Only Oprah had the empathy and interview skills to take on the damaging British media – and win

Sunday's interview with Harry and Meghan was a decisive victory for the couple, and against the U.K.'s tabloids

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published March 9, 2021 7:21PM (EST)

In this handout image provided by Harpo Productions and released on March 5, 2021, Oprah Winfrey interviews Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on A CBS Primetime Special premiering on CBS on March 7, 2021. (Harpo Productions/Joe Pugliese via Getty Images)
In this handout image provided by Harpo Productions and released on March 5, 2021, Oprah Winfrey interviews Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on A CBS Primetime Special premiering on CBS on March 7, 2021. (Harpo Productions/Joe Pugliese via Getty Images)

Americans and Britons alike are still processing the "what?!" heard round the world, courtesy of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's spilt tea during Sunday's "Oprah with Meghan and Harry" special on CBS.  Now let's look closely at the context in which that particular bomb dropped.

Meghan, fully open but diplomatic in what she chooses to say, tells Oprah that a member of the royal family had expressed to Harry "concerns" about how dark the couple's son Archie might be when he was born.

Oprah's expression in the silent second or two that follows mirrors that of every person of good conscience who heard it with her. The host's typically serene face slackens in shock – "What?" – then comes the indignation. "Who – who is having that conversation with you?"

Meghan slowly blinks, shifts uncomfortably in her seat, takes a deep inhale and says nothing. Oprah puts her hands up as if to fend off some invisible malice attacking her calm. "Hold up . . . there's a conversation . . ."

At this Meghan's anger flares, albeit tempered with regal dignity. "There were several conversations." Oprah gently pushes her to elaborate: "With you?" she asks. "With Harry," Meghan replies. "About how dark the baby was going to be?" "Potentially, and what that would mean or look like."

Then, more silence. Oprah asks if she'll say who had the conversation with Harry. Meghan pauses again before responding. "I think that would be very damaging to them."

The next day on the "CBS This Morning" telecast, as Oprah shared scenes that weren't included in the two-hour special, co-host Tony Dokoupil requested clarification when the mogul said that was the most surprising moment of her conversation with the prince and his bride. Was she surprised that such a thing happened inside the palace, he asks, or that the couple was telling her about it?

Oprah pauses before saying, "I was surprised that they were telling me about it."

There is an art to the one-on-one television interview few people master regardless of how long their careers may be. On Sunday Oprah reminded us why she's a part of those ranks, but for very different reasons than other interviewers who sit down with hard-to-pin-down subjects and stick the landing.

Oprah's reputation for treating vulnerability as a virtue can be a weak spot in her technique, since at times she uses that approach to create the mirage that we're all friends here — audience, host and guest alike. This was not a David Frost/Richard Nixon-style standoff, and neither was it the same as her 1993 Michael Jackson interview where the goal was to humanize a star dogged by troubling allegations. A closer likeness is Martin Bashir's 1995 BBC interview with Diana, Princess of Wales. But even there, Bashir adopts a cool, clinical demeanor, relying on Diana's personality to carry the conversation . . . which it does.

In contrast Meghan and Harry are obviously friendly subjects; Oprah attended their wedding and on "CBS This Morning" said she had been communicating with Meghan since then.

Somehow this felt different that other one-on-ones. At times the conversation took on the shade of plaintiffs appealing to a jury that's only ever heard the defendants' point of view. Compassion led Oprah's tone, although the wall between her and her subjects was palpable and she only probed as far as was necessary.

But the product's real power rested in the silences between the earthquakes, and in the mutual unspoken sadness and disappointment you could read on each woman's face. Those spans of quiet added their own truth to the testimony.

With its relatively spare production, beyond its setting in the flawlessly cultivated backyard paradise of one of Oprah's "friends," "Oprah with Meghan and Harry" is designed to be a one-shot, surgical rebuttal to all the sniping Meghan has endured in the British press.

Regardless of whether Meghan and Harry truly had no idea as to what Oprah was going to ask them, the Duke and Duchess obviously decided together what they were willing to go on record about, how much they would say about it, and no-go areas. For instance, each makes a point of heaping praises on Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, with Meghan claiming they remain close even now.

They also take care to draw a distinction between the family and "The Firm" or "The Institution," whenever they referred to some of the more inhumane moments, such as when Meghan admitted she had suicidal thoughts, reached out to the powers that be to ask for mental health treatment, and was denied . . . because it would not look good for "The Institution."

Oprah and Meghan also worked the PR angles – as did Harry, who joined the interview in its second hour.

Then there were the bits that made for good, soft-filtered theater, like Meghan's claim that she never researched how to curtsy before meeting the Queen for the first time, or really anything related to what it meant to be in a relationship with a British prince. There was the off-the-cuff charm of Harry singing "just the three of us" to the tune of Bill Withers' "Just the Two of Us." The tiara, however, was Meghan's recollection of an "a-ha" moment instigated by rewatching "The Little Mermaid" during one of her low points. "I went: Oh my God! She falls in love with the prince and, because of that, she has to lose her voice," she says, "But by the end, she gets her voice back."

