In Depth

Adalian Column: Behind the Oprah Non-troversy

Leave Oprah alone!

OK, so I’m no Chris Crocker. And Oprah Winfrey is nowhere near the besieged basket case that Britney Spears appeared to be last year.

But the recent media madness regarding the Queen of Talk’s alleged snub of the Queen of Wasilla was a journalistic jaw-dropper on just about every level. It might have represented a low point for campaign coverage—had reporters not quickly followed up by spending at least two full days dissecting an even less consequential matter: Lipstick-gate.

Sen. Barack Obama described the latter episode as a sign of the political “silly season.” But taken together, both incidents point to something far more troubling: The mainstream media, desperate to remain relevant in a blogosphere world, are increasingly willing to ignore logic and basic journalistic principles in order to drum up a few hits on their Web sites and hold on to whatever paid circulation they have left.

The Oprah non-troversy began Sept. 5 when Matt Drudge splashed a story on his site declaring that some producers on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” wanted to book GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin as a guest.

“Half of her staff really wants Sarah Palin on,” Drudge quoted an anonymous “insider” as saying. “Oprah’s Web site is getting tons of requests to put her on, but Oprah and a couple of her top people are adamantly against it because of Obama.”

Ms. Winfrey wasted no time responding to Mr. Drudge’s report, calling it “categorically untrue” and stating flatly that there had been “absolutely no discussion about having Sarah Palin on my show.”

That should have been the end of the matter. After all, Mr. Drudge cited not a single specific source for his story. And Ms. Winfrey had succinctly explained that she had long ago announced—back on Aug. 21, 2007, to be exact—that she would not interview candidates during this election cycle.

There was no snub. There was no bias. There was just a talk-show host wisely deciding that, because of her well-publicized support for Sen. Obama, having him—or anyone else—on her show during the election season would be a really bad idea.

It didn’t matter, however. Within hours, major media outlets from coast to coast had weighed in, most declaring that Oprah was playing politics.

On its Top of the Ticket blog, the Los Angeles Times began a post on the “story” with a lead sentence that made Mr. Drudge’s initial report seem calm. “Oprah Winfrey, the billionaire TV talk-show diva who is supporting the Democratic presidential nominee, says she will not allow the Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin on her daily show, which is widely viewed by women.”

Billionaire. Diva. Will not allow. I worked at the New York Post for five years, and even on my best day, I don’t think I could have crafted a more loaded opening sentence. All that was missing was that word that rhymes with “rich.” Or maybe the GOP’s favorite code word these days, “uppity.”

That report was mild, however, compared to some other takes on the matter. Utah TV station KJZZ reported, both on-air and on its Web site, that Oprah was “refusing to interview” Ms. Palin “even though her woman’s show would be the perfect place to speak to a person of Palin’s newfound status. Winfrey says that since she has already committed herself to Obama, that she will not have other candidates on that might negatively impact his election.”

I don’t buy the argument that sexism is what cost Hillary Clinton the Democratic nomination, and I certainly don’t believe that sexism has anything to do with 95% of the stories that have been written about Gov. Palin.

But the idea that Oprah should have the governor on her show simply because she’s a woman? And because women watch her show? That’s sexist.

Sexism, however, isn’t what’s behind the spate of anti-Oprah stories, however. As other observers have noted, the GOP has been playing the attack-the-liberal-media card as part of its efforts to immunize Gov. Palin from criticism. The Drudge story on Oprah’s non-snub fit right into that storyline.

It’s not surprising Republicans would pursue this strategy. What’s stunning is that so many reporters would play along.

Of course, it doesn’t take much to get journalists to write an anti-Oprah story. You don’t even need to have facts.

Earlier this year, numerous outlets published stories suggesting—with scant evidence—that the Oprah empire was in decline because of her support for Sen. Obama.

First came reports that a Gallup poll suggested her popularity had fallen a bit since her endorsement. Then came hysterical stories about “The Oprah Winfrey Show” dropping a dramatic 7% this season, and citing Ms. Winfrey’s Obama love as the cause of the decline.

Anyone who knows anything about the sorry state of syndication knows that a year-to-year dip of 7% on a 22-year-old show is probably reason for celebration, not panic. Indeed, during the May 2007 sweeps—the last before Ms. Winfrey became fully identified as a supporter of Sen. Obama—“The Oprah Winfrey Show” suffered a far steeper year-to-year decline of 13%.

So much for the Obama effect. And so much for journalistic credibility.