By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It was time for the clock on Amarillo's 15 minutes of fame to start ticking. A herd of reporters had gathered at Amarillo International Airport for the arrival of Oprah Winfrey, who was flying into town January 19 to defend herself against accusations that she had libeled beef. It was the day's big story, and the media were eager to record whatever profundity the Queen of Talk might allow upon alighting in Potter County.
The prize went to a reporter for the local ABC affiliate.
"What do you think of Amarillo?" the reporter asked Winfrey, who had been in town all of 10 minutes, 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.
It was a precious scene and a good indicator of what lay ahead in the first intense week of the Cattlemen vs Oprah.
There is a dead-serious First Amendment question behind the cattle industry's beef with Oprah: Can a person libel food by implying that it's not safe to eat? (Not to mention the equally important question of whether the beef industry is safe.) The case was dragged on into February, but it is possible to draw two conclusions from the first few days of the Oprah trial: The state of the run-and-gun, stargazing American media is actually far worse than we knew, and Oprah Winfrey knows how to work a town.
For proof of that, Amarillo's residents needed only to be at the airport when Winfrey arrived.
Just before her plane touched down, a squadron of fire trucks and ambulances screamed onto the runway in response to a report that another jet was experiencing engine trouble and needed to make an emergency landing.
Freelance cameraman Ron Zimmerman, a television reporter working for Hard Copy, feasted upon the irony as his colleagues peeled past the ambulances and fire trucks and swarmed Winfrey's jet.
"One was a life-and-death situation. The other was Oprah. What does the media cover?" Zimmerman says. "It was a great moment in journalism."
As the sun peeks out over downtown Amarillo the next morning, January 20, 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 are 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 and shoulders, locked and loaded.
The working crowd has a healthy supply of representatives from the entertainment press or, as the mainstream press refers to them, the sub-par world of tabloid TV and supermarket rags. Hard Copy, Entertainment Tonight, Extra!, and American Journal are there. A handful of print reporters is on hand, standing out among the chic crowd like stray dogs on a Mexican highway.
"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 would gather the same footage of plaintiff Paul Engler, an Amarillo cattle-feeder, 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 clear whom 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, 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 Winfrey 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 blonde 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.