Why Oprah Winfrey is sending Jon Stewart fans to his rally

Oprah Winfrey is paying for a Jon Stewart audience to attend his rally in Washington on Oct. 30. Is this more than a classic Oprah moment?

Charles Sykes/AP/File
By linking herself to John Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, Oprah may be laying the groundwork for the next step in her career.

Apparently, there aren’t enough TV talk show hosts in on the Washington rally idea. Oprah Winfrey certainly thinks so.

On Thursday night, the talk show diva, via satellite, blew into the studio of Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” over on Comedy Central. She joked about sneaking into the studio earlier that day. As the cheers ramped up, Ms. Winfrey said, “ ‘Daily Show’ audience, look under your seats!”

Lo, Halloween treats were there: a trip for all to the big Washington rallies planned for Oct. 30 by both Mr. Stewart and his Comedy Central colleague, Stephen Colbert, who was also on the set. Winfrey beamed down from the screen behind the two hosts as the audience went nutty with shrieks of joy.

But while the whoop-de-do continued, it was clear that something more substantial was taking shape in that classic Oprah moment, says political scientist Steffen Schmidt, a professor at Iowa State University in Ames. The era of the TV talk show host as cultural mover and shaker had just bumped up a notch – maybe far more, he says.

“If Oprah were running for president, she would probably win,” he says. “She is one of the most powerful figures in the US.”

Her alliance with Stewart and Mr. Colbert “rolls out some very heavy artillery in favor of progressive and liberal causes,” he adds. “We are in a major struggle right now for the hearts and minds of Americans.”

Issues such as reading, moderation, and civic discourse are values that Winfrey has touted on her show – and she sees them embodied in the “restore sanity” motto for Stewart’s event, Professor Schmidt says.

It’s even possible that Winfrey could begin to position herself – and her 24-hour cable channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), set to debut next year – as the first substantial counterweight to the growing power of the conservative Fox News.

That may all be true, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York, but let us not forget something else: Winfrey’s own syndicated talk show is coming to a close with this season, he says.

Between last month sending her entire audience to Australia, and now sending Comedy Central fans to the nation’s capital, “she clearly wants to go out with a bang,” Mr. Thompson says.

But what is even more interesting, he says, is the role she may be carving out for herself in the future. With her move Thursday, in some ways “she was also hitching her own wagon to the very powerful cultural force that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert represent,” Thompson says.

By and large, he says, the much younger fans who engage with the comedians are not part of Winfrey’s base. “But,” he adds, “she realizes they need to be part of her future.”

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