This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Los Angeles uprising that erupted after the stunning acquittal of four police officers accused of the brutal beating of Rodney King, an unarmed black motorist. The uprisings were among the most costly America has ever seen – not only in terms of property damage, but also lost lives.
The grainy footage of officers mercilessly beating an inclined king was the nation’s first “viral video.” Thousands, if not millions, of people watched it, and media companies played it uninterrupted for months. Later, the same businesses would do the same with footage of the riots and burn the image of Los Angeles that burned into the consciousness of millions of viewers around the world.
The story was so big that it even dominated daytime talk shows – a much-watched segment of the 1990s television landscape that, unlike news programs, tended to focus on lifestyle stories and tabloid narrators.
In the wake of the uprisings, a talk show host – Oprah Winfrey – brought her hugely popular “The Oprah Winfrey Show” (“OWS”) to Los Angeles to cover the riots on the spot. The movement was ingenious from a commercial point of view. The series’ viewership skyrocketed as the nation tuned in to emotionally gripping television, offering viewers first-hand stories from a remarkable array of voices, some of them explaining why people were so furious.
Looking back on these episodes of “OWS,” we can recognize how daytime talk shows sometimes made it easier for Americans to hear and see each other, which nurtured empathy and a willingness to consider different perspectives.
Before cable news had expanded beyond CNN, and before the Internet, daytime talk show hosts including Phil Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael, Geraldo Rivera, Ricki Lake, Montel Williams, Jenny Jones and the infamous Jerry Springer provided significant fodder for the latest controversy. , trends and scandals. But daytime talk shows also served as a common watering hole where raw discussions on difficult topics could lead to understanding.
With his debut in 1986, “OWS” quickly emerged as a daytime television sensation, and Winfrey, who got his start as the host of a locally-broadcast morning show called “AM Chicago,” grew into a powerful and influential national media celebrity.
“OWS” is perhaps best remembered for its later seasons, which were focused on living its best lives and attracted primarily white, middle-class female viewers. But the show initially reached a much more diverse audience and focused on sensational characters and scandals – like most other daytime talk shows in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In those early years, Winfrey framed her show as a town hall, where she acted as a channel between her guests and the audience, and she often jumped back and forth across the studio and stage, taking questions from anyone who wanted to ask them.
Like his predecessors in talk show programming, Winfrey covered topics such as race and racism. In 1987, just five months after she entered the national radio waves, Winfrey traveled to Forsyth, Ga., To shoot on the spot in a southern city town that had remained exclusively white for most of the 20th century and which Winfrey remarked to his viewers, “gained a reputation for being a hotbed of racism.” It’s an episode she later stated she regretted because it provided an oversized platform for white supremacy, but the episode set a precedent for daytime talk shows to mix the town hall-style format with on-site reporting. By traveling to a place of extreme racial tension in Georgia, Winfrey laid the groundwork for her captivating on-site reporting during the Los Angeles riots.
In April and May 1992, in the days following the innocent verdicts in the trial against the LAPD officers, Americans saw Los Angeles burning on their television screens and on front pages across the country. The pictures left many wondering: Why? Winfrey, aware that her show format was conducive to providing answers, again planned to take her show on the road, this time to the riot zone.
In Los Angeles, there were no formal guests, only an audience of people living in the city and its surrounding areas. The audience included many who had been directly affected by the unrest and by the racism that triggered the uprising. Winfrey offered the microphone to several people so that each one could describe their perspectives and grieve, assign the blame, and offer solutions. The result was a show of great intensity.
One black audience member was a former LAPD officer who confessed to quitting his job because he could not work for LAPD chief Daryl Gates. “I have no job right now,” he explained. “I can not go to work because I told my boss that I will not tolerate the racist attitude that is maintained and manifested in the LAPD.” The audience gave the man a standing ovation.
Local residents sat near celebrities, including actor Louis Gossett Jr., who had won an Oscar for his role in “An Officer and a Gentleman.” and an Emmy for the TV miniseries “Roots”. Gossett talked about his own experience of being arrested and acknowledged that even though he did not tolerate the violent riots, he understood it. He suggested: “Perhaps we can not talk about more double standards … and equal distribution of power.” The audience applauded Gossett as he held Winfrey’s hand, saying he believed black Americans needed both healing and compensation.
Winfrey’s audience was not sympathetic to the troublemakers or indignant at the jury’s verdict in favor of the LAPD officers accused of beating King. A young white woman spoke in support of the acquittals, claiming that the public had not seen the entire videotape from the traffic stop, but the jury did. While no one saw the whole incident, another white woman reprimanded her. “You do not kick a dog 69 times,” she admonished.
Another white audience agreed that the verdict was justified and condemned the violence among protesters. His black girlfriend offered support, saying she “does not see color” and called for more “personal responsibility” among African Americans.
The audience that caused the most consternation, however, was not one of those who defended the acquittals or rejected the protests, but instead a young black man named Larry, who confessed that he looted during the riots. “We have no complacency … I look at the news and they tell me my life is not worth a penny.” He argued that political actions such as voting had not changed anything. Then Winfrey asked him directly if he was feeling better after stealing certain items. “Absolutely,” he said. “I felt 100 percent better.”
While Winfrey searched the studio, people in the audience continued to express their indignation and grief, talking about losing family members and businesses. There was clapping, shouting, shouting and mocking. The audience mocked, buzzed and signed the statements of other audiences. But regardless of their disagreement, every person who came to Winfrey’s microphone during the few days her show was filmed in Los Angeles represented a point on the spectrum of frustration and imagination that Americans had – and still have – in terms of race. .
Revisiting these programs 30 years later, as we did on our podcast, Oprademics, reveals how the complaints that drove the uprising remain with us. Forsyth, Ga .; Los Angeles and almost every other city in America still do not know how to live in an inclusive society. Police brutality continues. Some white people repeatedly say, “They had it on their way” or “We can never know the whole truth,” just as some in the “OWS” audience did that week in LA, and in the same way they did on Winfrey’s. microphone in 1992, black men and women still express their anger and distrust.
But Winfrey’s special broadcasts from the Los Angeles riot zone also remind us that something profound has changed. For as much as Americans freely engage in expertise on even the most controversial topics thanks to the tools of social media, we have lost our public watering hole. Daytime talk shows presented to TV viewers the image of democratized spaces where ordinary people – not powerful public figures – claimed the microphone and dominated the conversation. Yes, daytime talk shows were highly curated spaces shaped by producers, casting directors, and hosts to generate high ratings. And some are still in the air. But Winfrey’s show – even when it looked like a spectacle – modeled open, face-to-face dialogue and civil discourse in ways that today’s social media does not.