Oprah had arrived, and it was time for the clock on Amarillo's 15 minutes of fame to start ticking.
There to greet her at the Amarillo International Airport was a herd of reporters and cameramen, eager to record whatever profundity the Queen of Talk might allow upon alighting in Potter County.
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.)
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.
Although Engler is the one who started this mess, Winfrey's arrival 15 minutes later makes it clear who the real star of this show is.
A round of "it's Oprah!" ripples through the cluster of bodies, igniting a stampede to the end of the street. Cameramen and reporters nudge each other aside as they fight for space to tape Winfrey, who is dressed in a black dress and sunglasses.
Winfrey smiles and waves as the cameras follow her down the sidewalk, up the stairs and into the building. The moment she disappears from view, the reporters whip out cell phones and microphones and begin dictating the blow-by-blow details.
"Oprah just got here," one petite blond reporter tells her camera from atop a plastic stool. "She smiled and waved a little bit."
At noon, the parade starts anew. Engler and his attorneys are the first to leave. Rather than videotape Engler, the reporters crane their necks and scan the door for Winfrey.
Instead, they see a lanky CNN reporter, part of the pool of journalists admitted to the crowded courtroom, who has been assigned the thankless task of informing his colleagues what happened inside. As he reports that no jurors have been seated, another round of "it's Oprah!" pulses through the crowd.
The cluster of cameras and equipment swarms into lunch-hour traffic as a squad of motorcycle cops hustles to prevent a pedestrian maiming.
"I'm feeling good," Winfrey says, giving the reporters a tiny sound bite for their stories and leaving a street full of gawking noontime drivers in her wake.
"Nothing like being upstaged," a stay-behind CBS cameraman tells the CNN reporter, who blinks in disbelief as he watches his ungrateful audience disappear.
Asked for his name, the CNN reporter can't contain his disgust.
"Jeff Flock," he says. "As in sheep."
During the down times between Winfrey's comings and goings, the denizens of Camp Oprah busied themselves trying to scare up local color to enliven their dispatches. Municipal court employee Mimi McBroom took the day off work to lend them a hand. In return, she got a lesson in "editing for content."
If you followed the first day's coverage from Amarillo, you might remember McBroom. She was the woman dressed in a cow costume who stood outside the courtroom with a sign that read: "Cattlemen can eat me, leave Oprah alone."
A meat eater who is not particularly an Oprah fan, McBroom says she was there to represent most Amarillo residents, who, she contends, still value the First Amendment and view Engler's lawsuit as an embarrassment.
But the reporters interviewing McBroom had no time for such gray matter. In their Big-Beef-Takes-On-Oprah stories, the only place for locals like McBroom was either on the pro-beef side or the pro-Oprah side of the dispute.
Despite what was later reported, McBroom was not dressed as a cow to support either animal rights or the cattle industry. It was a bull suit, she explained, as in, "This event is a bunch of ...." The sign was a challenge to the networks to air a mild double-entendre.
By early afternoon, McBroom had grown tired of explaining that she was not simply pro-beef or anti-Oprah, and plopped down at the edge of Camp Oprah to take in the spectacle.
Reporters killed time between Oprah sightings by interviewing anyone and everyone who walked by, getting the "local" reaction without actually venturing out into the city.
"They're interviewing Jason's Deli?" McBroom says, watching a teenager toting a deli bag get flanked by cameras. "The kid can't even push sandwiches without getting interviewed."
By that point, it seemed, every reporter on site had interviewed McBroom -- except one.
"Have you seen any cattlemen?" Fox correspondent Grant Rampy queries no one in particular as he strolls past McBroom in an apparent quest for a pro-cattle interviewee. His reporter's instinct in full alert, Rampy then kneels before McBroom and preps her for an interview.
"We don't want you to mooooooove," Rampy explains, sticking his wonderboy face in McBroom's and blinking his lashes.
"You've stepped on my statement," McBroom replies, shooting a look at Rampy's cameraman, who indeed has inadvertently walked on McBroom's "eat me" sign.
Rampy, dressed in cowboy boots and jeans, straightens his necktie, readjusts his sport coat and fires his first question.
"So you're a big Oprah fan?" Rampy asks, waiting for an "I Love Oprah" quote that never comes. Instead, McBroom holds up her sign and explains that she supports freedom of speech. Rampy laughs at the words.
"Of course," he tells McBroom, "we can't put that on the air."
McBroom shakes her head.
"Fox is saying they can't put my sign on Fox, and they've got Bart Simpson saying, 'Eat my shorts'? You know what?" McBroom shouts at Rampy's back. "Your jeans offend me, dude. If you're gonna wear a suit, wear a whole suit."
A few feet away, in front of the Fox tent, Rampy leans forward and speaks to the camera.
