Oprah's Kremlinologist

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Since news broke Thursday of Oprah Winfrey’s looming retirement from daytime TV, much has been made about how this could traumatize the Queen of Talk’s vast empire: her fans, her network, the publishing industry, Dr. Oz. But where is the concern for Janice Peck?

“My life is over now,” Peck says, from her home in Denver, where she’s taking the day off to care for Elie, her Border Collie, who has a broken foot.

Peck is perhaps the world’s leading Oprah Kremlinologist. An associate professor in the University of Colorado’s school for journalism and mass communication, she has spent the last two decades methodically analyzing Winfrey’s career moves, placing the billionaire media mogul in a political and economic context, and reading a history of the women’s movement in the dips and swells of Oprah’s ratings.

“I have watched tons of episodes of her shows,” she says. “I have ordered and bought transcripts. I have probably read transcripts, beginning in 1986, of around 250 episodes, in addition to watching them. I have read books. I have written an analysis of one of the books in the book club. I have pored over the magazine. I know that Web site inside and out.” In short: “I study her.”

Specializing in Oprah studies isn’t the quickest way to humble one’s peers at academic conferences, but Peck has made solid work of talk-show scholarship. Her original interest was in religious television programming—her doctoral dissertation contrasted Jimmy Swaggart’s religious crusades with the relatively benign televangelizing on The 700 Club—but it was a short hop from there to the New Age-y, feed-your-spirit culture of Oprah.

Peck has published a small library of works looking at the talk-show host’s enduring appeal, including: “Talking About Racism: Framing a Popular Discourse of Race in Oprah Winfrey,” (Cultural Critique, spring 1994); “TV Talk Shows as Therapeutic Discourse: The Ideological Labor of the Televised Talking Cure,” (Communication Theory, February 1995); “Literacy, Seriousness and the Oprah Winfrey Book Club” (Tabloid Tales: Global Debates Over Media Standards, 2000); and “The Oprah Effect: Texts, Readers, and the Dialectic of Signification.” (The Communication Review, 2002). She has an essay called “The Politics of ‘Empowerment’ in Oprah Winfrey’s Global Philanthropy” in a forthcoming collection called Media, Spiritualities and Social Change.

Peck’s magnum opus, The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era, came out in May 2008. Its release happened to coincide with the beginning of a steady decline in Winfrey’s ratings—the beginning of the end. The book is a counterpunch to the volumes of Oprah hagiography the publishing business has churned out over the years. Peck, while not an antagonist, is hardly a fan. Her argument, in broad strokes, is that the Oprah show has had an effect eerily like the Reagan administration, in directing people to look inward for solutions to their own unhappiness, away from problems in society as a whole. Reagan dismantled the welfare state. Oprah discovered The Secret. In Peck’s words, she has studied “the rise and domination of Oprah’s show as a therapeutic outlet, in which everybody tries to imagine that the response to their problem can be found through personal psychological transformation, rather than looking at the society that produced this dysfunction.” A Korean translation of the book is on the way.

Peck has never actually met Winfrey, whose privately held Harpo production company exists behind an iron curtain of secrecy and whose employees sign comprehensive, life-long nondisclosure agreements. Once, she came close. She was working at the University of Minnesota at the time, driving distance from Chicago and thought, what the heck, she’d drive down one day and try for an interview “to expand my knowledge base.” She placed a call to one of Winfrey’s publicists. “Back then, a lowly academic could speak directly to someone at Harpo,” she says. The woman was “perfect congenial,” if not exactly helpful. “She said, 'Ms. Winfrey doesn’t talk to academics.’ So the door just kind of closed. And that was long before she became ‘the queen of all media.’”...

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