May 26, 2011

Oprah, James Ray, and the Media Effect

As Oprah wrapped her history-making show this week, amidst the cascade of media coverage could be found a lot of ambivalence about her impact on society. On the one hand, she had an undeniably positive impact on public perception of what a woman of color can accomplish in America. She broke a lot of ground for women, period. For that we can all be grateful. On the other hand, she foisted a lot of pop psychology and dumbed down spiritual teaching on an eager public. It ranged from the helpful to the useless to the destructive to the deadly. I'm referring, of course, to James Arthur Ray, on whose watch -- during his post-Oprah years -- four people have died. Many people are angry with Oprah for enabling Ray's success and subsequent recklessness.

So is it fair to blame a woman who simply had someone on her talk show for the deaths of his students? I don't think there's an easy answer to that but in the final analysis I have to say, "with great power comes great responsibility."

Oprah is singular in her ability to sell books, ideas, and social trends. This is something the New York Post referred to as the "Oprah Effect."

The “Oprah effect” has shaped our national consciousness in profound ways. “There are a lot of people whose lives are better, thanks to what she’s done,” says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “Her whole message of empowerment is the idea that you can change your circumstances.”

Occasionally, however, that influence has seriously misfired. “Oprah has mainstreamed a lot of very questionable characters in my opinion,” anti-cult therapist Steven Hassan has said, pointing to Oprah acolyte James Arthur Ray whose infamous sweat lodge led to the deaths of three people in 2009.

When I was working in publishing, I was vividly aware of the "Oprah Effect." A booking on her show was the plum for a book publicist and it was not an easy booking to get. I booked a lot of authors on a lot of TV talk shows, Sally Jessy, Maury, even Phil Donahue. But Oprah was a hard nut to crack. For the most part, her producers only dealt with department heads and the bookings were rare but critical. While most talk shows back in those days were eager for the human interest content that came from non-fiction books and celebrity bios, Oprah only promoted books and authors she believed in. Unlike most of those shows, she even promoted fiction. I vividly remember what happened when she took an interest in Waiting to Exhale author Terry McMillan because I was working at Penguin at the time.  Even before she started her book club, Oprah sold books. When a book was featured on her show you could watch the sales figures spike immediately. There was no other media exposure where such a clear correlation between publicity and sales could be drawn -- not another chat show, not the Today Show or GMA, not even a much coveted review in The New York Times.

On the plus side, Oprah is a major force for literacy. She makes people feel good about reading which not a lot of television personalities do. She heightened attention to literary greats like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. On the negative side, I can never forgive her Dr. Phil and The Secret.

I just can't.

I have little doubt that Oprah believes strongly in both. Her endorsement of the pop psychology of Dr. Phil and the spiritual pornography of The Secret are a tiny, little window into the psyche of this extremely driven woman. Both of these Oprah endorsed cottage industries are a study in control freakdom.

I do an impression of Dr. Phil. It's always a big hit at parties. In my best Texas I just drawl, "You came on this show because you think this, this, and this are wrong with you. I'm here to tell you that's not what's wrong with you.  THIS is what's wrong with you... Now straighten up and fly right."

Stripped down to its essence, that's really all he ever says. And I would be the first to admit that he can be very insightful and good at pointing out the forest when people are lost amongst the trees. But that kind of guidance only goes so far and is rarely if ever transformative. Real transformation only comes from our own shifts in awareness; not from what we're told by others. Emotional healing is an inside out process. And Dr. Phil is all outside in. He's not about helping people make more constructive choices. He just tells people what to do and shames them on national television so they'll be more inclined to do it. And it all just sounds like your dad lecturing you for putting a ding in the family station wagon.

By his own admission, Dr. Phil doesn't have the patience to do actual therapy. He'd rather just criticize, judge, and boss people around.

