Black History Month – Day 8 Spotlight: Oprah Winfrey
Here is a very complex individual – it’s extremely challenging to consolidated the life works, thus far, of someone like Oprah Winfrey.
Born on January 29, 1954 Oprah is an American television host, actress, producer, and philanthropist, best known for her self-titled, multi-award winning talk show, which has become the highest-rated program of its kind in history.
She has been ranked the richest African American of the 20th century, the greatest black philanthropist in American history, and was once the world’s only black billionaire.
To top all of that – she is also, according to some assessments, arguably the most influential woman in the world.
Winfrey was born into poverty in rural Mississippi to a teenage single mother and later raised in an inner-city Milwaukee neighborhood. She experienced considerable hardship during her childhood, including being raped at the age of nine and becoming pregnant at 14; her son died in infancy.
Sent to live with the man she calls her father, a barber in Tennessee, Winfrey landed a job in radio while still in high school and began co-anchoring the local evening news at the age of 19. Her emotional ad-lib delivery eventually got her transferred to the daytime talk show arena, and after boosting a third-rated local Chicago talk show to first place she launched her own production company and became internationally syndicated.
By the mid 1990s, she had reinvented her show with a focus on literature, self-improvement, and spirituality. Though criticized for unleashing confession culture and promoting controversial self-help aids, she is often praised for overcoming adversity to become a benefactor to others. From 2006 to 2008, her support of Barack Obama, by one estimate, delivered over a million votes in the close 2008 Democratic primary race.
The power of Winfrey’s opinions and endorsement to influence public opinion, especially consumer purchasing choices, has been dubbed “The Oprah Effect”.
The effect has been documented or alleged in domains as diverse as book sales, beef markets, and election voting. Late in 1996, Winfrey introduced the Oprah’s Book Club segment to her television show. The segment focused on new books and classics, and often brought obscure novels to popular attention. The book club became such a powerful force that whenever Winfrey introduced a new book as her book-club selection, it instantly became a best-seller; for example, when she selected the classic John Steinbeck novel East of Eden, it soared to the top of the book charts.
Being recognized by Winfrey often means a million additional book sales for an author. In Reading with Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America, Kathleen Rooney describes Winfrey as “a serious American intellectual who pioneered the use of electronic media, specifically television and the Internet, to take reading — a decidedly non-technological and highly individual act — and highlight its social elements and uses in such a way to motivate millions of erstwhile non-readers to pick up books.”
The Wall Street Journal coined the term “Oprahfication”, meaning public confession as a form of therapy. By confessing intimate details about her weight problems, tumultuous love life, and sexual abuse, and crying alongside her guests, Time magazine credits Winfrey with creating a new form of media communication known as “rapport talk” as distinguished from the “report talk” of Phil Donahue: “Winfrey saw television’s power to blend public and private; while it links strangers and conveys information over public airwaves, TV is most often viewed in the privacy of our homes. Like a family member, it sits down to meals with us and talks to us in the lonely afternoons. Grasping this paradox, …She makes people care because she cares. That is Winfrey’s genius, and will be her legacy, as the changes she has wrought in the talk show continue to permeate our culture and shape our lives.”