Let me tell you the story of two popular television talk-show hosts: One is an out lesbian who brought both presidential candidates onto her show; the other is a black woman who’s deeply invested in Barack Obama’s candidacy and refuses to have the first female Republican vice presidential candidate on her program.
Rumors recently flew that Oprah battled a large part of her staff on the decision to keep Palin out of Harpo Studios and has since issued a press statement to clarify: “There has been absolutely no discussion about having Sarah Palin on my show … When I decided that I was going to take my first public stance in support of a candidate, I made the decision not to use my show as a platform for any of the candidates.”
Oprah’s intentions may seem nonpartisan, but the reality is that attaching her name to a candidate is just as influential as letting them walk across her stage, and Palin is receiving neither opportunity.
Ellen Degeneres went the opposite route and invited Republican nominee John McCain onto her afternoon talk show to face the “elephant in the room” head on: gay marriage. A ballsy move, sure, but according to FOX News, it may have helped McCain more than pundits predicted. Despite Ellen’s pressuring comments on equality and love, the interview was (though mildly awkward) generally well-mannered. The two agreed to disagree, and McCain concluded his statements by saying he wished Ellen every happiness — even if he does think “marriage” is a sacred bond between man and woman.
Bear in mind we’re not talking about “The Daily Show” or “Colbert”; Oprah and Ellen host programs that in no way directly correspond to a set of political beliefs. Maybe some hot-headed Republicans turn their nose at each of them for personal reasons — and some Democrats too — but technically, neither woman is responsible for broadcasting her beliefs, political or otherwise. That’s not to say their candid commentary and biases don’t factor into the show, but in those circumstances, that’s a conscious decision they’ve chosen to make.
Regardless of their own views, though, Oprah and Ellen owe their audiences the best shows they’re capable of delivering. If that means having Sarah Palin on, then why is Oprah shying away? Republicans would fawn, Democrats would fume and Oprah will have done her job.
In her press statement, Oprah admitted she would love to interview Palin but refuses to do so before the election. She seems to be aiming for neutrality but her efforts have essentially been in vain since her public endorsement of Obama last spring. Oprah the television host cannot be separated from Oprah the voter. There’s simply no point in trying. If she’s going to get involved, she might as well go all the way, and that means initiating an interview that could potentially achieve record-setting ratings for the show.
But the viewers aren’t the only consideration here, no matter how much we’d all love to see Palin stand trial before Oprah. Assuming Palin’s appearance would generate high ratings for the show, you’d think that Oprah is in some way obligated to the television network and advertisers that allow her program to run. There’s just one hiccup in this theory: Oprah owns the show, in all its syndicated glory. Somehow, this makes Oprah’s decision all the more deplorable, because it leaves no room for negotiation from her staff or audience. And what purpose does the talk show serve, if not to entertain and inform its viewers?
As much as I love the cultural dialogue generated by “Oprah,” I side with Ellen’s willingness to breach whatever fine line of disinterest Oprah is trying to tread. Popular talk shows produce television personalities that the public feels deeply connected to, and a refusal to open discussion about issues that matter to viewers is a borderline betrayal of trust. Oprah has hosted several controversial episodes, and no one has respected her any less for it. Her direct endorsement is different only from Ellen’s in that it was handled as a media sensation, whereas Ellen’s vote has been blatantly, if silently, understood.
If talk shows remain relevant, there’s no reason why any popular host (yes, this means you too, Rachel Ray) should cut themselves out of the debate. Even if they don’t personally support the guest interview in question, they have additional responsibilities to their viewers. I challenge Oprah to break with whatever convention she’s built for herself and invite Sarah Palin on her show. Tear the woman to pieces if that’s what you want to do, but for the sake of good television, if nothing else, grant the fucking interview.