Oprah’s Neoliberal Empire

Following on from last week’s discussion about the tyranny of positive thinking here is Janice Peck, author of the excellent The Age of Oprah: The Making of a Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era speaks about the place of Oprah Winfrey’s media enterprise in the last quarter century of U.S. culture and politics. The first interview was conducted by Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report, the latter by Bob McChesney of Media Matters. (Update: The first mp3 appears to have vanished from the internet. I have reproduced a transcript of Dixon’s interview with Peck below).

(Also don’t miss the excellent piece, ‘The selling of “Precious”‘ by Ishmael Reed.)

Janice Peck  Associate Professor at the University of Colorado, her research interests include critical theory, the relationship of media and society, the social meanings and political implications of mediated popular culture, communication history and theories of media and culture. She has also authored a book on the history and politics of religious television in the U.S.,The Gods of Televangelism: The Crisis of Meaning and the Appeal of Religious Television (1993).  She has published articles and book chapters on the theoretical and intellectual history of cultural studies, issues in media theory, the family and television, TV talk shows, Oprah’s Book Club and issues of literacy, religion and advertising, and representations of race in media.

A Black Agenda Radio Interview by Bruce Dixon

The following is a rushed and lightly edited transcript of Black Agenda Report’s Managing Editor Bruce Dixon’s on-air interview with Dr. Janice Peck, author of The Age of Oprah, Cultural Icon For the Neoliberal Era, broadcast Monday, June 2, on WRFG Atlanta’s Just Peace show.

If you work hard enough, if you prepare long enough, if you visualize astutely and pray on it resolutely, it really can happen for you. At least that’s the way it works in the world of Oprah Winfrey. In the Age of Oprah, author Janice Peck explains, there’s no such thing as collective problem-solving; there are only individual, market-driven and spirit-centered solutions. Water polluted? Buy it bottled. Dissatisfied with your kids’ school? Find a private one or home school. Dead-end job with no respect and no benefits? Polish that resume and assume an attitude of gratitude, or get ready to start your own business. House falling down? Maybe you can qualify for an extreme makeover. Is the world view of Oprah really uplifting after all? Or does it disempower individuals and disarm communities?

Bruce Dixon: Unless you’ve lived the last 25 years in some cave under a mountain with no cable TV, Oprah Winfrey is one of those figures in American life that need no introduction. We’re all familiar with the outlines of her life and career: how she rose from rural poverty in Mississippi to head a vast media empire of radio networks, TV and movie production houses, multiple magazines, a web site and of course a long running syndicated talk show with multiple spin-offs. We know Oprah is a billionaire, and we’re acquainted with various, intimate personal details of her life, her favorite colors, how many dogs, cats and houses she has, and how she likes to shop and especially how she likes to give away money and things to the less fortunate.

Don’t we already know just about all there is to know about Oprah? What else is there?

Janice Peck: You’re right the vast popular literature on Oprah is enormous. I think there are things we (still) want to know, and that’s what drove me to write this book about her.

What I wanted to do is not look at Oprah from a personal perspective, but to situate her historically and politically, to understand how she became this very powerful world and international icon in relation to some political and economic developments in the US over the last twenty-five years. In some ways what I’ve done is tried to write a political history of the enterprise of Oprah and what she’s done, something quite different from most of the things we usually see written about her.

BD: Since this is a political history of Oprah, how Oprah relates to culture and politics, does that mean that you had to sit down and talk to her about this?

JP: I actually did not interview Oprah Winfrey for this project, for a couple reasons. One is very simple. In the ’90s when I was teaching at the University of Minnesota and first got interested in studying television talk shows, I wanted to go to Chicago to be in the audience and interview Oprah Winfrey, and I was told by her publicist at the time that Ms. Winfrey did not talk to academics, she did not give interviews to academics. Well, I thought, that’s alright, I don’t really need to talk to her. But also because the kind of book I’ve written is not really a biography, where you need to talk to the individual and learn a lot about her personally. I’m writing about her as a cultural phenomenon and public figure. I’m looking at her through the lens of this enormous amount of media coverage we have on her. In some sense talking to her wasn’t what my book was about. It’s more an observation about her power, her cultural significance from the perspective of a media analysis.

BD: So if we want to know where her favorite shoe store is or something like that, we’ll have to read the magazine, huh?

JP: Yeah, there are plenty of other places where you can find those kinds of things. I didn’t think I needed to repeat them.

BD: We probably couldn’t afford to go to her favorite shoe store anyway.

JP: Most people cannot . . . I chose the title “The Age of Oprah, cultural Icon for the Neo Liberal Era” because in 2000 Newsweek magazine had a cover story that referred to our age as the “Age of Oprah.” I thought that was a perfect title because I’m trying to make the argument that Oprah Winfrey represents certain important things about our era. That’s where I got the first part of the title.