"It's the cattlemen versus Oprah, with one big question to answer," Rampy says. "Can someone say, 'I'm not going to eat another hamburger because I think it's gonna make me sick?' Grant Rampy, reporting live from Amarillo."
The tease to his story filed, Rampy steps away from the camera, leans back on one foot, and claps his hands. "This job is so dang easy," he exclaims. "Just memorize two lines and nail them over and over."
It's a little too easy for Fox's "A-team" correspondent, Shepard Smith, who is already suffering from boredom.
How Smith, with his bright blue eyes and practiced scowl, got to the top is hard to guess, but it's likely it wasn't because of his unique ability to sniff out a scoop.
"Are you guys going down to Austin to cover that chick execution?" he asks members of the nearby CBS crew, referring to pickax murderer Karla Faye Tucker. "Texans kill somebody every week, but she's a chick, so...."
Across the street, Amarillo Mayor Kel Seliger tells a crew from NBC that the trial is the city's one chance to shine.
"It's an unusual opportunity, without the negatives of a Waco, to introduce people to this community," Seliger says, his hands stuffed casually in the pockets of his pinstriped suit.
Ah, Waco. Dead Branch Davidians and federal agents. What a public relations nightmare that was.
"Amarillo is a nice town, and the people are enthusiastic about [Winfrey's presence]," Seliger says.
For the last four hours, Seliger and his hired public relations expert, Eric Miller, have talked with one reporter after the next, dismissing questions about the Chamber of Commerce memo that stated the chamber would not roll out the red carpet for Winfrey and ordered employees not to attend tapings of Winfrey's show.
As Seliger wraps up his remarks, he tells the NBC crew to be sure to stop by his house Wednesday night for a party.
Back at the Fox tent, Smith snaps open a CoverGirl compact and prepares Miller's face for an interview.
Then, assuming his position in front of the camera, Smith replaces his scowl with a smile and tells the world that the story in Amarillo is not about beef, but is a libel battle between Oprah and Texas cattlemen.
"When she dissed their beef, they called her bluff," Smith says, his voice thundering into a hand-held microphone.
The camera zooms out from Smith's face as he prepares his segue to the local angle.
"Hundreds of media have rolled into town, all on expense accounts, buying up all the lunches in town," Smith says, turning to Miller, who calmly fields the same questions he's already answered dozens of times today.
"No," the trial won't have a negative aspect on the cattle industry. "Yes," the visiting celebrities and media are certainly helping the local economy -- especially now, when the tourism industry is dead.
Satisfied, Smith turns back to the camera and ends his report. "Outside, we have people walking around dressed as cows, but inside, hopefully, we have a very serious judge."
In the background, McBroom snuffs out a cigarette in the grass and shakes her head.
"Tomorrow," she says, "I'll come dressed as a chicken."
Opening arguments begin on Wednesday, January 21. Judge Robinson has expanded the press pool to allow more reporters in the courtroom on a first-come, first-served basis. Only eight take advantage during the first week of the trial; the rest are content to stand outside the courtroom and rely on their colleagues to do their jobs for them.
Besides Engler's relatives, the media and a few curious local attorneys, the courtroom is packed with people who have come to get a glimpse of Winfrey.
On this afternoon, Engler's attorneys would present an argument that "Dangerous Food" was "scary."
"It was never intended to be a show where opinions were shared. It was never intended to be a show that asked the question, 'Could it happen here?' " Engler attorney David Mullin told the court. "It was intended to be a scary show."
Mullin promised to detail how the show was supposedly edited to cut out the pro-beef comments of Dr. Gary Weber, a representative of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, while keeping allegedly false and damaging remarks about the cattle industry by Howard Lyman, an activist with the U.S. Humane Society.
Of course, Winfrey's attorneys will later argue that Lyman's comments were true, and they will say Winfrey has every right to ask questions and express her opinions.
The case boils down to the debate over whether a cow is still a cow if it is slaughtered, its excess parts cooked and boiled, mixed into food supplements that resemble "dog food" and then fed to other cows.
Engler believes Lyman and Winfrey falsely described the practice by saying that cows were eating other cows. Engler doesn't deny that he and other U.S. cattlemen fed these rendered cows to other cows -- until the process was linked to mad cow disease in Great Britain. (The U.S. government has since banned the practice.) He just didn't like the way the information was phrased, especially the part where Lyman told the audience that not only has the cattle industry turned cows into carnivores, it's made them "cannibals."
"It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger," Winfrey told Lyman during her broadcast. "I'm stopped."
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.
"Star magazine found Gennifer Flowers in 1992. The Enquirer is the one that found a picture of O.J. wearing his Bruno Magli's. The Globe caught Frank Gifford red-handed, cheating," Alexander says, pausing. "Even though they set him up. They led that horse to water."
Alexander -- who claims to be under court order not to discuss Michael Jackson's nose, but reveals anyway that there's nothing left to it except a stump -- has had her own scoop: She found suspected serial murderer Andrew Cunanan's backpack --before the FBI got there.
