Oprah Does Amarillo

It's the Queen of Talk versus the Meat Men, and outside the courtroom, master media manipulator Winfrey is already the clear winner.

The demand for new ownership failed, but not before the paper's owner shipped off general manager Jerry Huff to a new position in Georgia. Pickens celebrated the victory by posting a large banner on his downtown office building that boasted: "Goodbye, Jerry."

That wasn't good enough for Engler, who continued to demand that the paper create focus groups and meet with the members of the community to discuss the newspaper's coverage. In Amarillo, that was the dawn of a new era of community-oriented journalism.

"We are very customer-service oriented. We take that very seriously here," says publisher Garet Von Netzer, who was executive editor when Engler and Pickens staged their campaign.

Although the Globe-News has done a fair job covering the Oprah trial, Von Netzer says he has decided the paper wouldn't take a pretrial editorial position on the litigation.

"We did not want to become part of the story and be seen as influencing the jury pool," says Von Netzer, who recently turned down an invitation to Engler's wedding. "I think we owe it to the public and the parties involved not to do anything we don't have to do, to ensure as pure of a jury pool as possible."

Nowadays, Huff, from his position as managing editor at the Southwest Times Record, in Fort Smith, Arkansas, is watching with much amusement as Engler takes on Oprah.

"Nothing has changed," Huff says, especially Engler. "He's fairly typical in the fact that he has more money than sense."

Yet if Engler thought he could intimidate Oprah Winfrey as easily as he slapped around the hometown press, he miscalculated. As the Oprah trial illustrates, the public's love for celebrity outweighs its hatred for the press.

That's a fact that Winfrey took advantage of when she decided to pack up her Chicago-based show and haul it to the Panhandle during the trial.

Once here, she quickly busied herself displaying the show-biz smarts that have made her the nation's third-highest-paid entertainer. She won over fans in Amarillo by bringing in celebrity guests and leading church readings. With sweeps weeks set to begin this month and Winfrey in a ratings battle with Jerry Springer, she garnered more national publicity than money could buy.

Since the trial began on January 20, Winfrey has been the subject of news stories from New York to China, and her mug has appeared on news and entertainment shows ranging from Entertainment Tonight to the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.

If residents of Amarillo were wondering what impression she planned to make on their city, they only needed to listen to the words flowing out of her mouth and into their living rooms on Martin Luther King Day, the day before the trial started.

Winfrey looked every penny of her estimated $550 million as she clapped her hands and wagged her slimmed-down behind on the set of her Chicago studio.

Decked out in a pink business suit with modestly flaring bell-bottoms, Winfrey joined in song with Soul Children of Chicago.

"Everywhere I go," Winfrey sang, "I'm gonna let it shine."

As the sun peeks out over downtown Amarillo on the day after Oprah's arrival, its rays capture the glory of the press corps moments before the Big Beef vs. Oprah showdown gets under way.

Several tents, erected by CNN, Fox and CBS, occupy the grassy square on the courthouse grounds, which is blocked off by police barricades and surrounded by two dozen media satellite trucks and minivans.

Across the street, dozens of reporters crowd along the sidewalk, shivering in a bone-chilling wind as they wait for the parties in the case to arrive. Some 30 television cameras rest on tripods or shoulders, locked and loaded.

The working crowd includes a sizable contingent of representatives from the entertainment press or, as the mainstream press refers to them, the subpar world of tabloid TV and supermarket rags. Hard Copy, Entertainment Tonight, Extra! and American Journal are there. A handful of print reporters is also on hand, standing out among the chic crowd like stray dogs on a Mexican highway.

Chicago Tribune media critic Tim Jones scratches his windblown red hair and wonders aloud what he is doing in a city that looks like "a giant gas station."

"This isn't even a story, back in Chicago. It's entertainment," says Jones, who contemplates the odds of his gaining access to the trial. "It's like waiting in line for Rolling Stones tickets. People are going to be lined up at five in the morning."

With enough reporters on hand to cover a small war, one would guess that coverage would be diverse. One would be wrong. Sallying from Camp Oprah, the reporters gather the same footage of plaintiff Engler, then Winfrey, going in and out of the same building, via the same route, four times a day, every day.

On this day, Engler and his attorneys make the first appearance.
Because U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson has ordered the parties not to discuss the case, no one is quite sure what to ask Engler as he strolls down the sidewalk, wearing a cocky grin and a gleaming white cowboy hat. As Engler waves to the cameras, the cluster of bodies and equipment follows his every step.

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