Commentary by Scott Donaton

Why Fooling Your Audience Is Never OK

Oprah, Doubleday Are Tarnished by 'Million Little Pieces'

By Published on .

Memo to those in the media who worship at the altar of Oprah: It is not OK for James Frey to have passed off his fictionalized life story as nonfiction just because a talk-show host says it is.
Scott Donaton, editor of 'Advertising Age.'

In all of the coverage of the controversy over the truthiness of "A Million Little Pieces," perhaps the most disturbing element of all is how the media reacted to Oprah's continued endorsement of the book -- treating it as somehow the last word, one that in effect excused the lies and ended the controversy. She was lauded for riding to the rescue of the publishing business, rather than called out for trying to minimize the damage to the businesses involved, including her huge and profitable empire -- one whose continued growth relies heavily on maintaining her power to move products as well as people.

What few have dared to suggest
Most of the coverage ignored the fact that Oprah has something at stake, as much actually as Frey and the book's publisher: the credibility on which her brand is based. Few have dared to suggest her continued endorsement may have been driven by commercial considerations, not just altruistic motives.

The response by all interested parties to The Smoking Gun's revelations about the book has been a carefully orchestrated marketing strategy that relies on an artful dodge. No one involved in this mess apologized or took accountability. Read the coverage and transcripts of the "Larry King Live" interview and Oprah's statements; The core issues are never addressed head-on, just skirted. Yet it's clear that many readers -- this one included -- feel betrayed.

Most of the coverage of the 'Million Little Pieces' controversy has ignored that Oprah has something at stake, as much actually as the author and the book's publisher: the credibility on which her brand is based.

We could argue endlessly over Doubleday's insistence that "the power of the overall reading experience is such that the book remains a deeply inspiring and redemptive story." The power of the book, for me, emanated from its presentation as truth. Frey's redemption was so moving precisely because these seemingly unbelievable things had all really happened to one human being, and yet he had found the strength to endure and triumph over them. If many of those things didn't happen, or even some of them didn't happen, that power is sapped.

My call to make
I loved "A Million Little Pieces," and while I may have read and enjoyed it if it were labeled a work of fiction, it wouldn't have resonated in the same way. In any case, that's beside the point -- that should have been my call to make, not the publisher's. But I read his story as truth, accepted it as truth, gave my trust and respect to Frey for that same reason. More importantly, I gave over my money to his story and encouraged others to do the same, buying the book and its sequel and strongly recommending them.

In all the debates over whether memoirs should be held to the same standards as historical books, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that books, ultimately, are consumer products, like laundry detergent or cereal or cars. Frey wrote the book as much to make money from it as to inspire others. Doubleday published it to make money. Oprah's empire exists to make money.

They're all brands, and a brand is a promise to the consumer. This consumer feels that promise was betrayed -- and worse, that when the betrayal was revealed no one held themselves responsible or offered so much as an apology.

These brands are tarnished, Oprah's included, and they don't deserve any more of my time or money.

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