This series would be incomplete if we didn't discuss the show. And the December 6 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show had former Washington, D.C. Schools Chancellor, Michelle Rhee taking to the stage. Rhee was on to promote her new organization Students First, which she says is intended to start a revolution in this country on behalf of the nation's children. Michelle Rhee elicits strong opinions, and the point of this post is not to analyze them here. This is about Oprah. She'd want it that way.
What bothered me about the segment was this: If the show were really interested in education reform, as Oprah claimed, the people behind it would have invited other stakeholders to share their perspective on the challenges and successes in current reform efforts: students, teachers, unions, parents, politicians, school administrators and other reform leaders. Again, as of late, when Oprah has the opportunity to facilitate a meaningful conversation around a complicated topic, she appears to squelch it in favor of presenting a narrow, simplified view. And due to Rhee's popularity in the press, and this year's release of Waiting for Superman, her name has become synonymous with education reform. Slate reminds us that the mission of Winfrey's new network is "to entertain, inform and inspire people to live their best lives." Perhaps with that in mind, Winfrey views Rhee as the manifestation of that mission: dream big, lead and be your best self! Whatever it is, Oprah presents Rhee as the person to get behind without bringing other perspectives into play.
First Oprah presents the issue according to Rhee. "You think the problem is teachers who do not work." Rhee agrees. "You all know I love teachers," Oprah continues, "I consider myself to be one with this platform everyday. Really good teachers also want really good teachers…we're talking about good teachers, so don't waste your time writing me if you're a great teacher. And if you're a bad one, I don't want to hear from you. Right?"
Rhee, looking nervous but laughing: "Right..."
Then, Oprah gets the crowd behind Rhee by shouting in that deep sing-song voice: "You can dooooooooo it! I am behiiiiiiiiiind you! We are behiiiiiiiind you!" Standing ovation.
Before bringing it home for the big endorsement. "This is a seminal moment for us, where the citizens of this country choose to be an educated country…we're either going to fall further behind or choose to move forward. It's really in our hands and I believe that Michelle Rhee is one of the people who can turn this dire situation around. She cannot do it alone (cut to Rhee nodding), that's why she's asking for a million people to join her. Get yourself fired up…let's stop complaining about it, log in and DO SOMETHING. Thank you Michelle, I'm rooting for you!" And then huge hug and cut to commercial.
In this era of data overload, people want someone to break it down for them. Oprah has the power, influence—and, yes I believe responsibility - to present certain issues as the multi-faceted, complex topics they are.
Next up… Jonathan Frazen appears on the Oprah stage… Nine years after the Corrections book club selection debacle…