Oprah Winfrey's back-pedaling apology for defending falsehood-published-as-truth is a very welcome development. On Thursday’s show, Winfrey expressed chagrin, remorse, and anger, some of it directed at herself and most of it aimed at James Frey and his book, A Million Little Pieces. Frey’s “memoir,” now known to contain more than a few documented falsehoods, still tops the bestseller lists and is still making money for Frey and his publisher. But at least people know it’s not what it claims to be.
Before the legion of fans who watch her show, Oprah told Frey, “I feel duped. But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.” In that she was echoing the rest of us. Frey admitted to lying, and he’s lost respect and what reputation he was attempting to rebuild even if he is walking away with a bigger bank account.
But Winfrey cannot offload all of this on Frey. Her organization selected Frey’s book for the Oprah Book Club, apparently without vetting it thoroughly. And worse, she called Larry King’s CNN program on January 11, staunchly defending Frey and his work, saying the growing controversy about truth versus fiction was “much ado about nothing.” Winfrey can make a mistake like anyone else, but she is too shrewd not to have known what she was doing when she made that call.
But let’s salute Winfrey’s quick ownership of her misstep. She told her viewers, “I regret the call. I made a mistake and I left the impression that the truth does not matter, and I am deeply sorry about that. That is not what I believe.”
Whether Winfrey’s own conscience got to her, whether she is worried about her image and reputation, or whether she is simply responding to the thorough shellacking she experienced in the national media, we don’t know. But she did acknowledge that she has been the subject of numerous online and print editorials, calling her to account. In clear contrition she said, “To everyone who has challenged me on this issue of truth, you are absolutely right.” And they were.
Truth matters after all in postmodern culture. We cannot live without it, even if people and philosophies persist in suggesting that we can. Frey is just a blip. He’ll soon disappear. But integrity in speech, writing, and testimony are critical to the functioning of a free society based on objective truth and the rule of law. The day that truth really does not matter is the day the American experiment is only a step away from demagoguery and demise.
It’s more than a little interesting to see authors, columnists, and other writers (liberal or conservative) reacting so strongly against Frey’s infractions. Writers have taken greater umbrage with Frey than publishing houses. Why? Because this strikes at the very heart of what writers do and who they are. It’s about intellectual property, their incomes, and talent. It’s about their ox being gored, and they rightly do not like it. Publishers make money either way, true or false. Indeed as the Frey experience has shown once again, controversy sells books.
So in the end truth won this battle in the culture wars. Winfrey learned, publishers learned, and, hopefully, so did the rest of us.
© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006
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