"I spent $10,000, but it was worth it," Alexander says. "And I made a great contact in the FBI."
Affiliations aside, the crush was on for Oprah footage when the court broke for the afternoon -- an event signaled by Engler's lonely departure from the front of the courthouse.
Behind the courthouse, a mob of fans begins screaming. Despite the taped-off press spots, they crush past the cameras and press up against a chainlink fence that separates them from Oprah.
With each coming or going, Oprah gradually increased her comments. The ploy heightened the enthusiasm of her fans and helped her increase her popularity in town. While Oprah could have just zipped into her Suburban and peeled away from the mob unseen, she confidently walked right up to the fence and began shaking hands. After a minute the black Suburban finally pulled out of the parking lot and onto the street, drawing the crowd with it.
Women clutching Oprah books squeal, tears streaming down their faces as they run after the car. A young girl, seated atop a pink mountain bike, follows her mother into the street.
"Cross at the crosswalk," shouts an officer, who darts after the girl and prevents her head from smashing into a passing car.
On the sidewalk, a teenage girl dressed in a nylon running suit quickly becomes the evening's news story.
"Oprah touched my hand," she yells, her voice rising above the crowd. "Hey, everybody! Oprah touched my hand!"
The peak of the media's frenzy for chasing Oprah comes that evening, as Oprah prepares to tape her show at the Amarillo Little Theatre.
Oprah tried to keep snoops out of her rented turf by securing the modest brick theater with a new chainlink fence and hiring a handful of private security guards and off-duty Amarillo police officers.
She also reportedly made theater employees sign nondisclosure forms in which they agreed not to talk about Winfrey's behind-the-scene activities.
Reporters loudly complain about the situation, noting how ironic it is for little Miss Defender of the First Amendment to prevent people from speaking with reporters.
Winfrey's "people" declined to confirm or deny the reports, claiming the court's gag order prevented them from commenting. Nevertheless, Winfrey found ways to publicize other aspects of her show, namely the arrival of guests Clint Black and Patrick Swayze -- two Texas-born stars.
Whatever line there ever was between the news story associated with the trial and the entertainment story that followed Oprah was long gone.
"We're here because it's a First Amendment case," says freelance producer Lisa Hampshire, who was working on behalf of Entertainment Tonight and ABC news. "ET is interested in Patrick Swayze. Someone from ABC, they're just as interested in talking to Paul Engler. But if ABC gets a shot -- if Oprah walks over and starts talking like she did this morning, they're not going to share it. It's the 'money shot.' "
Hampshire, who covered the O.J. Simpson and Timothy McVeigh trials, says she's growing increasingly nervous about the presence of locals.
"The difference with this [story] is there's civilians involved," Hampshire says. "It's a little dangerous, actually."
Michael, a freelance sound technician who is toting a boom mike and withholding his name from an inquiring reporter, echoes Hampshire's fears. When Winfrey's guests arrive, he says, the media will move and the locals are liable to get trampled.
"It's called run and gun," Michael says. "When we have to run and gun, watch out."
Even though the taping is still two hours away, a line of ticket-holders trails out of the theater's doors. Some four dozen media representatives have staked out front-line positions on the sidewalk that runs in front of the building. A growing crowd of locals gathers behind them, the bodies flowing into the street.
A traffic cop, once again trying to prevent a pedestrian maiming, concludes that the best way to clear the street is to move the chain drawn across the theater's parking lot and create more standing room.
As soon as the chain is moved, the crowd pushes forward, leaving a line of cameramen standing in the background -- their once-ideal lines of fire now blocked by the backs of the locals' heads.
"They changed the rules!" complains Hampshire, who in her rush to stake out a new position trips over a piece of camera equipment and falls on her butt. An ET reporter chimes in, "You just can't trust those civilians."
In a voice just loud enough for others to hear, a reporter from a Dallas station whispers to his colleague, "I told you I might have an interview with Clint Black?" The boasting ceases when a middle-aged housewife loudly proclaims that she's hurting for entertainment.
"Would you mind saying that again?" the Dallas reporter says as his cameraman zooms in on the woman.
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"What?" she says. "That we're 'hurting for entertainment?' That would be embarrassing."
"Don't worry," the reporter assures her. "This'll be airing in Dallas."
The woman, who is decked out in a black cowboy boots, tights and a denim shirt, shrugs her shoulders and gives the interview anyway. It turns out that she and her husband just moved to Amarillo from Denver, and the lack of entertainment in the Panhandle is beginning to take its toll.
"I'm acting like a redneck hick," she later confides. "I can't believe it, but I've been here three months now and I'm looking for something to do. I am hurting for entertainment."
Rose Farley is a staff writer for the Observer, the Press's sister paper in Dallas.