Oprah Winfrey sat on the witness stand before a packed courtroom in Amarillo, Texas. Her friend, poet Maya Angelou, was in the gallery, alongside journalists from around the country and local residents, all of whom had been waiting weeks to hear the talk show host tell her side of the story.
“I am in this courtroom to defend my name,” Winfrey said that day in 1998. “I feel in my heart I’ve never done a malicious act against any human being.”
Almost exactly 20 years later, Winfrey is reportedly considering a run for president after delivering an electrifying and widely praised speech at Sunday’s Golden Globes ceremony. Some Democrats are ecstatic at the notion while others are already groaning at the thought of replacing the current occupant of the Oval Office with another celebrity.
If Winfrey does run, her trip to the Texas Panhandle to defend herself against allegations that she had unlawfully disparaged the beef industry is certain to draw more attention. The events that led to Winfrey spending six weeks in Amarillo, along with the way she responded to the controversy while in town, highlight both a potential liability for the media mogul as well as her natural political gifts.
“I am a black woman in America, having gotten here believing in a power greater than myself," Winfrey testified. "I cannot be bought. I answer to the spirit of God that lives in us all.”
The beef interview
Winfrey’s Texas beef began in April 1996, when her talk show aired an episode on food safety. A segment included discussion of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease, which had recently killed cattle in England. Howard Lyman, a vegetarian and animal rights activist, predicted on the show that the disease would eventually plague the U.S. beef industry. Winfrey declared that the discussion “has just stopped me cold from eating another burger. I'm stopped."
The segment, which also included a clip from a beef industry expert, was widely viewed as having contributed to a drop in cattle prices. Members of the cattle industry were furious, as was one of their biggest cheerleaders, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who was then the Texas agriculture commissioner.
Within days, Perry wrote a letter to Texas Attorney General Dan Morales, urging the state to take legal action against Lyman under a Texas law that was less than a year old. Throughout the early 1990s, about a dozen states adopted “veggie libel” laws that made a person liable for making false statements about the safety of food. The Texas Legislature passed such a law in 1995.
"The economic livelihood of our beef producers is at stake, and I trust agriculture can count on the attorney general's office to enforce the laws of the state of Texas," Perry said at the time.
While Morales publicly criticized the statements made on Winfrey’s show as “baloney,” he said Texas couldn’t pursue legal action under the law. Members of the Texas cattle industry soon stepped in and filed a lawsuit against Winfrey and others, alleging more than $10 million in damages.
Paul Engler, the head of an Amarillo-based beef and pork production company, was the lead plaintiff in the suit.
"I couldn't help but be infuriated," Engler said at the time, describing his reaction to Winfrey’s segment on beef. "I sat there and couldn't hardly believe what I was seeing."
Charles Babcock, Winfrey’s lawyer for the case, at first thought the suit could be handled fairly quickly. But it soon became clear that the plaintiffs were dug in and Winfrey, who had defended her 1996 episode as fair, would never agree to settle.
“Eighteen months later, we were preparing for a trial,” Babcock told The Texas Tribune.
As part of Winfrey’s legal team, Babcock tapped a jury consultant for the case he had used before. Phil McGraw impressed Winfrey enough for her to later invite him on her show, launching his new career as Dr. Phil.
For the 170,000 residents of Amarillo, the visit from Winfrey was both exciting and bewildering.
“Imagine what it was like to show up one day and there were 22 satellite trucks around the center of town,” recalled Republican state Sen. Kel Seliger, who was Amarillo’s mayor in 1998.
Not only did the case involve one of the world’s biggest celebrities, but on the other side was an industry that was a massive employer in the region.
“I’m biased in favor of one of our good industries, so I sort of felt injured like everyone else,” Seliger recalled. “But I think people can say what they want to say and what they believe but people who are celebrities should be very careful.”
Babcock remembered feeling he had his work cut out for him. Bumper stickers reading "The only mad cow in Texas is Oprah" had popped up around town, along with T-shirts sporting Winfrey’s face and a red line across it.
“When we saw the 60 people who were called in for jury service, there wasn’t one of them that wasn’t connected to the cattle industry in some way,” Babcock recalled. “So yeah, I was concerned.”
"Y'all know why"
Yet Winfrey didn’t just go to Amarillo for the trial. Rather than putting her show on hiatus for weeks, she brought it with her and framed parts of it as a homage to the city and state she suddenly found herself in. Winfrey donned a cowboy hat and drew cheers by occasionally mimicking a Texas dialect. Texas-born actor Patrick Swayze came on and taught her how to two-step.
“So you’re on trial by day, and you’re doing the show by night,” Winfrey recalled in 2012 . “It was stressful. It was challenging. To be on trial, may I just say, is one of the worst experiences of anybody’s life.”
A gag order prevented Winfrey from talking about the case on her show, which she turned into a running joke.
“We’re down here in Amarillo – y’all know why,” she said during one segment, drawing laughs from the audience.
Large crowds showed up, both for Winfrey’s show and outside the courtroom to catch a glimpse of her. “Amarillo Loves Oprah” T-shirts flourished.
“She didn’t testify until the latter part of the case, but by the time she got on the stand, the town loved her,” Babcock said.
"I think we cleaned up her act"
On Feb. 26, 1998, the jury voted unanimously in Winfrey’s favor.
"I will continue to use my voice," Winfrey told a cheering crowd outside the courthouse. "I believed from the beginning this was an attempt to muzzle that voice. I come from a people who have struggled and died in order to have a voice in this country, and I refuse to be muzzled."
Years later, Engler said he believed suing Winfrey was the right decision, despite the outcome.
"I think we did some good," Engler told the Amarillo Globe-News in 2011. "After that, I think they were more careful about getting good experts and people that had good reputations and so forth that could make statements on an authoritative basis.
"I think we cleaned up her act."
The year after the trial, Texas lawmakers considered a bill repealing the state’s veggie libel law, with supporters citing the "absurd" Winfrey trial as one of their arguments. The bill never reached the governor's desk.
“It’s still on the books,” Babcock said, “but to my knowledge, nobody has used it since that case."