BD: You’re calling her a cultural icon for the neoliberal era. Now we understand that you’re not calling her liberal, or even neoliberal, but that neoliberal is a label for the times in which we are living. So what are some of the hallmarks of this neoliberal era that we’re living in, and what makes Oprah a cultural icon for neoliberalism.

JP: Neoliberal and neoliberalism are terms that refer to an economic theory and also a set of policies. We can historically situate that with the election of Ronald Regan in the US and of Margaret Thatcher in England. It’s a theory about what kind of relationship the government should have to the economy. It’s a response to what was seen as a kind of economic crisis in the ’70s with high inflation, what was called stagflation. This was seen as a way to correct that.

After World War II, in the US the idea of the relationship of the government to the economy was that the government needed to intervene in the economy to make sure that we avoided crises like the Great Depression, for example. So it was the responsibility of the government to focus on full employment and economic growth, on the welfare of citizens, and that would guarantee economic and political stability. When there was this crisis in the ’70s with rising prices and inflation (falling profits) neoliberalism was presented as the solution. It’s got several things that are very familiar to us. First of all, very drastic tax cuts, especially for big corporations and those at the top of the economic ladder. Deregulation, where government holds back from regulating the airlines, the banking industry and so on. Privatization of services that had been the responsibility of the government, so utilities and mail service and prisons and defense — we now have all these privately owned prisons, for-profit prisons, and we have contractors fighting the war in Iraq. And finally, large cutbacks in spending on social programs. Most people can see that in cuts of education. At the public university where I teach only seven percent of its budget comes from the state of Colorado. And we especially have seen cutbacks in the services that were to assist the most needy citizens.

BD: So neoliberalism basically started with Reaganomics and the descendants of Reaganomics — privatization and militarization — are still with us. So what is it that makes Oprah the cultural icon of neoliberalism? She doesn’t talk about the army or about privatization, so what’s that got to do with her?

JP: That’s a great question. That’s the project I am trying to accomplish with this book. Basically Oprah has risen from the middle and early ’80s from somebody who was just a talk show host. Today she is seen as somebody who is a kind of world figure, everybody knows her by her first name. My argument is that the way to understand the journey of this woman is to understand neoliberalism as a political and economic project. For example, if we start looking at neoliberalism it argues that any political or social issue that we encounter today must be seen through the lens of the market, the free market. It turns all problems into individual ones that can be solved in the market. If there’s contamination of the water table, for instance, we should buy bottled water. That kind of attitude, that we should solve problems with the market and through individual activity and individual transformation is ultimately the same message that Oprah Winfrey sells to us.

BD: So you’re saying that Oprah is the messenger, she brings us the message of what’s required for us to adjust our attitudes neoliberalism and this neoliberal order require of us ordinary people, how it requires us to look at all of our problems as individual problems. None of our problems, then, need to be addressed by organizing and communicating with each other.

JP: Neoliberalism emphasizes a kind of minimal government, a stripped down, hollowed out government and maximum personal responsibility. I think this term personal responsibility will probably ring familiar with your listeners. We hear it all the time, we hear it from politicians and also we hear it from Oprah. If we have problems, if our lives are not going well if, we don’t have the things we want in our lives, then what we need to do is take personal responsibility, put our minds to it, have the right attitude and so on. That is the key to bringing about positive change. To give you an example of this, where Oprah very much exemplifies this idea that the market and individual positive attitudes are the solutions to social problems, your listeners may be familiar with a show that was on this season called Oprah’s Big Give. It’s a “reality” show where people are competing, who can give the most, who can find the neediest people, and so on. There are a couple of points in that series that really stood out.

One was in Houston, where one of the contestants decided that they were going to help this public school, this grade school in the city that needed computers, and had no playgrounds and basically had very few resources. You’ve got all these kids at the end, they built the playground, the kids were screaming with joy, the teachers were sobbing, they were so pleased. It’s a city school. It’s a public school where most of the kids we see are black or Latino. We’ve got this really “feel good” moment where the kids get this, but if you step back from it one of the things we might ask is why are public schools in the United States are so drastically underfunded and why is this seen as a solution, this charity, as opposed to taxation, where (through) the government, that we all pay taxes to we are all collectively responsible for things like education.

That is the way in which Oprah models the [neoliberal] attitude we should have toward the world. We can be personally generous with others when we find people who are the deservingly needy but we don’t ask questions about the way our society is organized and the way resources are distributed.

BD: There are even imitators . . . the Extreme Makeover (Home Edition)show where they build somebody a new house every week

JP: Other people have studied this too. They call it “charity TV.” In the final episode (of Extreme Makeover) this season they went to New Orleans. They found a couple of families who were made homeless by Katrina. They built them new houses, and everybody feels real good, but they don’t step back and ask the questions most of us would like to have answered.

BD: Such as, why whole neighborhoods never got their sewer and water service restored, or why vast square miles of real estate that black families actually owned are gone?

JP: And what parts of the city are going to be rebuilt and which citizens of New Orleans are going to be welcomed back. None of those questions are asked, nor why the levees were in such terrible shape to begin with, because of this gutted government that doesn’t pay for things.

