What Oprah's Endorsement Means for Obama

Oprah Winfrey has endorsed Sen. Barrack Obama (D-IL) for president and has been campaigning with him. Her participation in the campaign is making news because of her cultural reach and influence.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Make no mistake about it. An endorsement from Oprah is not your run-of-the-mill celebrity endorsement. That's because Oprah is not your run-of-the-mill celebrity.

NPR's Lynn Neary explains.

LYNN NEARY: Oprah Winfrey is a media mogul with nearly ubiquitous presence in the culture. A billionaire talk show host, she's on the cover of every issue of her own magazine, O. A co-founder of the Oxygen Network, she's a producer of films, made-for-TV movies and Broadway plays. But the real source of her power is the extraordinary connection she has with her TV audience.

Brian Lowry is the television critic for Variety.

Mr. BRIAN LOWRY (Television Critic, Variety): And when you watch the show, you see this bond that the audience has with her in the way that they buy into what she's telling them and really see her as, you know, as one of them in a way, despite all the success and despite all the money, they really approach her on a level where Oprah is their girlfriend.

(Soundbite of talk show, "Oprah")

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Talk Show Host): This is big. We went to the top anti-aging experts and found some really simple things - and some not so simple - that you can do to begin to take years off of your looks. Because I'm selling 50 now; I'm selling it.

(Soundbite of audience)

NEARY: You would have predicted Oprah's extraordinary rise to power when she began her career hosting a local TV talk show first in Baltimore and then in Chicago. Her show went national in the late '80s. And within a few years, TV talk show hosts were coming under criticism for thriving on the sensational exploitation of other people's problems.

In 1994, says Brian Lowry, Oprah decided to focus on more positive subjects.

Mr. LOWRY: And I think at that point that she did that the show went from, you know, unpopular daytime show into something that's almost a little bit more like a crusade.

NEARY: When Oprah began promoting, says Janice Peck, author of the upcoming book "The Age of Oprah," was the power of personal transformation: physically, spiritually, intellectually. Peck says when Oprah began her on-air book club in 1996, her image changed.

Ms. JANICE PECK (Author, "The Age of Oprah"): And that particular element really worked to help transform the public perception of her and move her out of the category of low culture trash television to kind of high culture, because here she was now the champion of literature.

NEARY: Until that time, says Publishers Weekly editor in chief Sara Nelson, Oprah Winfrey was not a factor in publishing.

Mr. SARA NELSON (Editor in Chief, Publishers Weekly): I mean, she was a talk show host - she was a successful talk show host. I think she was - and very important to the people who watched her show. But in terms of publishing, I don't think she had much of a portfolio at all.

NEARY: Now a nod from Oprah Winfrey can turn even obscure books into bestsellers. But the attention can go both ways. When it turned out that one of her book club picks, the memoir of "Million Little Pieces," was at least partly fabricated, she brought the author James Frey on to her show for a very public grilling.

(Soundbite of show, "Oprah")

Ms. WINFREY: And I sat on this stage back in September and I asked you, you know, lots of questions and what you conveyed to me and I think to millions of other people was that, that was all true. That was all true.

Mr. JAMES FREY (Author, "A Million Little Pieces"): I made a mistake.

NEARY: That incident showed that Oprah Winfrey can also make a mistake. And some wonder if she's making a mistake endorsing Barack Obama.

Janice Peck says there's already some online grumbling.

Ms. PECK: There are some indications that - of concern that she's endorsed a black man, you know, that because her audience is majority white. And so there's this kind of concern that it's some kind of identity politics and she's endorsing him simply because he is black, because, of course, her relationship with her audience is based on the idea that there's no color.

NEARY: In fact, the biggest segment of Oprah's audience is white women over the age of 55. And getting that group of people to buy a book might be a lot easier than getting them to vote for your candidate.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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