The wisdom of Oprah

After all her success as a talkshow superstar, Oprah Winfrey’s ability to stay grounded makes her an inspiring role model

In 2004, I took part in a BBC documentary series called Black Ambition, which documented the lives of six black students, including myself, in our final year at Cambridge University. My most memorable line in that documentary, and the one for which I got the most stick, was the one in which I said that I wanted to be like Oprah.

I’ve been enthralled by Oprah Winfrey for a long time. Although her daytime talk shows started to become a little too middle-aged for me some time ago and I admittedly don’t watch them very often now, it is the woman herself as well as what she represents that continues to inspire me.

Oprah is probably the most recognised and influential black woman in the world. She’s the world’s first black female billionaire, a major philanthropist, an award-winning actress, a massively successful talk show host, a magazine publisher, and a film producer – to name just a few of her many achievements. That is not the future that was expected of a someone who was raised on a farm in the deep South and then in inner city Milwaukee. It is not what was expected of a girl who was raped at the age of nine and became a mother at the age of 14 to a child who died in infancy.

In every way, from the start of her life until now, Winfrey has defied the odds. Her ability to do the unexpected has shown many other women, like myself, that you can have it all on a material and career level. However, more importantly, in a world which carries unrelenting pressures for women to look like airbrushed, glossy, stick-thin female celebrities, singers and models, Oprah also made it cool and important for women to accept their own humanity, imperfections and flaws.

Oprah showed us that “having it all” is about accepting yourself, warts and all, and being ok with who you are. She may be rich and powerful, but one thing Oprah isn’t is perfect. She’s not a traditional beauty, nor a size zero. In fact, Oprah has made no bones about her weight problems, her past and the various issues that she has gone through in her life. She has revealed her fears and to her flaws and it is the sharing of her vulnerability and authenticity that has arguably made her the global phenomenon that she is.

Celebrity culture is based on an illusion of perfection. It is still rare in this day and age to have a high profile person – unless they are caught doing something they shouldn’t have done – publicly admit, especially on a regular basis, that despite their riches and fame, they are really just human, dealing with their life and its baggage like everyone else. Oprah not only does that herself but has an amazing ability to get the guests who appear on her show to do the same.

With her Best Life programme, which is based on taking a holistic approach to life and focuses on emotional and spiritual success as well as financial success, Oprah brought to TV and eventually to print and online, the notion that people – women in particular – need to look at ourselves in a way that goes much deeper than the superficial. There’s no other mainstream talkshow host who will do an entire season of shows about spirituality, as Oprah did with Eckhart Tolle’s New Earth series. That series, which featured audience participation from around the globe via Skype, had people “ah-ha-ing” all over the place as they discovered new insights and experienced breakthroughs in all areas of their lives. Oprah emphasized that life isn’t just about what you do, but about your being.

The message that success in life means being whole, healthy and complete internally rather than just on the outside is one that is otherwise missing, not just from the media but from modern society as a whole. It’s a message that many desperately need to hear. Thanks to Oprah for bringing that to the world. Long may it continue as she starts her OWN cable TV channel in 2011.

Who’s the racist, Rupert?

By backing Glenn Beck’s wild rant that Barack Obama is racist, Rupert Murdoch is as incendiary as his Fox News pundits

When watching the likes of Glenn Beck (or other pundits of his leanings) on Fox News, I’m not just alarmed by the man himself. It takes a big team of people to sustain a daily TV show, so there are producers, writers, researchers and executives who decide there is value in him saying the things that he says. I’m often left wondering who those people are, and how it is that they feel comfortable with trying to pass such divisive and often bizarre ranting off as journalism. It has become clear that the support for Beck’s rhetoric goes much higher than just those involved in his show. In fact, Beck has support all the way from the very top – and it appears that the guy at the top is equally as misguided and ill-informed as he is.

Just this week, Rupert Murdoch, the proprietor of News Corp, which owns the Fox network in the US and so many other news entities around the world, told one of them – Sky News Australia – that Glenn Beck was “right” in his assertion that President Obama hates white people. The announcement that President Obama has a “deep-seated hatred of white people and white culture” is one of Beck’s most inflammatory and eyebrow-raising statements to date. This incendiary pronouncement, which was followed by a number of advertisers withdrawing their ads from Beck’s show, came after President Obama criticized the policeman in the Henry Louis Gates saga for having acted “stupidly” in arresting Gates just outside his own home.

Murdoch’s interview has, unsurprisingly, caused controversy, with civil rights groups like now demanding that Murdoch – whose position on whether or not Barack Obama is racist has changed a number of times this week – settles once and for all whether he agrees with Beck.

Murdoch’s words are indeed troubling. But it’s not even necessarily troubling that he believes that Obama is a racist. He is, after all, entitled to his opinion. In any case, Murdoch’s disdain for Obama is no secret: earlier this year he also described president’s policies as “dangerous”. What is most problematic here, however, is that he is the owner of influential news outlets, which are supposed to provide their viewers with facts, information and the truth about what’s happening in the world. This is an issue of journalistic standards and the future of the media.

When the White House denounced Fox News for acting as a “wing of the Republican Party” many conservatives saw this as the president using his power to silence his critics. However, it cannot be coincidental that News Corps’ news outlets – such as Fox News or the New York Post – seem to appear at the centre of racist or sexist controversies, that their pundits engage in race-baiting, or that the man who runs the company has now come out in public support for the views of the organisation’s most alarming pundits.

This isn’t just about media output but the very culture of at the heart of Murdoch’s News Corp. Currently, Sandra Guzman, a Latina who worked as a senior editor for the New York Post, is suing News Corp and the Post. She alleges that she was fired after she objected to a controversial cartoon published in the Post earlier this year, which made a thinly-vielled reference to President Obama as a crazed chimpanzee. She claims that the Post is a “hostile work environment where female employees and employees of colour have been subjected to pervasive and systemic discrimination and/or unlawful harassment based on their gender, race, colour and/or national origin.” While conspiracy theorists have their own conclusions about what Murdoch is aiming to do with his media empire, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that Murdoch appears to be consciously fostering an organisation which has ugly practices and the propagation of a certain kind of ideology at its root.

It is also clear that Murdoch has little regard for the truth. Not only did he misrepresent the president’s remarks in his TV interview – saying that Obama “did make a very racist comment about blacks and whites and so on” but was unable to explain exactly what it was – but at several points he also made inaccurate statements. One of these was his denial that Glenn Beck or anyone else had compared the president to Stalin when there are a multitude of video clips available in which Fox pundits do just that. This is more than just one elderly man’s perspective. It is an issue of journalistic integrity that, it is becoming clear, News Corp’s oputlets appear to sorely lack.

Deliberate distortion of the facts, bias and partisanship in the media are serious issues, especially considering how powerful the media can be in shaping our perceptions and ideas. While some silppage is to be expected, a line must be drawn somewhere. Fox News, in particular, cannot continue to pretend that it is a neutral entity when the very man who owns it is far from neutral in his views.

Just last night, Lou Dobbs stepped down from his position as a CNN presenter, an event long encouraged by protests from civil rights groupsupset that he was using his platform to voice his anti-immigrant statements as though they were truth. The public demands better of its journalists and news organisations. Murdoch owes that much to the public. If he continues along the same path, his staff can expect more reaction of the Lou Dobbs variety.