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She knocks materialistic kids in US but they serve the very beast she helped create, writes Eric Deggans

By unknown | Jan 24, 2007 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

It's the curse of the critic to be a perpetual cynic.

It's the curse of the critic to be a perpetual cynic.

Where others see stardust, we must see ego and opportunity. Where others see altruism, we must look for self-interest and hypocrisy. It's the gig, people.

Nowhere has this cynicism loomed larger for me than in considering the Queen of All Media, Oprah Winfrey, and her new R280million school for girls in South Africa.

Much as I've admired her altruism and principled stands, I find myself quite ambivalent about O's overall influence as a media figure.

When she brought her big-ticket, five-hour motivational Live Your Best Life tour to Tampa, in the US, a few years ago, I wrote about how fan worship of her work seemed almost religious. Among all the journalists who covered her that day, I was the only one so cynical that my photographer, Jamie Francis, took a picture of my scowling mug and taped it to my office door.

So, as I have waded through the orgy of media coverage on Winfrey's new school for girls in South Africa, I was struck by a particular comment she made about education in the US.

Here's what she said, according to Newsweekmagazine: "I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools [in America] that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn't there."

She added: "If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don't ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school."

This, of course, caused quite a ripple through the punditocracy, winning kudos from, among others, conservative blowhard Rush Limbaugh and Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page.

And why not? The preoccupation of American kids with material stuff, even those who are dirt poor, has been well documented. A reporter pal told me recently that he's even seen some homeless people with laptops and e-mail accounts.

Frustration over the country's growing education problems makes it easy to wish these kids would just get wise and start cracking the books.

It is tough to argue with a media figure who puts her money where her values are like Winfrey.

Her R280million pledge to build a much-needed quality school for girls in Africa is the kind of direct, involved altruism we have come to expect from her. Whether she's handing out new homes to Katrina victims or prodding her sizeable following to buy goods to support U2 singer Bono's Red campaign, Winfrey combines doing good with doing well in a way few other celebrities have managed in modern times.

Only Winfrey could make the slogan "save lives while you shop" feel like bona fide philanthropy.

But then the critic in me rears its ugly head, and I have to point out a truth that is both inconvenient and troubling.

Winfrey is part of the very problem she criticises.

When you consider why American kids might react so differently from their South African counterparts, the pervasiveness of media and the materialistic drumbeat of American pop culture must be a factor. And I don't just mean the rap videos clogging up the airwaves.

Who is celebrated the most in our culture? Is it the thinkers, scientists and doctors and great writers? Or is it celebrities like Britney and Paris and Brad and Jennifer and, oh yeah, Winfrey?

When a recent episode on Winfrey's own show centred on the homeless, she didn't turn to substantive journalists who have explored the issue in her own backyard at the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Reporter or from local TV.

Instead, she asked Anderson Cooper, who compiled the report in between his work for 60 Minutes and his day job on CNN. When she needs emotive reporting on issues overseas, she doesn't often tap folks who have been in the trenches for decades and know the issues intimately - she gives precious airtime to former Viewco-host Lisa Ling, also host of National Geographic Channel's Explorer.

But these moves also provide an unintended lesson: that celebrity and an image that resonates with Winfrey's audience demographic matters nearly as much as expertise.

We have huge industries that generate massive profits by selling products as a lifestyle. These days you don't just buy an iPod - or, soon, an iPhone; that purchase is a gateway to a tech-savvy life that is cool, cutting-edge and effortlessly stylish.

Everything from video games to sneakers and gum is sold this way, using media that follows kids everywhere on cell- phones, on the Internet, on the backs of their friends' clothing and in the lyrics of the songs they love.

And many of the sponsors she does business with are the prime cultivators of these messages.

So much in our culture tells young people to lust after the latest product by Apple or Jimmy Choo. And Winfrey, whose "fetishising" of celebrity and high-end consumer goods is legendary, has fed that as much as anyone in modern media.

I have seen the list of her favourite things that has its own website and it ranges from a R140 pair of cashmere socks to a R4200 Philip Stein Teslar watch and beyond.

In Africa, they learn education is the gateway to a better life. In America, kids learn an iPod or Michael Jordan sneakers deliver the pathway to lessons taught, in part, by the adverts packed into TV shows that they spend more than four hours every day consuming. The heroes they see feted on magazine covers and TV talk shows aren't geneticists, college professors, lawyers or accountants; they are the Jessica Simpsons, the P Diddys and even the K-Feds.

Can we really look at our most underprivileged young people and fault them for learning the lessons of materialism and celebrity obsession that our media culture feeds them every day?

Winfrey, who manipulates her image deftly as any celebrity, knows this. So why is she criticising America's youth for serving a beast she helped create? - New York TimesNew York Times


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