the “I am Sarah Palin. Her story is my story.” T-shirt.

And if those viewers ever begin to wonder if Winfrey secretly thinks of them the way all those other Obama supporters think of Palin, then the Queen of Daytime Television could find herself with an uprising that all the heart-to-hearts in the world can’t quell.

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