Why Oprah turned her back on Chicago media

March 31, 2010

Editor's note: Robert Feder is on spring break until April 7. While he's away, we're running "The Best of Feder." The following post originally appeared on Nov. 23, 2009: Believe it or not, there really was a time when Oprah Winfrey didn't reign over Chicago.

People under 35 may find it hard to imagine, but the local media landscape looked altogether different in the era before she arrived.

The daytime talk show of record was "Donahue." The hottest ticket in town (with a waiting list of‚ 10 years) was "The Bozo Show." The lady with all the answers was Eppie "Ann Landers" Lederer. The highest paid broadcaster on the air was Paul Harvey. The most popular woman on television was Mary Ann Childers. The most influential magazine publishers were Hugh Hefner and John H. Johnson. Visiting monarchs, moguls and movie stars paid homage to Irv Kupcinet. Authors prayed for an endorsement from Robert Cromie or Milt Rosenberg. Chicago's ultimate arbiter of style and its most treasured philanthropist was Abra Prentice Anderson. The Near West Side was known as Skid Row.

And then came Oprah.

With a parade down State Street on New Year's Day 1984, the new host of "A.M. Chicago" officially arrived, although no one -- not even Oprah herself -- could possibly have foreseen the impact she would have on Chicago, the media and the world over the next 25 years.  

While she quickly eclipsed Phil Donahue in the ratings and sent him packing for New York, Oprah's ascent in other ways was more gradual. Her early years in Chicago were marked by an openness to fans and an accessibility to the media that eventually would give way to aloofness and distrust.

But before all the sycophants and security, before all the corporate secrecy and employee confidentiality, and before all the millions of dollars and then‚ billions of dollars, Oprah was like a breath of fresh air.

Her triumphs were our triumphs. We celebrated her syndication deal with a luncheon at Spiaggia. We exulted with her when the ratings went through the roof for her first appearance on "The Tonight Show" (with Joan Rivers filling in for Johnny Carson). We rejoiced when her movie debut in "The Color Purple" garnered an Academy Award nomination. We marveled when she acquired ownership of her talk show. We shared her pride when she showed off the West Loop production house she'd spared no expense to refurbish as her own Harpo Studio.

Before the start of each season, we'd chat about her plans and compare notes about the competition. If she had a particularly sensitive announcement to make (such as her decision to withdraw publication of her much-anticipated autobiography), she'd share that, too, and follow it up with a personal note or a gracious voice mail message.

"It's so easy to get caught up in gossip about Oprah's private life that we often overlook the fact that she is here in Chicago making extraordinary television day in and day out, touching and inspiring a vast audience in a way no one else ever has," I wrote in a 1992 column headlined: "Why We're Lucky Our Oprah Is Here."

But as Oprah's empire grew, the demands and pressures on her grew as well. Self-serving relatives peddled her secrets to the tabloids. Disloyal staffers became increasingly litigious and loquacious. Even as she celebrated her own "free speech" victory over Texas cattlemen who sued her for defamation, she was muzzling her own employees with lifetime confidentiality agreements. Control of Oprah's brand and image became paramount.

It's no wonder she was feeling increasingly gun-shy around the local media. As Robert Kurson recounted in a 2001 piece for Chicago magazine, Oprah felt blindsided by a devastating profile in Spy magazine by Bill Zehme, and angered by what she called a "vicious, malicious lie" about her and boyfriend Stedman Graham published by former Sun-Times gossip columnist Ann Gerber. Around the same time, Dan Santow, a former producer for "The Oprah Winfrey Show," wrote an unflattering behind-the scenes piece for Redbook magazine, and Colleen Raleigh, former top publicist for Harpo, aired her grievances in an embarrassing lawsuit.

While she came to redefine Chicago's image to the world and dominate the media as no one had before, the Oprah we'd known and loved was becoming someone we didn't recognize anymore. Her public appearances in Chicago, once commonplace and spontaneous, became increasingly rare and calculated --  like her election night reverie in Grant Park or her block party on Michigan Avenue.

Of course, it all makes perfect sense: Why would one of the richest, most powerful women alive -- with a top-rated talk show, a successful magazine, a thriving production company, a flourishing Internet enterprise, a growing satellite radio venture and her very own cable network --  deign to bother dealing with media people she neither trusts nor controls?

In announcing her decision Friday to end her Chicago-based talk show in 2011, Oprah left many questions unanswered about her plans and the fate of her company headquarters here. It speaks volumes about her relationship with the local press that Chicago reporters and columnists were given no greater access to her -- none, really -- than their counterparts from anywhere else. (The sole exception was longtime friend Roger Ebert, who shared a‚ personal email from her.)‚ Mayor Daley had it all wrong: The press didn't turn on Oprah. She turned on the press.

As Chicagoans brace for the 18-month run-up to Oprah's grand finale, we're left to contemplate how far we've come together with her -- and, at the same time, how far apart we've grown.

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