Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

The Oprahization of America: Sympathetic Crime Talk and Leniency

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

The Oprahization of America: Sympathetic Crime Talk and Leniency

Article excerpt

A common contention holds that Americans have gone soft on crime (Austin, 1995; Leo, 1994). Jurors seem increasingly unable to render guilty verdicts even in cases where the evidence for the commission of the offense by the accused appears compelling (Dershowitz, 1994; Dorfman & Iijima, 1995; Goldberg, 1994; Price, 1994). Such compassion for criminal wrongdoers has been attributed to a growing understanding of motives that could explain transgressive actions. Leo suggests that "we are deep into the era of abuse excuse" (1994, p. 17). He speaks of a doctrine of victimology that grants criminals victim-status which then absolves them from responsibility for their crimes. Defense attorneys, he argues, dwell on the offender's history of abuse of any kind, thereby converting the offender's status to that of a victim. The sympathy created for the offender then diminishes and potentially overpowers the weight of evidence against the offender. Commenting on this phenomenon, the noted legal scholar Alan Dershowitz has acknowledged that jurors have become sensitive to a point where they "are beginning to behave like social workers" (cited in Leo, 1994, p. 17).

This new and apparently growing sensitivity of jurors has been attributed to media influence. The Oprah Winfrey Show has been singled out as the prototype. Oprah Winfrey is frequently credited with extraordinary empathic skills in extracting self-disclosures and gut-wrenching confessions from her guests (Abelman, 1998; Abt & Mustazza, 1997; Priest, 1995). Nonconfrontational self-disclosure has become the trademark of her show --to a point that Krauthammer (1992)has characterized the apparent increase in self-revelations among politicians as an Oprahtization (sic) of politics.

Focusing on Oprah's sympathetic and understanding treatment of "wronged wrongdoers," Dershowitz (1994) claimed the Oprahization of the law (and took credit for coining that phrase). Sandel (1997) cited attorneys who labeled the apparent punitive reluctance of jurors as Oprahization of sentencing.

Such characterizations derive from the fact that Oprah Winfrey employs her "human warmth" in her interviews of guests who are presented as having suffered neglect and abuse, including the trauma of purported miscarriages of justice. More than the hosts of competing talk shows, Oprah Winfrey shows profound sympathy for the allegedly wronged and probes for causes of their transgressive and criminal behavior. The search for "what made them do it" invariably produces information that seems to "explain" and thereby mitigate the transgressive behavior. "Jurors who watch that stuff," contends Dershowitz, "begin to believe it, despite its status as junk science" (1994, p. 5). It is in this context that Dan Lungren, Attorney General of California, speaks of an "Oprahization of the jury pool" (cited in Gregory, 1994, p. 30). He explains that:

   people have become so set on viewing things from the Oprah view, the
   Geraldo view or the Phil Donahue view that they bring that into the jury
   box with them. And I think at base much of that tends to say, We don't hold
   people responsible for their actions because they've been the victim of
   some influence at some time in their life (p. 30).

Gregory (1994) reports that, despite a complete lack of research support for the presumed media influence, jury consultants and selectors have started to include television viewing habits in their bag of selection criteria. The stipulation of voir dire examinations (i.e., of procedures designed to determine the competency and potential biases of witnesses and jurors) to "learn about the jurors' backgrounds and attitudes" (Mauet, 1980, p, 37) is apparently broadened to include media preferences. A consultant is cited asserting, among other things concerning media behavior, that talk-show watchers are "more likely to distrust the official version (of an offense) and to believe that there are two sides to a story. …

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