Oprah triggers bull runaway

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 June, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 June, 1997, 12:00am

So dear is talk-show host Oprah Winfrey to the hearts of millions of American housewives that she has only to say the word to send a product's sales skyrocketing.

One example is Oprah's Book of the Month club. Novels featured in the segment enjoy such massive sales that publishers have to do extra print runs and the writers feel as if they have won the lottery.

But, as Winfrey has found to her chagrin, the power to please can also work in reverse.

Offhand comments she made on her show about mad cow disease have been blamed for single-handedly sending cattle prices plummeting, leading a bunch of good old Texas ranchers to seek satisfaction in court.

The lawsuit just filed by the cattlemen seeks damages from the Oprah show, claiming it ruined their cows' reputation. The Texans would never have been able to do so had not several states enacted laws to combat the slander of food products in the aftermath of a row over apples.

A campaign against the additive Alar, in which several celebrities joined a chorus of complaint against its allegedly harmful effect on children, sent apple sales plunging in the early 1990s.

The current legal fight says as much about the paranoia over mad cow disease as it does about the perceived power of words passing from a celebrity's hallowed lips.

The actual sentence at the centre of the row merely said: 'It has just stopped me from eating another burger!' - words Winfrey uttered in response to a guest's claim that American cattle, like many of their British counterparts, were being fed the animal meal thought to spread the virus.

Within minutes of the broadcast, the price of cattle dropped on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and Winfrey is getting the blame for taking the bull market out of cows.

Several livestock analysts doubt the Oprah connection, and say cattle prices were going soft anyway due to a seasonal fall-off in demand.

But perhaps, in a world where Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan's decision to don a gloomy-coloured tie could send Wall Street into a tailspin, it was only a matter of time before television personalities would hold the fate of entire industries in their hands.

To the tens of millions of couch potatoes, add a new category: desk potato.

Following the rule that sociologists and psychobabblers are always tugging at the coat-tails of each new trend or technological advance, they have coined a new term for the inexhaustible Web-surfer.

People who cannot tear themselves away from searching, surfing and browsing into the wee hours are now officially sufferers of Internet Addiction Disorder.

A clear example of the condition was found last week, when police arrested a 24-year-old Cincinnati woman for leaving her three young children hungry and filthy while she surfed the Net.

The woman - named Sandra Hacker, curiously enough - left her children unattended in a room covered in broken glass and faeces because she did not want to be disturbed at her computer. Her husband had moved out two weeks previously, complaining she spent 12 hours a day on-line, chatting to people and having 'cyber-sex'.

The husband's complaints echo thousands of other spouses who have sought divorce as a direct result of a partner's Internet addiction. Chatting and flirting with strangers on line is gradually becoming the gravest new threat to the sanctity of the American marriage since the discovery of real-life adultery.

For this one can largely blame America Online, the world's largest Internet provider, the vast majority of whose eight million customers are drawn to the hundreds of 'chat rooms' where strangers hiding behind anonymous screen names have the kind of on-line orgies not seen since the Romans perfected the real thing.

Kinky couples sometimes get involved together, but cyber-chat is largely the domain of bored spouses who spend hours on-line while their partners are lying in bed neglected. Not to mention their children.

The time has come for gangs in New York's Chinatown to step aside and let somebody else get a piece of the action on laundering drug money.

Here come the rabbis.

One of the most bizarre narcotics cases in recent history - and New York has had a lot of them - came with the indictment last week of two Orthodox Jewish rabbis for involvement in a scheme to launder US$1.75 million (HK$13.53 million) in cash for the Colombian cocaine cartels.

It seems the holy men deposited the money for their drug-lord friends in a bank account belonging to a small synagogue in Brooklyn, the centre of the city's Hasidic community.

They are also accused of having raised money from Swiss bank accounts to buy a small aircraft of the type used by the smugglers to ferry drugs into the United States.

The indictment says the two rabbis repeatedly deposited cheques in the synagogue's account for just under US$10,000 each - the trigger point for reporting transactions to regulators.

Agents became suspicious of the large number of deposits of similar amounts, and launched a three-year probe using wire-taps and surveillance.