Oprah Winfrey, journalist?

Oprah's out; Barbara Walters is in. Members of an elite club decide who's a 'journalist' and who's not.

By James Poniewozik
October 28, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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True to its Thackerayan name, Vanity Fair is a lot of things in one mailbox-busting package, from highbrow journal of criticism and reportage to Hollywood nymph-o-meter. But the magazine's massive photo-spread packages carry out its most distinctive mission: to be the unofficial yearbook of the exclusive high school that is American celebrity. The latest example, "America's Most Influential Women" (November), plants 200 of the Class of '98's popular kids in gracious settings with the sort of jokily inoffensive titles -- "All-State" for Madeleine Albright, "Please Be Advised" for Ann Landers -- that practically cry out for purple Scripto autographs ("Dear Hil: Don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow! Friends 4ever, Tipper").

So it's all the more jarring to find, buried among these cautious encomiums, an odd, perhaps unintended dis of one of the most revered personalities on the planet: Oprah Winfrey, photographed together with Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters under the class-presidential heading "On Top of the World." "You could call Oprah Winfrey an empire," reads the caption, "but -- unlike her colleagues here -- not really a journalist."


For those of you youngsters in J-school this semester, take note -- the following will be on the midterm. What exactly is the dividing line between, say, Walters' new daytime talk show "The View" and "Oprah"?

  • Hosting a daytime talk show filled with softball interviews and gratuitous plugs for your network's prime-time sitcoms and your own "20/20" interviews: Journalism

  • Hosting a daytime talk show on hot-button social issues and moderating contentious arguments between guests and audience members: Not Really Journalism

  • Loosing Debbie Matenopolous on an unsuspecting world: Journalism

  • Fighting a high-profile libel trial against the cattle industry: Not Really Journalism

To be fair, VF's caption continues, "On the other hand, who does a better job of telling us what's really going on inside American homes and hearts?" -- no doubt a wise bit of bet hedging when you're dealing with the publishing, television and movie magnate with perhaps the eeriest command over the teeming millions since Huey Long. Still, the veiled jab remains, although it ultimately probably says less about Sawyer, Walters or Winfrey than it does about the general nervousness among the media. As the public has lumped together talk shows, gossip fests and the respectable news media -- whatever the hell that is -- people who call themselves journalists have been making huffy efforts to clarify just who does and does not merit the J-word.

Forget for a moment that, among other things, Winfrey was -- precisely like Sawyer and Walters -- a pioneering news anchor (at age 19 she was the first black woman co-anchor in Nashville): What exactly does she do on her daily show that isn't regularly called journalism in metro newspapers, magazines and network news programs? Weepily delving into celebrities' childhood memories as they flog their new movies? Oops, sorry, that was journalist Diane Sawyer -- interviewing Oprah herself on "20/20" this Sunday to discuss "Beloved." Offering relationship and parenting advice? Check your daily features section. Even the much-litigated mad-cow-disease incident was just a splashier example of the kind of salad-bar-exposis that fill space on news-at-11 shows across the country. Oprah just has to do it in front of an audience, standing up, and with less recourse to videotape editing.


There are plenty of reasons people might find it distasteful to call Oprah a journalist, but these aren't objective arguments so much as moral judgments. Which is more or less what the term "journalist" has come to mean: "a writer or broadcaster of whose work I personally approve."

If there is such confusion today about who is and isn't a journalist, the problem is not so much the new media and infotainment formats as the fact that "journalist," as we use it, is a fairly useless term to begin with -- a product of the American tendency to take perfectly respectable jobs and gussy them up as "professions." When a wide range of reporters, critics, opinioneers and so forth collectively aggrandized themselves as "journalists," they popularized one of the slipperiest umbrella terms in the language (one that I'm just as guilty of using as anyone else), a $5 euphuism to justify paying for four-plus years of college to enter a career you could more or less equip yourself for with on-the-job training and a half-hour trip to Staples. In a land where teachers have vociferously become educators, where the unemployed have become consultants, what is the difference between a "reporter" and a "journalist"? At least a few grand a year.

This may sound like a picky semantic game, but these semantics make a real difference in the perception of the field. Having conferred this grand "ism" on themselves, journalists now complain when the public, quite understandably, follows their example and applies that same overbroad definition to the Matt Drudges, Roseannes and Oprahs of the world. At the Excellence in International Journalism awards earlier this month, for example, PBS anchor Jim Lehrer quoted former Chicago Tribune editor Jim Squires, regretting that "Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy and Clinton White House adviser George Stephanopoulos are both now widely considered to be journalists."


It's a fair enough concern, but despite Lehrer's description of it as a novelty -- his speech goes on about the "new blurring of the lines," "new savagery," "new arrogance," and "new problem with entertainment" of the "new journalism" -- it's an older one than he implies. Even on Lehrer's highly principled "News Hour," the public has seen David Gergen as a journalist for years, in between stints in government: Now he's a pundit; now a bipartisan witch doctor for Bill Clinton; now, hosting "Gergen Dialogues" on the "News Hour," a sort of second-string Charlie Rose. If there's a difference between him and Gorgeous George, it's one of degree, not kind. You might say that, unlike Gergen, Stephanopoulos hasn't paid enough old-school journalism dues, but that's a rather fine distinction to expect the viewing public to make: You've seen one sometime pol playing Magic Eight Ball on the news, you've seen the next one, too.

No person has caused more journalistic wagon-circling this past year than Matt Drudge, the subject of a surprisingly unsanctimonious cover story by David McClintick in the November Brill's Content. The official reaction against Drudge crescendoed in June when he addressed the National Press Club, prompting a rash of commentary on whether he deserved his "J" letter sweater: "There aren't many in this hallowed room who consider you a journalist," club president Doug Harbrecht remarked at the time. By reacting that way -- rather than conceding the vague title and focusing on more meaningful questions like, say, whether he's accurate -- his detractors played straight into his hands, coming off as clubby, defensive blowhards against whom he could play madcap folk hero. As McClintick points out, if there's one favor Drudge has done us, it's puncturing the pretenses behind the label "journalism" -- and the profession only abetted him by slagging him off on the one hand and picking up his specious reports on the other.


Journalism, as a label, has long been about taking various noble but seat-of-the-pants endeavors and posturing them as some kind of science. And the great irony of the old school's defending the term against the new practitioners is that, truth be told, they probably aren't much interested in co-opting it anyway. "Empire" has a much sweeter and more remunerative ring to Oprah than "journalist," I'm sure. As for Matt Drudge, the Brill's Content profile closes with his declaration, "Screw journalism!" -- perhaps the two most intelligent words the man has uttered to date.

James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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Barbara Walters Matt Drudge Oprah Winfrey