Friday, January 27, 2006

Truth, Lies, and Oprah Winfrey

Oprah did a big thing for a big media star. She admitted she was wrong. On Thursday's show, she apologized to her viewers for supporting recovering drug addict James Frey's so-called "memoir" A Million Little Pieces after he admitted several of those pieces were made up. She said she was sorry for calling Larry King to defend him. And as Winfrey grilled Frey over the course of an hour, more of his story went up in smoke.

But she didn't stop with Frey. She went after his boss, publisher Nan Talese, who explained the book was vetted, not fact-checked. For those of you outside the book business, that means the text wasn't scoured for accuracy but merely scanned to make sure it wouldn't get the publisher sued.

"Well, that needs to change," Oprah said.

Maybe it does. But I still pity Talese. She took a man at his word and got hung out to dry. Then again, how much trust can you put in a recovering dopehead? They've hurt their family, their friends, their co-workers and everybody within a reasonable radius. Trust must be earned. Taking his story at face value -- especially the now infamous bit about the no-novacaine root canal -- seems naive.

What should've happened and didn't was this: Talese should've sat Frey down, face to face, and said something along the lines of, "Mr. Frey, you have written a highly compelling and amazing work of non-fiction. And for all that's holy, it better be non-fiction. My company is devoting quite of bit of money and dead trees to putting your story into readers' hands. We will not be suckered. I want to know right now if there's any facts, scenes or memories you've stretched for the sake of more compelling copy. If there are, you have one chance to redeem yourself and rewrite them. If you tell us no and we find out otherwise, you will be dropped from our shelves like two-week old milk."

And as usual, we find warning signs were brushed aside. A drug counselor who worked at Frey's treatment center said parts of the book weren't true. But Random House backed Frey to the max, and that was good enough for Winfrey. It would have been good enough for a lot of us, if you're of the reasonable impression that a publishing giant wouldn't risk its reputation by hawking a made-up memoir. Then The Smoking Gun dug up more discrepencies. That should've been enough.

Yet Winfrey called into Larry King and called the allegations "much ado about nothing" -- even after Frey admitted moments earlier he'd made things up.

Oprah is a big-picture person. I'm sure she believed the totality of Frey's anti-drug message mattered more than some factual pockmarks. But what she forgot is how much honesty has been watered down as a virtue. Arizona Daily Star cartoonist David Fitzsimmons pointed out "The New Standard": "I agree with Oprah. He lied. Big deal. No troops died."

I don't want our kids -- or anybody else -- learning it's okay to make things up and call it the truth if you're serving some greater good. Substance abuse is ravaging enough without the need for hyperbole, so Frey didn't even need to spice things up. I don't want our media giants backing these people who think they can cheat and win. Oprah did the right thing, but a touch late. That call to Larry King should've put some heat on Frye's behind instead of lipstick.

What I want to see now is Frey get his story right on paper. Random House should recall all copies of "Pieces" that haven't sold and force Frey to rewrite the book, excising his excesses and presenting what really happened. When that revision hits shelves, the millions of people who bought the original text should have the opportunity to exchange it for the true story. They paid good money for what they thought was the truth. They deserve to get it.

And Oprah, I accept your apology, even if it is late. You've done too much good for others and owned up to your faults. But what took you so long?

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