I was clearing out past shows on my DVR the other night, and one of the programs I was finally able to watch was the second part of “Oprah Builds a Network,” which debuted on OWN about two weeks ago, on July 15, 2012. It was about Oprah Winfrey building OWN.
This part two of the show began with Oprah, her best friend Gayle King, and OWN co-president Sheri Salata all talking to one another in a hotel room on March 25, 2012. They were talking about the previous seven days. During those seven days it had been widely reported that OWN was laying off 30 people and that Rosie O’Donnell’s highly touted talk show on OWN was being canceled.
Referring to the week, Oprah was saying, “I think if I was to think of good times and bad times and the rollercoaster of life, I would say that certainly I don’t know of a worse week of my entire life.”
Oprah continued, “One of the reasons why — if not THE reason why this was one of the worst weeks of my life — is because I think of every employee as a person first. As a human being first. As a human being with a family.
“We had many conversations about where we were as a company, and how we were going to be able to sustain ourselves. And I knew from the first time that I stepped in as CEO and started to sit in those meetings and look at the real numbers on the page that the only way through is that you’re going to have to end it or you’re going to have to make some cutbacks now so you’ll be able to go forward.
“So the idea of having to let 30 people go, that was really rough. It was a tough decision.”
Then, Oprah added, “Now, I knew, having been a member of the whole celebrity thing all these years, that everything you do gets magnified. I certainly did not expect the velocity of Schadenfreude, meaning people sort of lying in wait for you to fail or make a mistake, that I experienced that week.” Her voice seemed to be breaking as she finished the sentence.
It was here that I expected Oprah to give a number of examples of the things that were said about her that week that were clearly Schadenfreude attacks. But I was surprised when she said, in fact, that she only read one press account that week at all.
“Let me just say that I only read one thing — that was sent to me, and let me say that I even regret that. I read the USA Today, and that was enough for me because that was the antithesis of how I’ve lived my whole life. That was enough and that was the worst.” Oprah continued without pausing, “The very same people who are bowing at your feet, and telling you how great you are, when the winds of change come, those very same people will be at your throat. And the winds of change always come. That’s what this week was.”
Wow. Now I had to get that USA Today article that Oprah said was “the worst.” In the show they had flashed the headline of the piece, “Oprah Winfrey Isn’t Quite Holding Her OWN,” but I wanted to read the entire article. Also, I wasn’t clear about her reference to those who had at one time bowed at her feet who then turned on her that week. But she quickly explained herself.
“The instant a crisis comes to me,” Oprah continued, “or difficulty, or challenge comes to me, I instantly go to the space of ‘well, what does this really mean?’ And what I thought of, as I am sitting, pained by the notion of Oprah no longer standing on her own, it reminded me of my very favorite of all the things ever written about me in all the years – the only article I ever saved.
(Oprah gets up and moves to her desk) “Hold on. I think I still have it here. The only article in the millions of articles that have ever been written about me that I ever saved. (She takes the article out of a drawer in the desk.) I have it. Aren’t you glad I have it. The only thing I have ever saved in 27 years of stories, is this story. ‘World is Oprah’s Classroom’ (Oprah then shows the article to the camera), from, what? The Life section of USA Today, 2008. It’s the only thing I ever saved.
“And I thought, isn’t it interesting that the same paper that provided you your favorite, you know, defining ‘that is what I want to be in life’ [moment] now, not even four years later, comes back and [runs an article] that brings you to your — feet. Be wary of people at your feet.”
Clearly, this was Oprah’s “ah-ha” take-away lesson from this situation. First, according to Oprah, USA Today bowed at her feet and then, almost four years later, gleefully wrote a terrible article about her the moment she had some challenges professionally.
But journalists and newspapers, if they are doing their jobs correctly, should be doing neither of these things. Oprah’s accusations were a scathing attack on journalists and a popular mainstream media outlet.
A simple examination of the stories involved, in fact, shows that Oprah’s evaluation in both instances is just plain wrong. Don’t just take my word for it — click on the links below and read the articles yourself.
The 2008 piece was published in USA Today on March 3, 2008. It was written by USA Today’s book critic, Bob Minzesheimer. I do not know Mr. Minzesheimer. It was a cover story in the Life section, and thus among the longest pieces that USA Today publishes: about 1,700 words.
