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Politics & Policy

What If Oprah-Mania Is Really Just a Media Phenomenon?

From the midweek edition of the Morning Jolt:

What If Oprah-Mania Is Really Just a Media Phenomenon?

Hey, remember last week when it seemed like there was this overwhelming appetite for a presidential campaign by Oprah Winfrey? It turns out that only a small percentage of folks thought that was such a good idea.

Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents said Winfrey should not run for president, compared to 24 percent who said she should. Seventeen percent said they did not know or had no opinion.

If the election were held today, Winfrey would lead Trump 40 percent to 38 percent, within the poll’s plus or minus 2-percentage point margin of error.

“If you were watching cable news the Monday after the Golden Globes, you would have thought the numbers would say 99 percent of Americans want her to run,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University, in a Tuesday interview. “Certainly polls have their limitations, but these numbers don’t quite indicate that degree of enthusiasm.”

Interestingly, the early numbers suggest Oprah wouldn’t be a slam-dunk to win the Democratic nomination after all, depending upon who her top rival is.

In head-to-head primary matchups with a handful of possible Democratic 2020 contenders, Winfrey performed best against New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand among Democrats, leading her 44 percent to 23 percent. She also leads Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren 39 percent to 35 percent. The poll found Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) would beat Winfrey, 46 percent to 37 percent. But former Vice President Joe Biden would beat Winfrey by a larger margin, 54 percent to 31 percent, among Democrats.

This kind of a wild disconnect between the media’s perspective and that of the larger public doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The irony is that the numbers on Oprah enthusiasm reverse the traditional narrative about a shallow, vacuous, celebrity-obsessed general public and a serious, deep-thinking, policy and detail-focused news media. What if it’s the other way around? What if the public wants a more serious discussion about government policies and their tangible consequences, and less fluffy discussion and debate about charismatic familiar faces?

When David Broder wrote with sadness about the death of columnist Robert Novak, he wrote that Novak and his colleagues of past eras had been brought to Washington by “by editors who had a passionate commitment to covering Congress and politics as if the decisions being debated really mattered.” He contended that good political journalism meant “’getting down in the weeds,’ really understanding the personal dynamics of a Ways and Means subcommittee or the ambitions of the lieutenant governor of Texas.”

I have this nagging feeling that a decent percentage of today’s political journalists don’t want to actually write about politics, and that they really want to write the kind of glossy celebrity profiles that we’re used to seeing in places like Vanity Fair, GQ, Vogue, and maybe even People or Us Weekly. I noticed last year that a glossy profile of Kirsten Gillibrand in Vogue couldn’t bring itself to really look at the senator’s record and left readers with at least three glaringly false impressions – that Gillibrand is an economic centrist, an iconoclast, and a campaigning powerhouse with cross-party appeal.

Look, you read this newsletter, so you know I enjoy writing about Star Wars and Twin Peaks and the Jets and lots of “fun stuff” in life. Not everything written about politics has to be as detail-heavy as Congressional Quarterly or Governing magazine. But the disconnect on Oprah suggests that a chunk of the American people are not automatically enraptured by every famous celebrity who flirts with a political campaign… unlike, say, bored political reporters who want to write about someone glamorous and exciting.

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