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.

In the courtroom, Winfrey would defend herself against accusations that she painted an inaccurate picture of the U.S. cattle industry by sensationalizing the mad cow scare. Outside, locals would soon accuse reporters of painting an inaccurate picture of Amarillo.

Looking for local color to fill time until the taping of Winfrey's show on Thursday, the troops from Camp Oprah trekked out to the Big Texan to find out what Amarillo's 180,000 residents do for fun and ask them what they think about Oprah.

With its tacky western design, live rattlesnake, stuffed bear and a wait staff decked out in cowboy-and-Indian costumes, the Big Texan certainly seemed like a great place to tell the story about the real Amarillo.

Mostly, that's because its motif fits perfectly with the stereotype that Amarillo is a haven for spur-clicking, steak-eating cowpokes stuck in the middle of Nowhere, Texas -- the state where everything is big.

Everything about the Big Texan is big. There's a big cowboy out front. The restaurant is advertised on big billboards, which tell travelers about the big steak. Order a big bucket of beer or a big glass of cheer. Kids get a free cowboy hat with every meal. Lost? Read the big menu -- its mileage chart lets diners know exactly how far away they are from the rest of civilization.

But as guilty of stereotyping as the reporters may be, they aren't the only ones to blame. Disgruntled townsfolk should take complaints to their elected officials. They're the ones who touted the Big Texan in the first place, detailing its kitschy attractions inside a glossy public relations packet they gave the press.

Oh, sure, the packet included a press release about the Amarillo Symphony Orchestra. But didn't city promoters know that a Mozart Festival just doesn't make for good copy? Reporters can't march into the middle of a concert, their camera lights blinding the string section, and start asking questions.

Which is why the Big Texan was a far better place to get the local story.
Of course, it's also probably the last place on earth to find a crowd of Amarillo residents, unless you want to interview the wait staff.

"My husband and I live comfortably, but we don't have a lot of extra money to spend," says Heather, who minds the desk at the Big Texan. "We can't afford to go out to eat. Most people in Amarillo don't go to the Big Texan. It's too expensive and it's a tourist trap."

But that didn't stop reporters like Jay Gormley, who swung through the Big Texan for one of the Fort Worth stations. Dressed in a floor-length coat, a beeper attached to his side, Gormley looks flustered as he scans the crowded room for locals.

In no time, he spots a pair of men sipping beers as they wait for their steaks. They're wearing cowboy boots. Natives. Definitely natives. Gormley quickly bellies up to their orange booth.

"You guys have been here, you're locals," Gormley tells them. "We just want an idea of what's happening in this town."

The men politely wait for Gormley to fire a question.
"So," the reporter begins, his cameraman focusing behind him. "This is the place to eat in town?"

By 5 p.m. on January 22, the circus at the federal courthouse was in full swing, with news of the trial itself taking a back seat to the media's lust for reporting anything and everything they could about Oprah.

After four days of continuous trial coverage, Amarillo's Oprah fans had figured out that they could get a glimpse of the star by joining Camp Oprah outside the courthouse.

With talk spreading about Patrick Swayze and Clint Black's imminent arrival in town for the evening's tapings, stargazers crowded the grounds.

At the same time, local capitalists realized that the courthouse was the perfect place to make an easy buck. Employees of local restaurants distributed menus to the press. Others sold bumper stickers and T-shirts, one of which featured Oprah and a USDA Choice bull squaring off inside a boxing ring littered with Lone Star beer bottles.

Representatives from the Texas Beef Council and the Humane Society of the United States, among other special interest groups, passed out materials to anyone holding a notebook or a microphone in his hand.

By now, the Big-Beef-Takes-On-Oprah showdown story had clearly evolved. It didn't matter whether the news was coming from Dan Rather or Mary Hart, the story was the same: Oprah was taking Amarillo by storm.

In a story in which the lines of news and entertainment are blurred, the members of the tabloid press are the least hypocritical. At least they don't pretend to be interested in the trial, its First Amendment relevance aside.

"We don't give a rip about the trial. We're just here to cover Oprah," says Star magazine reporter Olivia Alexander, who adds that she's seen her share of snooty-assed mainstream reporters copping an attitude.

"They all think that we wanted to be in network news, but had to settle for tabloid journalism," Alexander says. "They're just self-absorbed nitwits."

A Beverly Hills native who got into journalism by feeding the Star gossip, Alexander counts off a list of stories that the mainstream press followed after they were broken by the tabloids.

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