It’s not a news story. It’s a feature piece about a new twist Winfrey was about to introduce in connection with her Oprah Book Club. Oprah spoke with Minzesheimer at some length about the project in a phone interview. The feature he wrote is a rather straightforward account about both the phenom that was Oprah’s Book Club, and the project on which Oprah was about to embark: A 10-week seminar — to discuss her latest book club choice — over the Internet. More than 700,000 people had signed up to attend the virtual seminar. The feature article also talked about one of Oprah’s pet interests — spiritual enlightenment — because that was the subject of the book that the seminar was going to be about.
The article is neither cloying nor puffery. It’s a very professional feature story penned by Mr. Minzesheimer. To say that Mr. Minzesheimer or that USA Today was “bowing at her feet” by writing and publishing the piece, respectively, is an odd interpretation at best.
Now, on to the piece “Oprah Winfrey Isn’t Quite Holding her OWN” that ran in USA Today on March 21, 2012, and so wounded Winfrey. This was a news article written by Gary Levin, who has covered the TV beat for USA Today for a number of years. I know Gary. As I’ve told him a number of times, I think he’s one of the best reporters on the TV beat. His articles are accurate, clear, concise, insightful. They read smart. Given that it’s USA Today and Levin can’t write as long as some other reporters do, he has perfected the art of being copious yet succinct. Furthermore, I don’t think I’ve ever
read a piece Gary has written that I didn’t think was fair.
So I’m not sure why Oprah said his article about the problems at OWN — including the laying off of 30 people and the canceling of Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show — was “the worst.” Perhaps the headline bothered her — but maybe Oprah is not aware that most reporters at newspapers do not write the headlines that accompany their stories.
In the article, Levin wrote that OWN’s journey thus far has been “tumultuous.” Well, it has been. He quotes an analyst who said that OWN’s ratings “aren’t coming in anywhere near as forecast” and that Discovery may be considering pulling the plug on the network. Again, this is Levin quoting a named, on-the-record analyst from SNL Kagan, a respected company that follows the cable industry closely. He then quotes a named Discovery spokesperson saying that pulling the plug on the network is “absolutely not” being considered, and that Discovery is “in it for the long term.”
Levin then recounts some of the tumultuous history of OWN to date through March. Again, all of it was true. He ends his piece with OWN co-president Erik Logan saying that with the layoffs and other changes “we are poised for some tremendous growth from a business and ratings point of view.” Then, speaking of some upcoming shows on OWN, Logan says, “We’re much more confident that (they’re) much more on-brand than they were last summer.”
Levin’s piece was neither mean-spirited nor biased. It was an honest accounting of the news of the week about OWN, with some relevant explanation and analysis.
Sheri Salata, the co-president of OWN and the former executive producer of Oprah’s syndicated talk show, even told Oprah on the segment of “Oprah Builds a Network” where Oprah talks about her “worst week” that the “energy of all this, this week … we knew was coming. This is not a huge surprise.” Salata said the press reaction to the events of the week, that OWN had laid off employees and had canceled “a show [Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show] that had gotten so much press to begin with” was a “law of physics.” If Oprah had any reaction to Salata’s remarks, it wasn’t shown.
I’m also puzzled why Oprah characterized what Levin had written about her and OWN as “the antithesis of how I’ve lived my whole life.”
Here were Oprah’s final words about her “worst week” as she expressed them on the show: “I thought that in past years, having had to deal with the media and having to deal with various things that had gone wrong or decisions that I had made, that I knew what that felt like to be bombarded with that kind of negativity. The fact you’re not exempted from it, the fact that no matter what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve done, or how great the accolades were, that you are still susceptible to that kind of Schadenfreude, really, was really very helpful to me. So I will move though life differently, enhanced by that experience of the valley, and will be a better businesswoman and better person because of it.”
I realize that for whatever reason, Oprah thinks that many of the press accounts of that week were written from the viewpoint of the pleasure those of us in the press derived from her — and OWN’s — misfortunes.
Knowing that Oprah takes her spiritual journey through life seriously, I would have hoped that her take-away would have been that most of the media accounts written that week — and certainly the one she cites as the only one she read, in USA Today — were honest, frank reports about what seemed to be going on at OWN, written by hard-working journalists, who, as is usually the case, are on the outside of the company they were writing about, looking in. Schadenfreude had nothing to do with most of the reports.
I think Oprah found the stories hurtful because she interpreted them as saying that she had let people down. And maybe some of that is true. But as Salata put it, most of what was written that week Oprah should have known was coming. It should not have been a surprise.
Oprah’s reaction was one that happens too often. The messenger — the press — gets blamed for honestly reporting the negative news that’s out there.
The only surprise here is that someone as media savvy as Oprah was the one doing the blaming.