Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Oprah Winfrey
One of the online resources I try to check regularly ever since visiting South Africa with Luise and daughter Sarah in 2004 is allAfrica.com, a roundup of news from the entire continent. This morning, ahead of more desperate and gloomy reports from Darfur, Congo and Zimbabwe, the "Top Headline" concerns Liberia's recently elected, Harvard-educated president and the first female leader of an African nation:
"Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on Oprah's Wednesday Broadcast, Continues Push for Investment and Rebuilding Assistance."
Wow, I think--two impressive women top the news for the African continent! Eagerly I click on the item but find only a brief notice that Sirleaf is to appear on today's show.
I decide to look further and surf over to Oprah's website. A search of the website yields no hits to the query "Ellen Johnson Sirleaf" or even "Liberia." Under the rubric "Today's Show" I find the title: "Meet the World's Youngest Queen." Next to a picture of a toothsomely smiling and glamorous Rana of Jordan runs the text:
"We're going around the world. She's smart, beautiful and royal. The world's youngest queen came halfway around the globe to see us. Then, the grandmother of nine who made presidential history. She's a woman Oprah wants you to meet."
At last a hint--though no name or country; and her grandmotherly status seems as important as the "presidential history."
I sigh and look elsewhere on Oprah's website. At "Message Boards" fans can exchange comments about topics from the television shows; here I find a lively stream of responses to a question already posted relating to "World's Youngest Queen.” It reads, “Do you follow the lives of young royals? How have they inspired you?" My heart sinks further. No question inviting viewers to comment on the Liberian president or the civil war which devastated her country for decades, cost 250,000 lives and "educated" children only in the art of firing a gun as child soldiers. Instead, viewers are given the chance to give opinions on "The Best Cake in America Revealed" and "When Your Husband Cheats with Your Best Friend." Thoroughly frustrated, I leave my computer and prepare for our regular bike trip to Aldi's. Luise tries to console me; it must be her staff, not Oprah herself, who are responsible for this distortion of priorities!
Back at my desk after we've successfully restocked our fridge and shelves, I return to Oprah's website. This time "Today's Show" has a fuller array of text and pictures, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is finally presented in a manner worthy of her significance; as I click through the pages her goals as peacemaker and leader become clear, as does her recognition that the girls and women of Liberia (and Africa generally) must be educated and protected (law against rape for first time) if the nation and the continent are to recover and prosper.
I give Oprah the benefit of the doubt and concede that maybe her staff just hadn't gotten the full message about Sirleaf's appearance before the show. I don't really believe this though; there's too much enthusiasm for the young royals, the perfect cake and the cheating husband for the Oprah-industry to be entirely innocent of what "sells" in the late-afternoon time-slot. But maybe that's the only way to sneak such a powerful, progressive and feminist global messenger into so many American living-rooms.
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