Oprah Winfrey has been trashed for her recent television special on India, based on a trip she made to the country in January. She’s been accused of reinforcing stereotypes and oversimplifying a complex country.
Yes, maybe the two episodes, part of her prime-time series "Oprah's Next Chapter,” were cheesy. “There is nothing like this country,” she said in the preview. “I am forever changed by the experience.”
But it’s Oprah. Of course she’s cheesy.
Yes, maybe the show provided a slightly simplistic, superficial view of India. She visits the Taj Mahal and meets with Bollywood stars.
But it’s American TV for a mass audience. Of course it’s simplistic and superficial.
Furthermore, much of what Oprah presents is exactly what newcomers notice when they come to India. It would be a little strange for an American to visit Mumbai or Delhi and not notice the cows wandering the streets and hanging out at train stations. Sure, maybe mentioning the cows is a cliché and not the most creative storytelling. But does that make it rude and offensive? Hardly.
New Yorkers, to my knowledge, don’t find it rude when filmmakers or photographers include an image of the Statue of Liberty or ground zero.
The irony is that it looks like Oprah tried so hard not to offend anyone with her coverage. She wore a sari and then declared it her new favorite outfit. She visited a slum and remarked on the spirit of the people rather than the grime on the street. She ate traditional Indian food and declared it delicious. And she tried to understand rather than judge arranged marriage.
And yet, despite her best efforts, she has managed to ignite a firestorm of criticism.
I say, give Oprah a break.
OK, she didn’t provide the most nuanced coverage of this complicated and diverse nation. (If that’s what you want, stop watching American television and go read a book.) But she did use her fame to introduce a faraway land to an audience who largely has never driven through the streets of Mumbai or sat inside a one-room shack, chatting with a poor family.
In this era of slashed news budgets and closed foreign bureaus, that is more than what most American television personalities or shows can do.
Furthermore, some TV personalities don’t even make an effort to understand and show appreciation for other countries.
For proof, just look at how NBC’s anchors covered the Olympics Opening Ceremony.
During a moment when countries were being celebrated for bringing their teams to the world stage, the anchors consistently mispronounced country names. They ignored Afghanistan’s rich history and culture and focused on US intervention. They noted Bangladesh is the largest nation that has never won a single medal. Their trivia on Djibouti? That the name of the country makes you smile. And Pakistan? A country that “world leaders keep a wary eye on.”
The NBC anchors were nothing short of rude, ethnocentric and immature. After that performance, I’d take Oprah’s excitement and wonderment any day.
Author Hanna Ingber was GlobalPost's Mumbai correspondent from 2009 to 2011.