Oprah Winfrey has legions of faithful followers across the country, but they’d do well to keep a careful eye out as they tread the trail that Oprah blazes: the aftermath of her “good works” and “good judgment” is sometimes messy—and even dangerous. Recent news reports have warned of the dangers of taking medical advice from Oprah and her guests, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It seems that when your reach is as long as Winfrey’s, there are a thousand little (and not so little) ways to be wrong—and unlike most of us, Oprah manages to inspire millions to join in her mistakes. The television diva, who Forbes magazine estimated in 2007 had made $1.5 billion in her career, seems to be able to sail through the glitches undamaged. Unfortunately, that’s not always true for those who’ve put their faith in her.
Free Cars for Everyone
In 2004, Oprah “gave” 276 people in her audience brand new cars. The cars were actually donated by Pontiac, but of course it was Oprah who got the rush of publicity surrounding the event, and we all saw clips of grateful, screaming new-car owners. Most of us would be excited if unexpectedly gifted with a new car, but these recipients were particularly happy—letters from friends and family had helped Oprah’s staff select people truly in need of vehicles. The cameras had for the most part turned toward fresher news when, a week later, CNN Money reported that none of those winners could keep the cars they’d been “given” unless they were able to cough up thousands of dollars to cover taxes. The $28,500 value of the cars was taxable income, potentially leaving some recipients on the hook for as much as $7,000 in additional income taxes. The only way to avoid the taxes was to forfeit the car.
Whenever Oprah advocates something new, whether a book or a Presidential candidate or the benefits of lighting candles, people around the country line up to jump on board—but maybe some of those ideas should come with instruction manuals or warning labels. On Christmas Eve 1999, both major Chicago newspapers reported that more than a dozen elderly residents of a north shore retirement community had been hospitalized after a 73-year-old woman took Oprah’s exhortation to leave a candle burning to heart and inadvertently set fire to the building.
An Overnight Bestseller
Oprah Winfrey started her book club in 1996, and launched many authors to fame and fortune. Her very first selection, Jacquelyn Mitchard’s first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, reached # 1 on the New York Times bestseller list just 19 days after the selection was announced. Libraries around the country received sealed boxes in advance of new book announcements in order to accommodate the sudden demand for the books Oprah chose. But maybe she should have stuck with fiction. In the fall of 2005, Oprah introduced James Frey and his “memoir” A Million Little Pieces to the world. Apparently, her research staff was on vacation that week—and again in January, when Winfrey called in to Larry King Live to defend Frey in the face of questions about the book’s authenticity. She stated that the book’s authenticity still resonated with her, and called the controversy “much ado about nothing”. Two weeks later, she brought Frey back onto the show and confronted him in front of a live audience; his publisher claimed they’d been misled about the subject of the show. Frey’s semi-fictional “memoir” sold 2 million copies in the three-month window between Oprah’s announcement of its selection and their televised feud. Years later, Winfrey reversed herself yet again, phoning Frey to apologize for the way she’d treated him on the show.
Lesson (Not) Learned
Oprah’s fact-checking procedures are nothing if not consistent. The author of Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love that Survived got more than a book club endorsement—long before there was a book, Herman Rosenblat told the world his story on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Winfrey called his tale “the single greatest love story” she’d had on her show, and had him on her show twice. The publicity Rosenblat received helped him acquire a literary agent and land a book contract before word got out that key elements of his story were not only false, but blatantly impossible. Although questions about the veracity of the story began to circulate years ago—some of them easily fact-checked issues like the absence or presence of the fence central to the story—Winfrey kept mum until proof emerged that the story was “fictionalized” and the original publisher dropped the book.
Celebrity Endorsements for All
In December of 2004, Winfrey plugged “Airborne”, an alleged cold-prevention product “invented by a schoolteacher”. The schoolteacher, Victoria Knight McDowell, was a guest on Oprah’s television show and Oprah referred to the product as “amazing”. Immediately, demand skyrocketed, and retailers reported shortages of the product for several weeks. Last year, the company that makes Airborne agreed to pay more than $23 million in a class action settlement based on false representations about the product. GNG Pharmaceutical Services had provided the only purported clinical study with results supporting the efficacy of Airborne. Unfortunately, the two-man company was lacking a few necessary components for a valid clinical trial—like doctors and scientists.
Over 9,000 Penises
Apparently, Oprah’s tendency to speak first and gather information later didn’t go unnoticed. During an episode about pedophiles, anonymous pranksters submitted a comment claiming to be part of an organization that had “over 9,000 penises”. Winfrey dutifully read the comment out loud on the air, earnestly citing this as evidence of “what our children are up against”, going on to say “I want you to know that they are organized, and they have systematic ways of hurting children.” That’s undoubtedly true, but the comment in question apparently didn’t come from a pedophile bragging about his network but from an anonymous user who wanted to see whether he (or she?) could get Oprah to say “9,000 penises” on the air. Silly question—isn’t it clear by now that she’ll report first and research only when backed into a corner?
