“Oprah Winfrey arguably has more influence on the culture than any university president, politician, political or religious leader, except perhaps the pope.”
- Vanity Fair Magazine, in 1994.
“She (Oprah) may be uncomfortable talking about it (money), but when it comes to making it, she sure knows what she's doing.”
- Fortune Magazine, in March 2002.
THE MAD COW CONTROVERSY – A TALK SHOW QUEEN IN TROUBLE
In mid-1996, Oprah Winfrey (Oprah), one of the world’s most well-known media personalities and the host of the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show,’ was entangled in a major controversy. The controversy arose because of statements made by Oprah and Howard Lyman (Lyman, a founder member of the Humane Society of the US) during an episode of the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ telecast on April 16 1996. The show, based on the theme, ‘Dangerous Food,’ talked about the Mad Cow disease and the threat it supposedly posed to beef consumers in the US.
On the show, Lyman blamed the practice of feeding rendered livestock (protein derived from cattle remains) to cattle for outbreak of the disease in Europe, which resulted in the death of over 1.5 million cattle and 20 people in 1996. Lyman’s statements suggested that beef consumers in the US could also contract the human form of the mad cow disease as a similar practice of feeding livestock was followed in the US. On the show, Oprah swore that she would never eat a hamburger again in her life.
In May 1996, some cattle producers filed a $10.3 million suit against Oprah and Lyman in the Texas state court, under the Texas False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act, claiming, business disparagement, negligence and defamation. They said Oprah created fear regarding the consumption of beef, when she vowed that she would never again eat a burger in her life. David Mullin, an attorney representing cattle producers, said, “The message of the show was never meant to be where opinions are shared. The show was meant to be scary.”
The cattle producers claimed that Oprah knowingly aired false and defamatory comments about the threat of mad cow disease in the US. The show reportedly had a devastating impact on cattle prices and sales in the US. Prices fell to a 10-year low within a week of the show, causing losses exceeding $12 million to the cattle producers. However, Chip Babcock, Oprah’s attorney, claimed that the show in question was fair and did not suggest that beef was unsafe. Commenting on the decline in cattle prices following the show,Oprah’s attorneys said that the decline in prices was due to factors such as drought and oversupply.
Oprah soon aired a second show on the ‘Mad Cow Disease,’ with cattle industry representatives on the discussion panel to arrive at a balanced perspective on the issue. Commenting on this, Bill O’Brien, a co-owner of the Texas Beef Group said, “I do not think it repaired the damage. She did not go on the program and eat a hamburger before the world.” In February 2000, a federal court dismissed the suit against Oprah stating that though Oprah’s show melodramatized the issue, it did not give false information to defame cattle producers. The court also acquitted Lyman, stating that his statements, though strongly stated, were based on established facts.
The issue attracted media attention all over the world, highlighting Oprah’s immense popularity and influence over her viewers. Oprah, with a business empire worth over $ 1 billion in 2002, was unarguably the most successful female media personality ever. How this lady overcame her disturbed, troubled childhood, and several other problems to become so popular and successful is essentially a story of her entrepreneurial and leadership skills.
OPRAH’S ‘RAGS TO RICHES’ JOURNEY
The ‘Talk Show’ queen, Oprah, was born out of wedlock to Vernon Winfrey and Vernita Lee on January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko (Mississippi, US). Named Orpah Gail Winfrey, she...