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Opinion

Opinion: Can Oprah Help Restore Civility?

Jan 4, 2011 – 5:01 AM
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Bernie Goldberg

Bernie Goldberg Contributor

I have long thought that whatever else the wondrous worldwide Web is, it is a lunatic asylum, where mean-spirited cretins roam its dark halls and smash against padded walls spewing hate all over the place pretty much for just one reason: They disagree with you.

I speak from first-hand experience.

If you honestly believe there's a liberal bias in the so-called mainstream media, as I do, the reaction by the anonymous critics on the Web is not that I'm simply wrong, it's that I'm a freaking fill-in-the-blank -- and they're not so polite as to use the word "freaking."

Jon Stewart is a smart guy who thinks deeply about important issues, but a lot of his most passionate fans apparently have vocabularies that consist of just two words: the first starts with F and the second is You! I discovered this one night when I (politely) noted that Jon wasn't nearly as cutting edge and courageous as his unsophisticated fans thought, since he gave his liberal friends a much easier ride than his conservative foes.

I think it was the word "unsophisticated" that touched them off. Within minutes, the F bombs were flying.

Anyone who has ever written anything even vaguely controversial knows what I'm talking about and has encountered these profiles in cowardice.

"We're braver when we type," noted Parry Aftab, a cyber-security lawyer who spoke to the Wall Street Journal last year for a piece titled "Surviving the Age of Humiliation." "We don't have to look someone in their eyes. It's easier to be vicious, to cross the line between funny and cruel."

Humiliation pre-dates the Internet, of course. There has always been a dark need for some troubled souls to humiliate and embarrass others. But in the Internet age, as the Journal put it, "All of us now live under the threat of easy and instant humiliation."

In the old days we used to say nasty things about someone we didn't like over the backyard fence. Today, all we need is a modem and a computer and we can humiliate and embarrass anyone we want, and our potential audience is the whole wide world. And here's the "best" part: We can do it while wearing a mask so no one knows who we are.

I'm not sure if technology has made us meaner. But it has certainly made the dirty work of cowards easier.

Enter Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah began her new cable television network -- OWN -- at noon on New Year's Day, a network dedicated to the total and complete absence of mean-spiritedness. "OWN is a place where cynicism takes a holiday and mockery hasn't yet been invented," as The New York Times television writer Allesandra Stanley put it.

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"There is no Chelsea Handler baring her big, sharp teeth on OWN; there is no Kathy Griffin or Joan Rivers standing up to take a crack at other people's appearances or ages," Stanley tells us.

I never watched the old Oprah show. I wasn't part of Oprah's target audience. But, boy, do I wish her well. I hope her idealism, her desire for more civility in our culture, is contagious. I hope it spreads -- to other cable channels, to the guy walking down the street dropping F bombs while shouting into his cell phone, and also to the dark halls of the worldwide Web.

Hey, it's a brand new year. A guy can hope, can't he? Sooner or later, I suspect, reality will smack me in the face.

Until then, you go, Oprah!

Bernie Goldberg is a television news reporter and winner of 10 Emmy Awards. He is the author of five books on the media and American culture, including the No. 1 best-seller "Bias"; is a regular commentator on Fox News; and reports for the HBO program "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel." Find out more at BernardGoldberg.com.
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