January 2006 Ethics Dunces
As explained in January's David Manning Liar piece, James Frey duped thousands of people into buying his supposedly truthful memoirs of his triumph over a drug and crime soiled youth. Instrumental in making A Million Little Pieces into a best seller was TV talk show host and celebrity icon Oprah Winfrey, who made the sordid work a selection of her book club and gave Frey the full Oprah gush-over on her syndicated television show. Now, thanks to some digging by the investigative website "The Smoking Gun," we know that key elements in Frey's book were exaggerated, changed, or simply made up, and he has admitted as much, though he continues to defend the work's "essential truth."
Frey had made Oprah an unwitting accomplice in a scam. Winfrey's proper and ethical course, once she learned the truth, was to disavow the book, apologize for choosing it, and to the extent possible, do whatever she could to make sure Frey ceases to profit from fiction sold as fact, using her reputation as part of the sales pitch. As Frey was slithering and sliding around the topic of his fabrications on CNN's "Larry King Live," Oprah called, unexpectedly. And we learned something about Oprah Winfrey from what she said.
We learned she would rather continue to support a liar and scam artist than admit she made a mistake.
Keep holding on to what? A story of a man's redemption that is gradually being exposed as a sham, crafted with an eye to selling books rather than with a determination to be accurate? With this craven and self-serving gibberish, Oprah Winfrey endorsed the Al Sharpton-Tawana Brawley approach to public fraud. Sharpton is having a good month for converts: earlier, Ted Kennedy used a patently fictional story about federal agents pouncing on students who had checked out disapproved books from the library to attack the Bush administration's civil rights policies, and then declared that the message of the incident was true even if the incident itself wasn't. Now Oprah announces that as long as Frey's story "resonated" with readers, the fact that it isn't the raw truth that he (and she) claimed it was shouldn't change anyone's attitude toward his book.
The inconvenient fact that Oprah Winfrey seems to have missed is that if A Million Little Things hadn't been represented as a true story, it wouldn't have "resonated" with very many people at all. Characters in fiction can do anything; it's difficult to be inspired by their victories unless one is under the age of 12. Real stories, however, can be inspiring, yet it is becoming increasingly obvious that Frey's story isn't real. Although its supposed truthfulness is what led Winfrey to rave about the book ("a gut-wrenching memoir that is raw and it's so real...," she called it), now she says that it doesn't matter whether or not the book is true.
It does matter. For example, it means that, far from turning his life around, Mr. Frey is still an untrustworthy and dishonest character, just a more clever, more sober and richer one. It means that he, with Oprah's help, enticed people into buying A Million Little Things under false pretenses, who read it thinking they were reading a memoir intended to tell the whole story of a man's life, and not a doctored, enhanced, sensationalized version of it. Shamefully, Oprah decided to help Frey duck the real issue, his intentional deceptions. "Some of the facts have been questioned" is a deceitful comment. Oprah is a canny and thorough woman with a news reporting background, and she knew, by the time she called up Larry King, that "The Smoking Gun" hadn't just "questioned" some facts, but had eviscerated the book's credibility.
Honesty, sincerity, common sense, courage…these are the values that Oprah Winfrey has displayed in her rise to super-stardom. However, when she needed to step up and accept responsibility, be accountable for her part in Frey's deception, her courage failed, her sincerity vanished, and she opted for dishonesty.