I spent a small smidgen of time on Monday at Fox News discussing the Oprah Winfrey struggle with sex abuse allegations at her South African school for girls. Why is this story so big? In part, it's because Oprah made it so big, inviting massive coverage of her philanthropy, as I said to Martha McCallum on her show Live Desk:
Part of the problem is the way she built it up in the first place. As you have just described, she put an enormous amount of money in here, built this thing, hand-picked the students, and when you have that much involvement in it, when something goes wrong, people are going to look right at you. They're not going to look at, "well, she was just the billionaire philanthropist who paid money and did not have anything to do with it." Now the media can turn around and say everything that goes wrong to these -- with the students that she selected becomes her problem, and she is obviously getting very aggressive in trying to meet it head on.
So what can she do to remedy the abuse allegations? She's obviously aggressive in her PR, but I suggested she was overpromising:
It is hard to expect the level of intimacy that she is sort of promising here where she says, "these are my babies, they are not a part-time project." How can they not be a part-time project? She has a lot of irons in the fire. She is not on the ground in South Africa. There is going to be a little skepticism here about how much she can do to oversee this school. Obviously if she had overseen it carefully, this might not have happened in the first place.
The female guests who came after me were much more supportive on the talk show megastar. "Pop culture commentator" Jehmu Greene said she knew Winfrey could fix things, and she needs to make sure they "do not take out all of the culture" from the South African girls. Legal analyst and author Wendy Murphy was much more positive:
She is so generous, and I do not think anything she is doing is depriving these young women of their culture. We know about the sexual abuse stuff, and one thing and I am expecting from oprah is to say, look, anyone who is running a school, including anyone in the united states, is expected to do a super good job, psychological screening in particular before you put in adults in a position of caretaking over super vulnerable kids away from their families. We do not do a good job in this country, so let's not be too hard on Oprah.
I wouldn't suggest it's "too hard on Oprah" to note that every public-relations gain she banked in publicizing her school project to the hilt is now going to reflect back on her. No one's saying she should have never been generous or tried to help educate poor African girls. But building up a big philanthropy story for good publicity can backfire when the news goes bad.