That this revelation occurs while they're in the couple's chicken coop is a magnificent feathering of their "happily ever after." 

But the level of candor Oprah coaxes out of her the subjects is partly possible because Oprah is a powerful Black woman speaking to another Black woman who is world-famous but disempowered by her royal in-laws. Thus, the interviewer knew when to let the tension do the talking instead of probing wounds until they bled, demonstrating the puissance of eloquent silence. This technique asks the audience to sit with what they had just heard instead of trying to fill the void with more words. 

Therefore, while some commentators suggested Oprah failed to get Meghan and Harry to name names, that's beside the point. It wasn't going to happen, for one; Harry knows that turning on his family members would only put his and his family's safety at a higher risk than it may already be. The larger point rests in the revealing skin color comment. That in itself speaks to a truth each woman and a significant portion of the audience knows, which is that at some point a person's Blackness erases whatever social or financial status they've gained.

Oprah is the richest Black woman on the planet, and she's been refused service at two high-end boutiques while shopping for handbags. Meghan married a prince and yet his family announced their son Archie would not also enjoy that title. Meghan says this was not her or Harry's choice, explaining this decision allows the palace to refuse to provide security for Archie. The other explanation, which she doesn't need to say out loud, is the jaw-dropper that made Oprah say, "What?!"

This is how Oprah and the Sussexes brought a slam-dunk case to the only place that matters in a situation like this, the court of public opinion.

While there were many accusations left unanswered in those two hours and the supplementary bonus clips on "CBS This Morning," enough was said to leave plenty of room for reasonable doubt in the minds of the American public on Monday morning, with Britain's impressions following on Tuesday.

In the United States, Meghan and Harry are the living proof that those fairy tales Disney raised children to believe in and "The Bachelor" franchise markets to adults can be true. We love riveting television about royal problems. (Exhibit A: "The Crown.")

Meanwhile before marrying into the Windsor family, Markle was mainly familiar in the U.S. as the co-star in the USA drama "Suits." In the U.K. the public saddled her marriage to Harry with expectations that they would modernize the stodgy monarchy, as if two people could do such a thing. Instead she became Buckingham Palace's tabloid scapegoat in order to make Prince William and his wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, look nobler. She was, as Oprah made her specify, not silent, but "si-lenced."

But the part in the interview about the predatory, parasitic relationship between Buckingham Palace and the tabloid press is the real game they're playing here. Harry has long detested the media over its role in his mother's death, and he admits his fear of history repeating with his wife and child. Then he and Meghan pull the lid off of the cozy symbiosis the "Firm" shares with the media. 

"There is this invisible contract behind closed doors, behind the institution and U.K. tabloids," Harry explains. "It's a case of if you, as a family member, are willing to wine, dine, and give full access to these reporters, then you will get better press. . . . There is a level of control by fear that has existed for generations." 

With this the interview becomes something more than Harry and Meghan alleging a litany of sins on the part of their family. It evolves into Oprah and Meghan and Harry versus the British gossip machine.

While the U.K. media had its own fast reaction to the broadcast on Monday morning, most of the British audience hadn't seen in the telecast when Piers Morgan weighed on "Good Morning Britain" and declared he didn't believe Meghan's shocking admission that she "didn't want to be alive anymore."

Backing him up was none other than Megyn Kelly, who you may recall destroyed her NBC News bag by publicly supporting Team Blackface during a Halloween segment on her morning show. Poor things. They hadn't a clue as to what they were up against.

According to CBS more than 49.1 million viewers worldwide have seen the special so far. Some 11 million U.K. viewers watched the special Monday night, joining Sunday's 17.8 million-strong American audience. By Tuesday, mid-morning West Coast time, the verdict was in. ITV released a terse statement saying Piers Morgan "decided now is the time to leave 'Good Morning Britain.'"

Buckingham Palace also released a statement on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II. "The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan," the statement reads. "The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately."

Shortly before this on the Palace's Instagram account, photos of Prince Charles sharing space with Black people suddenly appeared. (On Monday's "CBS This Morning" Oprah passed along that Harry wanted the public to know neither the Queen nor Prince Phillip made the offending inquiry, thereby narrowing the list of suspects to Charles, William, or, let's be real here, Camilla.)

Barbara Walters could not have achieved the same result even if she was bringing her A-game. Neither could Gayle King, for that matter, and this is said with the full recognition of King's sharp interviewing skills. Oprah brings this and empathy, and that's what won this part of the case. Be assured, there will be several appeals.

For now the public has a better view of who Meghan and Harry are, separately and together. They may also have a more clear-eyed impression of what it means to be a royal in a time of so much social reckoning with regard to race and class.

And I suspect the British media now recognizes what Americans already know and Morgan and the Windsors are learning the hard way. Defending the Queen and taking potshots at duchesses may sell papers, but if you're going to take aim at Oprah, you best not miss. Otherwise, prepare to be si-lenced.

An encore broadcast of "Oprah with Meghan and Harry: A CBS Primetime Special" airs at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 12.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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