By DeWayne Wickham
The last time there was such a seismic clash between a media giant and a roguish storyteller, the world was at war and television was commercial-free.
Back then, the antagonists were William Randolph Hearst, the ruler of a massive media empire, and Orson Welles, a young filmmaker whose first movie, Citizen Kane, was a not-so-veiled trashing of Hearst. The film premiered on May 1, 1941, but it had a short run. The media mogul used his considerable clout to keep Citizen Kane — which has been called the best movie ever made — out of most theaters.
The current conflict is centered on a book about Oprah Winfrey, the reigning queen of daytime television, by bestselling author Kitty Kelley. There’s no indication Oprah is trying to silence Kelley, but after reading this book, I wouldn’t blame her if she did.
Oprah: A Biography is, even for the gossip journalism genre, a bad read that has catapulted the muckraking author back into the spotlight. That’s due more to the prurient interests of those who buy this book than to Kelley’s “reportorial sights,” which are touted on the book’s jacket.
My critique of Kelley’s work is not done at arm’s length. Oprah and I were once close friends, but drifted apart after she in recent years. We first met in 1976 when as a young reporter I covered the Caucus of Black Democrats in Charlotte, N.C. Oprah, then a student at Tennessee State University and a reporter at WTVF-TV in Nashville, had a thirst for hard news and finagled her way into the event.
Later that year, when Oprah moved to my hometown of Baltimore to co-anchor that city’s top-rated newscast, our platonic friendship blossomed. We spent much time together and often talked about the things that brought joy and pain into our lives. I was backstage in Morgan State University’s Murphy Auditorium with Oprah before her “one-woman” show that Kelley mentions in the book. I also headed the local journalism group Kelley says Oprah joined.
That’s why I know the two chapters Kelley devotes to Oprah’s time in Baltimore are more the product of exaggeration, insinuation and error than a search for truth.
For example, Kelley trlls a story about Oprah devouring a huge platter of salmon, which her unnamed source described as “an amazing display of gluttony.” Kelley says this happened at the home of Pat Wheeler, whom she described as the community affairs director of the station where Oprah worked. When I called Wheeler to mention this incident, her reaction was predictable.
“You’re making this up, aren’t you?” she yelled into phone. Wheeler actually had worked for a competing station where she produced a public affairs show I hosted. “That never happened. Why didn’t she ask me about this?”
Why did Kelley quote Al Sanders, one of Oprah’s newsroom rivals who died in 1995, as if she had spoken to him herself? (In the foreword, Kelley said she had worked on the book just four years.)
She also wrote that there were “only two black women on television in Baltimore” when Oprah arrived in 1976. At the time, I headed the city’s black journalists group. Those women, she said, were Sue Simmons and Maria Broom. She overlooked at least two others, Jaki Hall and Edith House.
So why should we trust anything else Kelley writes in a book she wants us to believe is the product of her drive to “penetrate the manufactured” image of Oprah Winfrey?