This is not to say US Queen of Talk Oprah Winfrey is anything like “Filipino of the Year” Jover Laurio. Oprah is a pillar of the planet’s mightiest showbiz industry (amongst its most powerful people, by some accounts) who worked her way to the top the hard way. Laurio, on the other hand, is an artefact of the Philippines’ renowned culture of mediocrity that was propped up by a corporate news media industry allied with an all-too-familiar mediocre Opposition that is desperate for a “hero” to rally around.
The similarity lies in how both women were recently awarded distinction by an established news media community — Oprah given a Cecil B. DeMille award by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in this year’s Golden Globe Awards and Laurio given a front-page “Filipino of the Year” feature spread by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Philippines’ largest newspaper in terms of print circulation.
Oprah gave a fiery speech during the awards night that drew collateral from the plight of African Americans and from that latest feminist trending buzz surrounding the institutionalised abuse of rising starlets by Big Bad Hairy Hollywood Movie Moguls. Laurio for her part, since her outing from anonymity (and subsequent elevation into cult status), has fashioned herself into the Philippine blogosphere’s Resibo Queen — a supposed champion in the battle versus “fake news” armed only with screenshots (her “resibos”) that she uses to substantiate the sources of the “fact checks” she “reports” on her Pinoy Ako Blog (PAB).
The similarities would end there if not for the curious way both have become the choice “heroes” of liberals in their respective countries. Video clips of Oprah’s speech have since gone viral over social media and have fuelled a groundswell of emotionalism seemingly on the back of despair over the presidency of Donald Trump emanating from America’s coastal cities. Such is this emotionalism that calls for Oprah to run for US President have already started and has, even more bizarrely, earned widespread endorsement from a who’s-who of voices from the American brains trust.
Considering that Oprah has not explicitly exhibited nor expressed much of a consistent political position over her long career as an entertainer (aside, perhaps, for a reported strong endorsement of the invasion of Iraq and a predisposition to “imperial feminism” among other questionable advocacies) it is worth noting how such a movement (since dubbed “Oprah 2020”) was quick to reach such a resounding pitch on the basis of just the few minutes Oprah spent on the podium.
One needs to remember, however, that Oprah trades — to the tune of tens of millions of dollars — on subjects that elicit strong emotional responses, and an ability to keep an ear on the ground and zero in on such subjects is the core skill that is likely at the root of her success in the entertainment industry. However, with such power comes the inevitable ability to influence events that have more far-reaching consequences than merely giving out good “vibes” to an audience. A 2007report by the Observer offers insight — albeit in hindsight — into just how much Oprah may have influenced public sentiment surrounding what, at the time, was just talk of a military invasion of Iraq.
In the fall of 2002, during the run up to the war in Iraq, Oprah Winfrey devoted a portion of one of her shows to answering a pressing international question. Do the Iraqi people want America to liberate them from Saddam Hussein?Ms. Winfrey posed the question to Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesperson for the Iraqi National Congress—an erstwhile group of Iraqi exiles led by Ahmed Chalabi that, at the time, was busy lobbying the American government to overthrow Saddam Hussein. “Absolutely,” responded Mr. Qanbar.Later, Ms. Winfrey called on an audience member. “I hope this doesn’t offend you,” said the young woman. “I just don’t know what to believe with the media and…” Ms. Winfrey cut her off. “We’re not trying to show you propaganda,” Ms. Winfrey explained. “We’re just showing you what is.”
That episode in Oprah’s show was presumably the subject of a censure issued by the Swedish government back in 2003 for war mongering. Sweden, at the time, was strongly opposed to a US invasion of Iraq which, it asserted, lacked a UN mandate.
“Different views were expressed, but all longer remarks gave voice to the opinion that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States and should be the target of attack,” Sweden’s Broadcasting Commission said.
Unfortunately for Filipinos (and, perhaps, for Americans as well), no such strong media watchdog exists to keep media organisations and personalities in check. Fortunately, Oprah’s influence over people who matter utterly dwarfs that of Laurio’s. For that matter, anyone who has read Laurio’s “blogs” on PAB can attest to how thin on intellectual content her contribution to the discourse is. It also remains debatable whether her being featured in that now-infamous Inquirer spread is a reliable indicator of the actual influence she exerts on public sentiment. Most observers, in fact, believe that it is the other way around — that her influence is more a product of strong “assistance” from a media industry controlled by oligarchs allied with the current Philippine Opposition (who are confused liberals, at best).
Nonetheless, the common denominator here is in the way sound bites have become routine bases for kicking off entire advocacies and, in Oprah’s recent case, entire presidential campaigns. In the case of Laurio, work that both lacks substance and, by most measures of content production, lacks quality has managed to capture the support of an entire political bloc and attract the endorsement of an impressive array of otherwise well-educated “thought leaders”. There is remarkable irony in the latter, considering that Laurio was named amongst a distinguished set of “Filipinos of the Year” by the Inquirer on the basis of her being the Philippines’ Joan of Arc in the “fight” against the modern “scourge” of “fake news” gripping society. For those who missed it, that irony needs to be spelt out: What made Laurio popular and what earned her the support she enjoys today is the very thing that fuels the spread of “fake news”: potent emotional appeal of the essentially insubstantial.