|Oprah Winfrey confronts James Frey.
Let’s step back a moment and take a look at what The Smoking Gun Editor William Bastone called “an unbelievable piece of television.” Oprah stood up in front of her viewers and said she was wrong. She apologized for promoting James Frey’s book, “A Million Little Pieces,” as a true account and for defending him in a phone call to Larry King. The piece of theater trotted out yesterday was really about shifting blame back to Frey and his publisher Doubleday -- and the redemption of Oprah. The show was a chance for her to show how all of this was not really her fault. She believed James Frey’s version of events because Nan Talese and Doubleday told her it was true and because the power of the story, the emotional truth of the story, made her want it to be true.
She then proceeded to make sure everyone saw that she was holding Frey and Talese responsible for their deception, and badgered them until they took responsibility for their nefarious deeds. Oprah then brought out journalists who had criticized her defense of Frey, like Richard Cohen of The Washington Post, Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, so they could reinforce to the audience that what she had just done, admitting she was wrong, was a noble deed to be admired and lauded. Oprah’s reputation redeemed.
Doubleday’s, however, was trashed. Before Oprah’s show had finished airing in the New York market, the book publisher had a release out stating that it would reprint “A Million Little Pieces” with a note explaining parts of the story were fabricated. Publisher and editor in chief at Doubleday, Nan Talese, tried to explain the book publishing world’s distinction between an autobiography, a memoir and fiction, but it was really too little too late. At this point, the game was over.
How is it, you may wonder, that a talk show host taking an author to task on TV for fabricating his memoir becomes front page news at both The New York Times and The Washington Post? Well, for the same reason Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert was able to get so much mileage out of truthiness -- truth that won’t be held back by the facts. James Frey’s fraud and the way he chose to defend himself comes in the midst of a cultural awareness that the “reality” and “truth” we are presented with each and everyday in the media, is not, in fact, real.
Looking back at the media scandals of the past 24 months, we find that local TV news stories are often pre-packaged video news releases from PR machines to promote a point of view or product. Columnists take money to write authoritative opinion pieces that actually promote the agenda of the organization that paid them. White House press conferences are attended by journalists who will ask friendly on-message questions when called upon. Reality shows actually have writers who work on them and who now want to be acknowledged. Apparently, we just can’t handle the truth. The only “truth” we seem to respond to is what feels true, what emotionally feels right. With so many people spinning their version of reality, getting to the facts is just too much hard work. Just ask Oprah.