Usually when I link to Huffington Post, I do so because one of its writers has written something worthy of thought or uncovered a political issue that the mainstream media has overlooked. Unfortunately, that's not why I'm linking to that website today. HuffPo is possibly large enough and powerful enough now to be called a mainstream media outlet itself, and due its reach and power, the website's big failure today regarding Oprah's breast cancer scare news is doubly troubling.
I'm speaking of the teaser HuffPo ran about Oprah at the top of its media section's main page. If you missed it, the screenshot is below this paragraph. The only thing I've added is the cloud burst identifying the teaser's wording as a fail. In big orange and black letters the teaser reads, "O Dear: Who Would Have Thought OWN Was the Least of Her Worries."
Dear Huffington Post: It's not okay to minimize a breast cancer scare. Yes, Oprah Winfrey is powerful, and yes, she is struggling to save her OWN venture and her magazine, and it's true that due to her power and influence, she often has been the punchline of jokes, but under no circumstances should anyone make light of her or anyone else's experience with a breast cancer scare. "O Dear: Who Would Have Thought OWN Was the Least of Her Worries" is too flip a teaser for such a potentially fatal healthcare outcome, scare or no scare. (I don't have the time to discuss the sexist implications with the use of "O Dear" here when applied to such a serious matter.)
If you saw and clicked the link on the media page, then you know that it linked to an article by the website's media editor, Jack Mirkinson, in which the lead is "Oprah had a recent breast cancer scare and may shut down her magazine if it starts losing money, the New York Times revealed on Monday." (The lead is problematic as well with its implication that the breast cancer scare is somehow connected to the failing magazine, but any analysis of the article would mean another blog post.)
Later in the article, Mirkinson references the New York Times story again in which its author recounts Oprah's announcement about her breast cancer scare at a conference. Mirkinson characterizes the announcement as "startling," so one has to wonder how he, as an editor of the media section, let such a callous teaser slip through. (I recall that the website had a similarly tacky headline during the Aurora, Colorado, massacre: "Horror in Aurora" was on the first page, a much too glib headline for such a tragedy due to the headline's similarity to the "Thrilla in Manila" rhyme that promoted one of Muhammad Ali's famous fights.)
The wording was also problematic for other reasons. Oprah Winfrey is not just a billionaire media mogul; she's also an African American woman and African American women are at a greater risk for breast cancer in its most deadly forms. Cancer does not discriminate, so Oprah's wealth doesn't shield her from being genuinely afraid of bad test results. (See my 2009 post on the higher incidence of fatal breast cancer among black women.).
Additionally telling for the Huffington Post, it published its poorly worded teaser just as a black woman's website posted an article about black women and breast cancer. At Madame Noire, writer Charing Balla asks "Is Racism The Reason Black Women Are More Likely To Die From Breast Cancer? Looking at the disparity between black women and white women in early detection for breast cancer and morbidity rates, the post discusses that "black women have a 41 percent higher death rate from breast cancer than their white counterparts."
When I first saw the provocative headline, I thought it was over the top, but a few minutes later I saw the Huffington Post teaser and I began to think perhaps I was too hard on the Madame Noire headline.
Knowing the facts about low diagnosis and survival rates for breast cancer among African-American women and that these low rates may be attributed, in part, to the medical community not listening to or showing racial bias toward black women, I'm even more disappointed with the Huffington Post's failure on its coverage of Oprah's breast cancer scare. With HuffPo's treatment of Oprah here, it falls into two pits: The dehumanization of celebrities and the dehumanization of the African-American female into the strong black woman stereotype to whom, some think, no consideration or concern is due.
Now I consider that Arianna Huffington needs to take a look at what her media empire is really contributing to multicultural news coverage. Her mega website appears to be losing its way despite its so-called progressive leanings toward inclusion. Over the last few years, through a syndication and aggregation model, Huff Po has turned its news coverage into a profit center promoting the commodification of humans by ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, and I see a problem.
The Huffington Post has its Black Voices, Latino Voices, women's section, and Gay Voices, but it's missing its sensitivity voice. In its rush to capitalize on identity politics and information segregation, the website has neglected to cultivate among its staff the kind of knowledge it takes to push news through such segmented channels with genuine multicultural intelligence.
The HuffPo teaser failed not only Oprah, black women, and women in general, it failed humanity as well. The website missed the chance to educate readers about a serious health crisis among black women and to show compassion. Oprah Winfrey, after all, is human first and she should be treated during her breast cancer scare with the same compassion as any other human would be treated following a cancer scare. She is a big personality, but in human frailty, we are all small.
Lagniappe: In the video below Alice Walker reads Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman." I see it as an appropriate ending for a post about a mainstream media outlet's failure to show compassion toward Oprah because as a black woman often called "powerful" and "a queen," her image carries the essence of the "strong black woman" stereotype.
Sojourner Truth's famous speech is often used to discuss Western culture's tendency to minimize the pain of black women, dehumanizing them as beasts of burden who can handle anything. This matter of the mythological black super woman who requires no protection sometimes presents a conundrum for modern black feminists/womanists seeking balance between being strong while also needing protection sometimes. It seems that in humanity's march toward greater inclusion, there remains a danger of segmenting the other into the same, overly-simplified, flat and essentialized images of older racist and sexist thinking.