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How will Oprah's endorsement affect 2008?

Adubato: Presidential campaigns are set up for the “gotcha” game.   Now that  Oprah Winfrey is supporting Barak  Obama, she’ll  have to defend  controversial things he says.
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This is the first of MSNBC Media Analyst Steve Adubato’s “Media Monitor” columns, which will track and analyze the media’s influence and role in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Just a few days ago, on MSNBC and, I was praising Oprah Winfrey for her strong leadership in connection with the growing sex abuse scandal at the South African school that bears her name.  Oprah is much more than the “Queen of American Media.”  Unlike most corporate executives, she knows how to handle a media firestorm and crisis and take control of an embarrassing situation.  And who is a more generous media star than Oprah?  Did you see this week’s “Oprah’s Favorite Things” show in which she gave out $7,000 worth of gifts to each of her 300 audience members?  That's $2 million in total!  You’ll never see Leno, Letterman or Jimmy Kimmel do something like that. 

Make no mistake: Oprah is the media’s brightest star.  Powerful, popular, a media kingmaker,  super book seller, etc.  Except, now Oprah has entered an arena that has the potential to bring her nothing but grief, aggravation and embarrassment.  She had every right to endorse Barack Obama for president and raise big money for him.  Oh sure, Hillary Clinton and her pals are peeved, but  Obama’s “audacious” and charismatic candidacy gives Oprah an out.   But now, the stakes have been raised. 

Obama has just moved ahead of Hillary in Iowa, and was so pumped up that he announced that Oprah would soon be stumping for him in Iowa and possibly New Hampshire.  Obama clearly gets a big boost by having Oprah out on the trail with him.  Her star appeal, together with his, is a media magnet.  Together with the new Iowa poll results, the Oprah announcement continues to shift the media focus away from Obama’s dismal debate performance in Las Vegas last week — especially his convoluted and confusing response to simple questions about whether illegal immigrants should be able to get a drivers license.

But the stakes for Oprah are very different.  A savvy a media performer as she is — especially when she’s on her own studio couch — the presidential campaign trail is a risky place for her.  It’s an arena that is getting uglier, nastier and more personal by the day.  What happens when Oprah is campaigning side-by-side with Obama, with dozens of media crews in tow, and she gets asked a few pointed and tricky questions:

  • “Hey, Oprah, what did you think about Barack telling those high school kids about his drug and alcohol abuse when he was in school?  Substance abuse experts say he was sending all the wrong messages.  Was he wrong?"
  • “Hey, Oprah, Obama has implied that Hillary is ethically challenged.  Is she, and is that one of the reasons you didn’t support her?”
  • “Hey, Oprah, Hillary has said that the media and some of her opponents, including your candidate, are attacking her personally, partly because she’s not a member of the “old boys network.”  What do you think?”
  • “Hey, Oprah, now that you’re out front campaigning with Obama, how are you going to have Rudy, McCain or Hillary (if she wins the Democratic nomination) in your studio?  Isn’t that going to be awkward?” 
  • “Hey, Oprah, is Barack being black a major factor in your support of him?  Since your audience and fans are mostly all women, many of whom who happen to love Hillary, why did you reject the first woman with a real shot at becoming president?"

Oprah supporters say she’ll have no problem dealing with any of these questions.  I don’t buy it.  Presidential campaigns are set up for the “gotcha” game.  We in the media thrive on it.  We count on it.  Plus, now that Oprah is so out front and accessible in her support of Obama, she’ll be put in positions to be confronted by the media and have to defend some controversial and downright dumb things Obama says. 

If she says “no comment” or refuses to respond, that’s not going to cut it.  And if she says she wants to remain above the fray and stay positive, that’s going to be problematic because she’s entered a very dirty arena that neither she or anyone else can clean up.  You see, if you’re going to get in a ring where mud is being thrown from all directions, you’re very likely to get some on you, even if you’re Oprah Winfrey.

Write to Steve Adubato at