Oprah on Frey: “I Was Wrong”
On today’s live Oprah Winfrey show, Ms. Winfrey apologized to her audience and to readers of her book club.
“I apologize, I was wrong,” Ms. Winfrey said, about her support of author James Frey. The Smoking Gun released an investigation of disputed facts in Mr. Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, earlier this month. She also said, “I regret my phone call to Larry King,” referring to her live phone call to the talk show host, in which she blamed the publishing industry for not disclaiming the memoir. “The truth matters,” Ms. Winfrey said, and: “My judgement was clouded.”
Mr. Frey’s publisher, Nan Talese, said on the show that she found the whole experience sad. “It’s not sad for me,” said Ms. Winfrey. “It is embarrassing.”
After a number of disclosures, including his inability to recall whether he had actually experienced the infamous root canal without pain medication that he recounted in his memoir, Mr. Frey said that “there were no other major issues.” No questions were asked about the title character of Mr. Frey’s second memoir, My Friend Leonard.
Well, it’s a step, taken under duress, made in the knowledge that her credibility was in full-flush mode.
Perhaps she thinks this will stem the tide of criticism.
Maybe it will. No, make that it probably will. But it definitely shouldn’t.
In light of all that has happened, including the allegations in The New York Times earlier this week that Frey’s account of his rehab stay were not only largely false, but that their falsehood was at least known to some people at Oprah’s company, if not Oprah herself, the big question, asked and asked and asked again, remains unanswered: “What did Oprah know and when did she know it?” (Jan. 27: See Update 3 below for Oprah’s answer.)
ALSO: Gawker has a more complete blow-by-blow of Frey’s appearance. Oprah apparently did the ticked-off parent role with Frey pretty well (seems like there’s no direct response to the “What did you know?” issue), while Frey owned up to some lies, and the audience was in no mood to forgive. Nice, now that he’s a rich guy off of them.
PLUS: A couple of choice comments at Gawker –
I loves me an Oprah smackdown. You go girl. While you are at it you may want to smack down the staff members who ignored the early warnings from Hazelden. You may want to smack yourself for being such a self rightous tool.
The sad part? His book sales will jump tomorrow. Oprah’s ratings will have shot up and her image will remain impeccable. I will be unable to sell my memoirs.
UPDATE: Michelle Malkin has links to other comments and video.
UPDATE 2: The New York Times quickly pushed a piece onto the web today by Edward Wyatt. Selected excerpts:
Oprah Calls Defense of Author ‘a Mistake’
….. Ms. Winfrey apologized to her audience for her call to “Larry King Live” earlier this month defending the author. Today, Ms. Winfrey, alternately fighting back tears and displaying vivid anger, berated Mr. Frey for duping her and her audience.
“I gave the impression that the truth does not matter,” Ms. Winfrey said. “I made a mistake.” To all of the viewers who called and wrote to her telling her she was wrong to allow Mr. Frey to maintain that his book reflected the “essential truth” of his life even though substantial details were falsified, Ms. Winfrey said, “You are absolutely right.”
“I feel duped,” she said. “I don’t know what is true and I don’t know what isn’t,” she said, before addressing Mr. Frey with the question, “Why did you lie?”
Ms. Winfrey chose “A Million Little Pieces” in September for her popular television book club, and it sold more than two million copies within the next three months, making it the fastest-selling pick ever for her book club.
….. On Thursday, Mr. Frey said of the Smoking Gun report, “Most of what they wrote is pretty accurate.”
….. Ms. Winfrey asked if he made up the material because it helped him cope or because he thought it would help sell books. Mr. Frey responded, “Probably both.”
UPDATE 3, Jan. 27: A fuller NYT piece this morning indicates that Oprah has (perhaps successfully; we’ll see) pushed a lot of the onus for the book’s falsehoods back onto the publisher:
Ms. Winfrey also acknowledged that she had received an early warning that parts of “A Million Little Pieces” were fictionalized from a former counselor at the center where the book takes place. Eight days after she picked the book in September, a former counselor at Hazelden, the Minnesota treatment center now identified as the one where Mr. Frey stayed, contacted her producers and told them that many parts of the book were untrue.
Ms. Winfrey said that she had had her producers ask the publisher about the allegations, but that they were reassured the book was accurate. She had harsh words during the broadcast for the publisher, Ms. Talese, who said that neither she nor anyone at Doubleday had investigated the accuracy of Mr. Frey’s book. She said the company first learned that parts of the book had been made up when The Smoking Gun published its report, nearly two years after the memoir was first published.
“An author brings his book in and says that it is true, it is accurate, it is his own,” Ms. Talese said. “I thought, as a publisher, this is James’s memory of the hell he went through and I believed it.”
But Ms. Winfrey pointed out that her producers had asked about reports of the book’s truth in September, after the Hazelden counselor raised doubts, and that they were reassured by Random House.
“We asked if you, your company, stood behind James’s book as a work of nonfiction at the time, and they said absolutely,” Ms. Winfrey said. “And they were also asked if their legal department had checked out the book, and they said yes. So in a press release sent out for the book in 2004 by your company, the book was described as brutally honest and an altering look at â€” at addiction. So how can you say that if you haven’t checked it to be sure?”
Ms. Talese replied that while the Random House legal department checks nonfiction books to make sure that no one is defamed or libeled, it does not check the truth of the assertions made in a book.
Ms. Winfrey replied, “Well, that needs to change.”
It also appears that Mr. Frey’s literary future isn’t quite as rosy as it was a few weeks ago, and that the publishing industry is resigned to having to do more to vet nonfiction works:
In a statement, Penguin said it was considering what action to take regarding its book. About a contract it recently signed for two more books from Mr. Frey, the company said: “The ground has shifted. It’s under discussion.”
Mr. Frey has previously said he offered “A Million Little Pieces” to publishers first as a work of fiction, then as a memoir. But he has also said that in changing the book’s designation from fiction to nonfiction, he did not change anything in it.
One former publisher said he believed that the publishing industry would have to change its practices at the behest of its biggest patron, Ms. Winfrey. Laurence J. Kirshbaum, who recently retired as the chief executive of the Time Warner Book Group and who now runs his own literary agency, said in an interview yesterday that “there is no question what she said will have a far-reaching impact on our business.”
“Agents, publishers and authors are all going to have to be much more cautious in the way they approach the nonfiction market,” Mr. Kirshbaum said. “Traditionally, publishers have not done fact-checking and vetting. But I think you are going to see memoirs read not only from a libel point of view but for factual accuracy. And where there are questions of possible exaggeration or distortion, the author is going to need to produce documentation.”
We can only hope.