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Oprah had arrived, and it was time for the clock on Amarillo's 15 minutes of fame to start ticking.
On the face of it, the reason that she had come to the Texas Panhandle was absurd: Put simply, Oprah Winfrey was accused of libeling beef.
But the Trial of Oprah certainly had the makings of a juicy story: one of the nation's most influential and beloved African-Americans, defending herself in a mostly white, solidly conservative city, accused of defaming a product that's fattened for slaughter in the feedlots outside of town and then served up at the most famous local landmark, the Big Texan Steak Ranch. Then there was the dead-serious First Amendment issue to be decided: Can a person libel food by implying that it's not safe to eat?
But when Oprah finally blew into town on January 19, the television reporter for Amarillo's ABC affiliate had something else on his mind, a question that no doubt was on thousands of other local lips.
"What do you think of Amarillo?" the reporter asked the just-arrived Winfrey as she ducked into a black Suburban, a pair of drooling dogs nestled on her chest.
"At least the sun is shining," Oprah yelled as she sped away, teams of news crews in pursuit.
Perhaps that was Winfrey's way of saying that she wasn't too thrilled to be in Amarillo for a trial that was predicted to last at least six weeks; perhaps it was simply an acknowledgment of the obvious: that having been in town all of ten minutes, she hadn't quite had the time to form an opinion of her temporary home away from home.
The trial, as predicted, dragged on into February, but it was possible to draw two conclusions from the first few days of the Oprah trial, both of which were as certain as the sun shining over Amarillo: The state of the stargazing, run-and-gun American media is actually far worse than we knew, and Oprah Winfrey knows how to work a town.
Flat as a griddle and straddling Interstate 40, Amarillo is the very middle of middle America. The average worker here pulls down $24,000 a year in wages, and the city's housing stock offers everything from three-story colonial homes on the west side to rundown shotgun shacks on the north side. The local economy was built on meat: Amarillo is home to Texas's largest cattle auction, and some days, when the wind blows just right off the feedlots, the entire city is filled with the ripe scent of cow poop.
Filmmaker John Waters couldn't have set a better scene for the bizarre clash of celebrity, media and law that is Texas Beef Group, et al. v. Oprah Winfrey, et al.
In May 1996, Paul Engler, an Amarillo cattle feeder, sued Winfrey under Texas's "False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products" statute, a measure the Legislature approved with little notice in 1995. Engler claimed that Winfrey's April 16, 1996 show "Dangerous Food" was "edited for content" to spread lies about the safety of beef, costing the cattle industry around $10 million in lost sales.
The trial represents the first serious challenge to the new series of such "veggie libel laws," which 13 states have enacted. The laws generally make it easier to libel perishable foods than humans.
To understand the effect the case could have on free speech, imagine Mom's advice, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all," applied to food instead of people. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, with its gruesome descriptions of turn-of-the-century slaughterhouses, would never have seen print.
The Texas Cattle Feeders Association helped pass the food-disparagement law, laying out $100,000 to pay three lobbyists to persuade state lawmakers. Engler, not coincidentally, is an influential member of the association. His Amarillo-based Cactus Feeders Inc. is the largest privately owned cattle-feeding operation in the nation, responsible for fattening a quarter of the nation's cattle for slaughter.
His lawsuit against Oprah wasn't the first time Engler has taken part in a fight to muzzle the media when it says things he doesn't like. About ten years ago, he led a nasty battle against the Amarillo Globe-News when the newspaper accurately reported about cost overruns involving construction of the president's home at West Texas State University (now West Texas A&M University), in nearby Canyon. At the time, Engler's old friend, oil- and gas-man T. Boone Pickens, sat on the university's board of regents.
In his attempt to silence the paper, Engler headed a group called the Panhandle Citizens for a Better Amarillo Newspaper and demanded that the newspaper's ownership sell it to local interests. "The ultimate objective is to accomplish a change in ownership," Engler said at the time.
As part of a $60,000 effort to whip the town into a frenzy, Engler put on a rally at the Amarillo Civic Center and lured 1,500 persons with free food, drink and music.
Engler even pressured Chamber of Commerce president Larry Milner, who told the Amarillo public that his job was threatened unless he supported Engler's group. (The chamber apparently got the message: Before the Oprah trial, it issued a memo banning its employees from attending the tapings of her show.)