Why Oprah was the big winner in Harry and Meghan's interview

Tuesday - 09/03/2021 13:25
‘Winfrey proved herself, once again, to be a spectacular listener and a master of the perfectly timed question.’ Photograph: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
‘Winfrey proved herself, once again, to be a spectacular listener and a master of the perfectly timed question.’ Photograph: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
Praise pours in from colleagues and experts as Winfrey again proves her ‘singular genius’ as an interviewer

Oprah Winfrey has taken her share of knocks during a fabled career as a groundbreaking broadcaster, producer, and actor, but after her headline-burning two-hour interview special with the Sussexes, Harry and Meghan, the word on many people’s lips was, simply, masterly.

“That was the best interview I ever watched,” the New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted shortly after the special aired in the United States on Sunday night. “Let it launch a thousand clips.”

Similar praise poured in from the attorney and political commentator Bakari Sellers: “Respectfully, no one else could’ve done this like Oprah.”

“Two hours came too quickly to an end; I could have watched two more. All hail the queen,” wrote Vogue’s Michelle Ruiz.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was equally effusive“I didn’t actually quite understand Oprah’s singular genius as a broadcaster and interviewer until I became one,” he said, “but she’s legit on another level.”

The plaudits weren’t just for the tsunami of news stories the broadcast generated – everything from Meghan’s despair during her first pregnancy, to the mystery “royal racist” who asked boorish questions about the future baby’s skin color, to the fact that the couple are now expecting a girl – but also for more old-fashioned broadcasting virtues that Winfrey has spent decades honing to a fine art.

She proved herself, once again, to be a spectacular listener and a master of the perfectly timed question. If she didn’t hear as full an answer as she was hoping for the first time, she held back and asked it again in a different context a little later – or, having bounced it off Meghan, bounced it with subtly different wording off Harry.

After reeling in shock at Meghan’s initial mention of questions being asked about her son Archie’s skin color (a perfectly executed “what?”), Winfrey managed to extract two details that, one sensed, the couple were not necessarily planning on revealing. The first was that the questioner was a family member, not merely staff. And the second was that the revelation of the person’s name would be “too damaging” – suggesting to many listeners that it might be someone in direct line to the throne.
 

Winfrey speaks with Meghan during the two-hour interview.
Winfrey speaks with Meghan during the two-hour interview. Photograph: Harpo Productions/Reuters


At the age of 67, Winfrey has little left to prove, despite periodic complaints that she is imperious, or lightweight, or likes to play favorites. Still, it was evident that she anticipated two potential criticisms and headed them off at the pass.

The first was that, since she is herself akin to royalty, she risked leaving Harry and Meghan in her shadow. That explained, perhaps, her choice of low-key attire and her deliberately soft, unobtrusive questioning style.

The second possible reservation was that she would lob only softballs at a couple whose wedding she attended and whom she now counts among her neighbours in mansion-studded Montecito, near Santa Barbara. Certainly she eased the couple into their many revelations, but she did not take their word on everything – most notably when she insisted it had been their decision to break with royal tradition by refusing to be photographed with Archie when he was a newborn.

At the age of 67, Winfrey has little left to prove, despite periodic complaints that she is imperious, or lightweight, or likes to play favorites. Still, it was evident that she anticipated two potential criticisms and headed them off at the pass.

The first was that, since she is herself akin to royalty, she risked leaving Harry and Meghan in her shadow. That explained, perhaps, her choice of low-key attire and her deliberately soft, unobtrusive questioning style.

The second possible reservation was that she would lob only softballs at a couple whose wedding she attended and whom she now counts among her neighbours in mansion-studded Montecito, near Santa Barbara. Certainly she eased the couple into their many revelations, but she did not take their word on everything – most notably when she insisted it had been their decision to break with royal tradition by refusing to be photographed with Archie when he was a newborn.

Still, Winfrey has never forgotten her background as a poverty-stricken child of segregation-era Mississippi. She gives lavishly and often to social causes – everything from buying a retirement home for Rosa Parks, the civil rights pioneer, who died in 2005, to donating millions to neighborhoods hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic consequences. And she runs a leadership academy for girls in South Africa who aspire to the sort of barrier-breaking achievements she has made look so easy.Behind Winfrey was a production company that put together a spectacular edit (three and a half hours of material boiled down to one hour and 25 minutes of airtime) that provided a steady stream of big reveals and left the audience hanging on for more at each commercial break. Many far from committed watchers marveled (or complained) afterwards that without meaning to they had watched the whole thing.

Her Harpo Productions also maintained an impressive veil of secrecy around the broadcast, ensuring no leaks beyond a carefully calculated drip of teaser trailers and keeping even executives and broadcasters at CBS, which aired the interview, in the dark until the very last minute.

To Winfrey’s legions of admirers, none of this came as much of a surprise. Back in 2001, Time magazine noted that her guests “often find themselves revealing things they would not imagine telling anyone, much less a national TV audience. It is the talkshow as a group therapy session.”

She is not immune to missteps. When Arnold Schwarzenegger and his then wife, Maria Shriver, appeared on her show in 2003, it was widely seen as a free plug to launch Schwarzenegger’s ultimately successful bid to become governor of California and a way to soften allegations of sexual impropriety then swirling in the media. Winfrey let Shriver, one of her best friends, defend her husband’s honor (“I know the man I’m married to”) and asked no challenging follow-ups. Shriver later divorced Schwarzenegger after learning he’d fathered a child with the family housekeeper.

For a brief moment, after an inspiring speech at the 2018 Golden Globe awards, a number of Winfrey’s friends sought to persuade her to run for president. But she quickly shot down the idea, saying that short of a clear sign from God she would avoid electoral politics. The effusive reviews of her Harry and Meghan interview are unlikely to change that. But they do prove that, after all these years, there is still nobody quite like her.

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