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Every now and then, Oprah Winfrey goes off-message and forgets that she's all about having your priorities straight and remembering your spirit and so on. When that happens, she does a show in which she plies people with the material goods she purports not to care about. (Easy enough to do when your production company makes $150 million US a year.)

The details vary. A little before Christmas, 2000, she did a show called "Oprah's favorite things," in which she pretty much did a solid hour of promotions for various products -- a digital video camera, a winery, a toymaker, and so on. After Oprah finished each plug, a battalion of tuxedoed minions came out with trays loaded down with whatever Oprah had just shilled for and gave them to the shriekingly happy audience.

Not all of Oprah's "greed shows" are quite so venal. Sometimes she finds people who do genuinely good work (or, rather, the people's friends bring them to Oprah's staff's attention) and gives them material rewards. A Wal-Mart worker who uses her own money to give toys to poor kids, for example, gets a week-long luxury vacation with her husband. Or a man looking after his triplet nephews after their parents die in a car crash gets a new house.

Presumably someone has pointed out to Her Winfreyness that what these people really need is help, not stuff. Her more recent greed shows have tended to focus on giving these people things that make these people's lives easier, rather than being one-shot escapes -- promising to pay for the triplets' college educations, or providing a regular cleaning service for the single mom working three jobs.

The really pure greed shows, like the pre-Christmas shill-fest, make really abysmal TV, and seem to have been done away with.

All this raises an interesting moral question, to which I don't have the answer. There are legions of people in the U.S. (and around the world, of course, though I'll assume Oprah'd stick to solving America's problems first) who do vast amounts of unrewarded good. Is it better to dramatically improve the circumstances of half a dozen of them, or quietly give all the money to a charity that helps a lot of people just a little bit?

Oprah is, of course, free to give her money to whomever she pleases, and giving it to the United Way (or whoever) isn't going to make good television. But I worry that she's substituting the appearance of good works for actual good works -- presenting the illusion of making a difference in the lives of people who need it, while not really doing a damn thing.

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