Several years ago, I was a regular Oprah viewer. I had my VCR (that should tell you how long ago) set to record her show every afternoon, and I’d watch it while having dinner after work. When I read elsewhere that she confronted James Frey on her show yesterday, I cursed myself for having lapsed in my Oprah habit and not setting Tivo to record the show.
But Tivo and network television are very forgiving. The show re-aired at 1am, so I set Tivo and went to bed. This morning I watched about half of it before I went to work, and was impressed with Oprah’s statement at the beginning of the show.
I want to just say that I’ve been in television since I was 19 years old, and I have never been in this position. As you may have heard, James Frey’s best-selling book, “A Million Little Pieces,” came under fire on January 8th when the investigative Web site The Smoking Gun accused Frey of fabricating and wildly embellishing key parts of his book.
…I made a mistake and I left the impression that the truth does not matter. And I am deeply sorry about that, because that is not what I believe. I called in because I love the message of this book and–at the time, and every day I was reading e-mail after e-mail from so many people who have been inspired by it. And I have to say that I allowed that to cloud my judgment. And so to everyone who has challenged me on this issue of truth, you are absolutely right.
It’s not nice to fool Oprah Winfrey, particularly if you’re a righter whose career was launched into the stratosphere by her book club. There are some people you don’t want to piss off, particularly if they’re responsible for your fame to some degree, and if they have a major media outlet that depends largely on maintaining the audience’s trust. Let’s face it. Oprah can make a writer’s career, or at least get it off to an impressive start. So — sitting between Oprah and his publisher on national television, basically admitting to fraud — James Frey seemed to be in the worst spot a contemporary writer could land in.
Or, was he?
One of the things that struck me about Oprah’s statement was her assertion that “the truth matters.” It seemed to me to reframe the whole sordid story almost as an allegory for current national political realities. I confess, I have a tendency to see symbolism and subtle themes in stories and situations where lots of other people don’t. I can’t help it, it’s the English major in me. It often seems there’s more to the story than just the story. It seems like a leap, but bear with me.
Does the truth matter in America? Does it matter even to most Americans? Americans, most of us, love nothing better than a good story. We don’t require that it be true most of the time, just that it’s well told, and maybe gets our pulses racing a bit. We don’t just make a bestseller of it. We will go much further than that if we want to believe it badly enough. After all, we went to war in Iraq over little more than a good story, somewhat unbelievable, but compellingly told. And even after it’s all been revealed basically fraudulent, some of us are still spinning yarns in an attempt to make it true.
The difference between the two stories is simply that selling one as truth cost thousands of lives, while in the other the price was merely a sullied reputation. In a just world, James Frey would be small news and George W. Bush would be sitting on national television admitting that his tough guy bravado was a facade that led a lot of people to follow him down the garden path, and caused more trouble than it was worth.
Oprah: Why did you lie? Why did you have to lie about the time you spent in jail? Why did you do that?
James: I think one of the coping mechanisms I developed was sort of this image of myself that was greater, probably, than—not probably—that was greater than what I actually was. In order to get through the experience of the addiction, I thought of myself as being tougher than I was and badder than I was—and it helped me cope. When I was writing the book … instead of being as introspective as I should have been, I clung to that image.
And there’s this statement from William Bastone of Smoking Gun, which could apply to our chief executive as much as Frey.
Turns out he’s a well-to-do frat boy who, you know, isn’t kind of this desperado that he’d like people to think he was.
But people fell for it, despite the too-fantastic-to-be-true nature of Frey’s story and the doubts about its veracity that were raised almost as soon as it was published. We bought the book, and bought much of the story. Or at least we wanted to. Myself included. Chalk it up to our national obsession with the swaggering cowboy/tough guy archetype. That’s why to some extent I don’t blame Oprah. I don’t even blame James Frey. History is as American as the invention of a threat from Iraq and Saddam’s masterminding the 9/11 attacks. And if anyone annointed Oprah as the arbiter of culture, it was the millions of us who tune in or who buy the books she recommends. Frey’s story, that of an empty facade that rocketed skyward and came crashing down again, is ours. It’s fitting that we own it.
Wannabe tough guy James Frey and wannabe cowboy George Bush — both master story tellers — are different mainly in their reactions to revelations of fraud. Seated between Oprah Winfrey and Nan Talese, Frey looked for all the world like the somewhat repentant bad boy who’d been caught red handed. Bush, however, stands in the midst of disaster and attempts to maintain an unbroken facade, much like Bart Simpson declaring “I didn’t do it” while surrounded by evidence that he did.
The author and authoritarian may also share a similar fate in the end. Bush’s approval ratings may be circling the bowl, but he doesn’t have to get re-elected again, and will ride off into the sunset having accomplished much of his agenda and rewarded many of his cronies. James Frey’s reputation may be ruined (or not, if there’s a second act, given how much Americans love come-back stories too), but he still wrote a bestseller, sold millions of books, and probably gets to keep the money. So, even though they each wove fantastical tales they called truth that turned out to be false in the end, both come out of it with significant rewards, and having paid a seemingly small price.
Does the truth matter? Or is America totally “Freyed”?
Update: I’m not the only one who thinks so.
It was a matter of hours after Oprah confessed her sin that her move was imbued with larger political significance.
Now that Winfrey has admitted she was wrong for embracing a memoir that had been exposed as a pack of lies, Maureen Dowd told Keith Olbermann, the contrast with President Bush could hardly be greater.
From a small-time hustler’s fictitious book to fictitious WMD–well, I guess it was inevitable.
I don’t want to hear any more gripes about the “Oprah-fication” of America. After what I saw this morning (and I only saw half of it), America needs to have a few collective “Oprah moments.”