Trust Me with Your Children
Two years ago, Winfrey made a huge and well-intentioned investment in a school for underprivileged girls in South Africa. Early in 2007 she made an emotional speech in which she said, “I now have all of these daughters”. But less than a year later, the school was rocked by allegations of abuse by staffers, including inappropriate fondling and a child being thrown up against a wall. To her credit, Winfrey responded immediately, traveling to the school herself and hiring a seasoned child welfare investigator to work with South African police in investigating the complaints, but wouldn’t the appropriate time to investigate the school staff have been before they started working with the children? It would be much easier to excuse this as the kind of unfortunate event that could happen to anyone if there weren’t so many other “oops, I forgot to do my homework” items on the Oprah scoreboard.
Oops, I Scared Myself
In 2007, Oprah helped lead the charge in support of The Secret and the alleged power of the Law of Attraction. Oprah told the world that the book—which advocates the use of the power of thought in place of more conventional treatments like chemotherapy—encapsulated everything she believed in. But, according to Newsweek, Oprah backpedaled just weeks later when a viewer wrote in to tell her that she was taking the message to heart and eschewing the surgery and chemotherapy her doctors recommended for breast cancer. She invited the woman on the show, where Winfrey urged her to listen to her doctors and suggested that she’d been misunderstood, “clarifying” that The Secret was “not the answer to all questions.” That’s one disaster (hopefully) averted; how many other viewers carried away the same lesson but didn’t write in to tell Oprah about their decisions?
Getting off the Rollercoaster
In 1988, Oprah appeared on the air with a wagon full of fat, to show us just how much weight she’d lost during her four months on a liquid protein diet. The clear message to the world, of course, was “look what great things this diet can do”, but she’s since admitted that she never again fit in the jeans she wore on that show, and two years later she was tipping the scales at 237 pounds. She told us then, “I’ll never diet again”, kicking off a nearly 20-year odyssey of weight gain and loss. Oprah told us she was getting off the roller coaster again in 1996, when she hired personal trainer Bob Greene, but the ride still didn’t end. Early in 2009, Oprah announced that she’d gained 40 pounds since 2006, bringing her back to 200 pounds. Of course, many people struggle with weight problems. Oprah, a self-described food addict with thyroid problems to boot, has a tough battle to wage and millions of eyes on her while she does so. But if she doesn’t have the answer maybe she could…just stop announcing that she’s found the answer and dragging thousands of women along with her as she experiments?
That’s not a personal opinion, but the one voiced by an overwhelming number of Oprah’s fans after her fascination with the service led to sponsorship of the show, integration into her production, and frequent plugs. Some have suggested that Skype simply isn’t up to the glossy production level Winfrey’s viewers have grown accustomed to, while others point to her less-than-enthusiastic delivery, but whatever the cause, something clearly isn’t working. In May, Oprah devoted an hour to Skype and the famous “Oprah Effect” was entirely absent: the product’s download rate didn’t move at all.
Oprah’s “Crash Moment”
During the summer of 2005, Oprah experienced her “Crash moment”; at least, that’s the racially-charged description offered up by a spokeswoman at Oprah’s company. The diva had been denied entrance to the Hermes shop in Paris, leading to news reports, a complaint from Winfrey to the President of the company, a description of the incident on her show, and eventually an apology from a high-level Hermes executive on television. After the apology, Oprah generously went to the trouble of telling boycotting fans to go ahead and “wear the bag” if they wanted to. All of this might have been quite reasonable but for one little detail: Oprah arrived at the store 15 minutes after closing time and without prior arrangements. No worries, though—she assured us that she wasn’t “playing the celebrity card”.
Two Free Pieces of Chicken
There’s nothing out of the ordinary about celebrities helping to promote products, so we would have thought that even Oprah could get on board with something as simple as KFC’s promotion of its new grilled chicken without creating chaos. We’d have been wrong. First there were chicken shortages. Then there may or may not have been a sit-in and “near riots”—local news outlets seemed to think there might have been, but KFC denies everything. Then there were the questions about whether the allegedly health-conscious Winfrey should really be promoting a product loaded with MSG. And then, just when the dust was starting to settle, a lawsuit. Consumers filed against KFC’s parent company, alleging that the free chicken offer was in fact a “bait and switch” scam. That’s beef, chicken…pork lawsuit, anyone?
In a long and extraordinarily successful career, Oprah Winfrey has often been wrong, but she rarely, if ever, conveys uncertainty. She’s admitted to having used cocaine in her 20s, under the influence of her then-boyfriend. She’s made questionable diet and health choices and presented each one to the world as a wonderful new discovery, only to change programs, beliefs and approaches. She’s invited at least two blatant frauds to share their stories with the world on her show, and has encouraged us to buy books full of lies and health products with no proven benefits. She is, in short, wrong quite a lot. And that’s okay. Most of us are. Most of us, though, don’t have millions of people accepting our every word as gospel. That should inspire a person to choose her words with a bit more care.