Oprah and confession

For me, the word "confession" conjures up images of dark booths with dark mesh screens -- a private place where dark deeds can be made undone away from the light. I've been Catholic all my life; I can't help it.

But that's not the image of confession for most Americans now -- maybe not even most Catholics. This very private sacrament continues its decline, and I've got to think there's one prominent person who's partly to blame: Oprah Winfrey.

This month, Winfrey ends her 25 year reign as the top talk-show host on broadcast television. But, as Mary McNamara points out in the Los Angeles Times, Winfrey's impact goes much deeper. She changed the image of confession.

McNamara points to an episode of the talk show in 1987, when Oprah revealed she had been a victim of sexual abuse as a child. She shattered "the fourth wall" between subject and interviewer, and shifted dramatically what we expected to view on television.

More than that, though, Oprah shifted how we viewed television itself -- she changed what we as a society perceived as television's role in our lives and what it could do for us. It transformed from "the idiot box" into a confessional booth, but on a national (and very public) scale.

Post-Oprah, the notion that confession is something private, something hidden, became hopelessly medieval. In America today, confession is best done in public: shame is gone, replaced by more therapeutic bywords like "closure" and "catharsis."

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In all my time working in television (both on the news side and the entertainment side), it's never ceased to amaze me what Americans are willing to talk about in front of cameras and lights. It's tempting to think of this rush to public confession as a low-brow grasp for fifteen minutes of fame, but I've come to realize it was something different, and deeper.

Television, I think, validates the struggle a person has gone through. The fact that someone wants to hear your story, believes something can be learned from it, and wants to put it out there in front of a national audience -- all these things help give personal misfortune a wider meaning. We feel the tragedy we have endured. The missteps we have made are not so random.

That's what Oprah has done. She changed a medium, no doubt -- but she also changed the meaning of a sacrament that dates back millennia: confession.

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