BD: Oprah’s life and career are offered as living proof of the maxim that if you can dream it, you can envision it; you can pray on it, it’ll happen for you, no matter what the odds. Most people will agree that this is a message that has no politics, liberal, neoliberal or otherwise, that it’s a profoundly positive and empowering message. What, if anything are these people missing?

JP: There’s nothing wrong with saying we should dream, have dreams and aspire to fulfill them, but I think it’s important not to decontextualize that. Because of the misallocation of resources in our society you have to begin with those kinds of questions. The idea that the only thing that stands in the way of someone like me, who is at this point a professional middle class white woman with lots of education and a good salary, that there’s no difference between me and some woman, also my age, in her fifties, a woman without all those resources, that we’re the same and all we have to do is take personal responsibility and dream big, that’s actually a very harmful message, because it’s a de-socialized message, it’s a depoliticized message. I

Part of what I’m arguing here is not that she’s personally a liberal or a conservative or whatever, but that there is a politics to her message…

BD: Like you just said, it’s a de-socialized politics that puts the personal responsibility for being poor and oppressed exclusively on the poor and oppressed.

JP: Yeah, and it’s a comforting message for those who don’t have to feel that they have any responsibility or any obligation to their fellow citizens, because we’re all simply about personal responsibility. I’m trying to argue that that is a political move which ultimately denies that we are all responsible for one another.

BD: Speaking of comforting messages, Oprah is also one of those characters who, like a certain presidential candidate this season, is said to have “transcended race.” Now, “transcending race” should be a good thing, shouldn’t it? Why is this not a good thing with Oprah?

JP: I have a chapter in my book that’s about this question of “transcending race.” The idea that we should aspire to live in a world in which we all regard each other as equals and fellow citizens regardless of race — that’s a very nice idea. I’m not opposed to that. But to say that Oprah “transcends race” in my analysis has a lot to do with the fact that she is a very comforting presence to her majority white following. The way she accomplishes that is not to do or say anything that would make her white followers uncomfortable. So to present the world as though it’s a post-racial world, and race is no longer a problem, that we’ve solved all that in the sixties and so on, is a very comforting thing for her white followers.

So Oprah has disassociated herself from a lot of the political aspects of the civil rights movement, even as she mentions certain kinds of heroic figures, like Sojourner Truth or Martin Luther King. Early in her career she talked about going to an all-black college and not feeling comfortable with her fellow students…

BD: Why not?

JP: Because they were angry…

BD: Oh dear. All those angry black people

JP: And she was not comfortable around those kinds of students. At the beginning of her career she gave interviews distancing herself from that kind of black history and black experience, so when you say she has “transcended race” I say in my book that in some ways that just means that white people like her. We don’t live in a society that has transcended race, so it’s only possible to do so if you cover up, if you avoid certain kinds of issues. That’s been very much the case with Oprah Winfrey.

BD: So Oprah can keep enough of her black self to be able to do that neck thing that sistas do, or to drop a couple paragraphs in fluent ebonics if she needs to, but she makes folks comfortable, she’s a comforting figure for people who maybe shouldn’t be all that comfortable.

JP: You don’t get to be popular the way she is if you make too many people uncomfortable. It’s the same sort of thing with the Cosby show, (which) was the number one TV show for years. In order to be number one, to have that massive audience, it’s got to be careful not to upset people.

BD: There’s a saying that goes “nothing succeeds like successs.” Oprah’s done very well for herself in building audience share and influence, and a vast personal fortune. So isn’t the lesson for bright young people, especially black people, who are looking to change the world through media, isn’t the message to follow in her footprints, right? To be upbeat and positive, to give the market what it wants. Isn’t that the lesson of Oprah’s career?

JP: It’s certainly the lesson that she would like to pass on. But as a media critic, I guess I would encourage not only black young people, but all young people who are interested in going into media to think about some other kinds of contributions they could make to society as well.

BD: So thank you for this half hour, this twenty-five minutes, really. Say the name of the book again, please.

JP: The book is the Age of Oprah, Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era. It seems to be selling OK. I was interviewed by the New York Times last week about a story that has to do with Oprah’s ratings declining over the last few years.

BD: Why would Oprah’s ratings decline?

JP: There’s been a flurry of news stories in the past week that began with aTimes story . . . her ratings have declined for the last three years straight. She is still the number one talk show, but she has lost a quarter of her female audience age 25 to 54 over the last three years. Her circulation for the magazine is down too. There are questions too as to whether her endorsement of Obama has hurt her, but I guess we’ll have to discuss that in another venue, since we are out of time now.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

One thought on “Oprah’s Neoliberal Empire”

  1. I liked this article but since I am a practical kind of person, I would like to ask what sort of alternatives or solutions to the problems of privatisation, economic rationalism and neoliberalism does the author or pulse contributors/readers envisage or propose?

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