But from the very beginning, it wasn‘t for me.  I didn‘t have the patience for it.  I mean, people sometimes were very motivated and wanting to do great.  Other times, I think they just want to, like, rent a friend.  Yeah, they‘d want to sit there and talk to you for six months, and not always, but there were a lot of times I can figure this out in the first hour.  I‘ll be sitting there saying, "You know, okay, here‘s the problem.  You are a jerk.  " 

I see a similar impatience and intolerance in The Secret. As I said here, Lisa Nichols really pushed my buttons for that same reason. (The entire show is embedded above.)

In her appearance on "Oprah," Lisa Nichols explained how she addresses people who want to talk about their personal history or "story." Her response is "I don't want to know it, because you've used it to keep yourself where you are." So word to the wise, if you want someone to help you heal and come complete with your painful history, Lisa Nichols is probably not the appropriate facilitator for you.

The implicit hostility of this particular assumption is one I'm all too familiar with in my own field. That is to say, the idea that people are holding on to past trauma because they are "unwilling" to release it. I have even heard colleagues say of their clients, "Well they don't really want to get better." If they're showing up for help, they want help. It just may not be the kind of help that healer is willing or able to provide. And when a healer runs into the limits of his or her own paradigm, it is easier to blame the client than to question the belief system. When a client pushes your buttons, it's easier to dismiss the client than to determine why you have sourced them into your practice.

Implicit in The Secret is that you've been doing everything wrong, which in and of itself is all about submitting to some external judgment and control. Don't think what you've been thinking or feel the feelings you've been feeling. That's why your life is a mess.

Worse, The Secret feeds the control freak in us all. Of course we'd like to think that by just doing things the right way we never have to have problems again. We can just move from joy to joy and success to success. We'll have all the money we want. We'll always find a parking space. We won't get sick. All of our problems The Secret tells us are from our "negative" thoughts and feelings and all of that is in our control.

And James Ray took that illusion of absolute control to such an extreme that three people cooked to death, convinced by him that the power of their minds was enough to combat the inevitable result of being merely mortal in a superheated environment. He didn't need to warn them about the symptoms of heat related illness. Not when the power of their thoughts -- "mind over matter" -- could offset the deadly effects of heatstroke. Sheer force of will as panacea. That's The Secret and, sad to say, that's Oprah.

Whether Oprah will take responsibility at some point for the monsters she's created in The Secret and its spawn is an open question. Perhaps she's just waiting to see how the James Ray trial turns out. If he goes to jail, maybe then he'll get a James Frey style sit-down... via satellite on some Oprah special of the future. (Hey. A girl can dream.)

If he's acquitted we can all go safely back to thinking that everyone who died was a master of their own fate. Oprah will be off the hook, as will every other media organ that promoted these cheap, commercial friendly ideas and personalities. Buying stuff is good! Commercialism is good! It's spiritual! It says so in The Secret! And poor people have only themselves and their bad thoughts to blame. So we don't need to worry about unemployment, corporate criminals, or the growing wealth gap. Now buy some more!

It's not just Oprah. The media has been in love with this stuff from the beginning. All the major networks had a hand in promoting The Secret. The narrative on In Session from the get go was that the charges against James Ray wouldn't stick because Liz Neuman, James Shore, and Kirby Brown, and all those other people who were sickened and injured, had free will. And when it started to look like the motivational speaker and media darling might actually be a sadistic psychopath who brainwashed people into immobility, they dropped this trial like a hot potato. They thought the Brady violation would be their out. When it wasn't, their hostility became increasingly palpable and video of the sweat lodge trial decreasingly visible until it disappeared entirely.

And now CNN has stopped streaming the trial. If the press coverage of the trial overall was decent, I could live with that. There've been a few notable exceptions but most of it is terrible. That's the thing about seeing something occur in front of your eyes in real time. The cheapness and inaccuracy of most media coverage is suddenly very apparent.

So contact CNNLive and let them know you care. There are some hopeful signs that they'll pick it up again. Well... there's been one.  Public pressure is critical. They don't make it easy but here are some links:

Their feedback form.  Their regular advertiser. Or send them a tweet @CNNLive.

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