By: Mark Fitzgerald
Chicago Defender Executive Editor Roland S. Martin has already published one book and he’s got another one, “Listening to the Spirit Within,” due out soon. But it looks like he won’t invited to promote it on the one show all would-be best-selling authors aspire to: “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Oprah is “furious” at Martin, the editor reports in Friday’s Defender, over the column he wrote in Thursday’s edition criticizing her for not attending the funeral of Ebony founder John H. Johnson, or even issuing a public statement on the death of the black publishing giant. The paper tried just before the Thursday evening deadline to get something from Winfrey to use in Friday’s special edition, a 64-page commemorative edition about Johnson.
The column, headlined, “Oprah’s silence on John H. Johnson confounds many,” said that the Defender tried six times to get a comment or a testimony from the talk show host, and got the run-around every time. “I’ve been fielding phone calls and emails from many of the folks in the Black media world over Winfrey’s apparent snub of the man who single handedly made it possible for people like Oprah to launch their own magazines and media companies,” Martin wrote.
Soon after the Thursday paper hit the streets, Martin received a phone call from Winfrey.
“As I said in the column, she was very respectful — but she was clearly angry and upset with what I wrote,” Martin told E&P. “I told her, we made every available effort to get a comment from her.”
Friday’s column quotes Winfrey as saying, “I am furious at the allegations because it’s just not true. It’s not true and it’s unfair.”
Winfrey went on to say she sent flowers and a note to Johnson’s widow, Eunice, and daughter, Linda Johnson Rice. She offered to provide a copy of the note and confirmation that the flowers had been received at Johnson Publishing Company headquarters in Chicago. “I told her that was unnecessary because her word was good enough for me,” Martin wrote.
Winfrey said she had been in Hawaii, and didn’t get word of Johnson’s Aug. 8 death for sometime. She was unable to get back in time for the funeral at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago, she said.
She said her staff did not pass any Defender messages along to her, perhaps, Winfrey added, because they understand, “I normally don’t make public statements.”
The contretemps between Winfrey and Martin are part of a wider discussion that has been going on among black media professionals since the death of Johnson.
First there was anger that, outside of Chicago, Johnson’s passing received nowhere near the media attention paid to ABC anchorman Peter Jennings, who died a few days before.
More recently, there has been criticism of black celebrities — many of whom owed much of their success to the early coverage they received in Ebony or Jet magazines — who did not attend Johnson’s funeral or the viewing at Johnson Publishing headquarters that preceded it.
“This was a story that had considerable buzz in the black media circles and among a number of African Americans,” Martin said Friday. “Walking out of Rockefeller Chapel, that’s what you heard, ‘Where was Oprah? Where was Oprah?'”
Winfrey told Martin she had already planned on airing a tribute to Johnson and singer Luther Vandross, who died July 1, when her show returns from summer hiatus in September.
Martin said he promised Oprah that her response would be carried in the same page 2 spot as his previous column, and would be teased on the front page as it had been the day before.
“I’ll even extend an olive branch by offering to take you out to lunch at Wishbone, just down the street from your headquarters,” Martin wrote. “My treat.”