Last week, that goddess of daytime television, Ms. Oprah Winfrey, re-thought her missteps regarding noted liar James Frey, and apologized to the American public. She had been wrong to condone Mr. Frey's blatant non-truths, she said. She had been wrong to call in to Larry King live and say that, despite its inaccuracies, A Million Little Pieces still "resonated" with her. She was wrong, and she was sorry.
This lengthy and television-worthy apology came in the wake of much media uproar. Maureen Dowd trashed Winfrey in a column and more than a few people came out tsking Oprah. It seemed the woman who could do no wrong had finally, well, done wrong.
So Oprah invited noted publisher Nan Talese on her show, where the Queen of TV ripped the Queen of Lit a new one. It was a cheap attempt to shift blame, brought on by outside pressure. Would Oprah have retreated from her original stance, had not so many people exclaimed their disgust at her acceptance of Frey's lies? Was it integrity that made her change her position, or mere self-preservation?
James Frey himself matters very little. Sure, he looked miserable sitting on Oprah's couch the second time around. No doubt the past few weeks have been the very worst of his life. No doubt, in the literary world, at least, his name will always be synonymous with liar. None of this is particularly ground-breaking news. What seemed inappropriate was Oprah's treatment of Nan Talese, who was forced to assume all responsibility for Frey's behavior, and who came off looking like a fool.
And though Talese's carelessness may be one reason that the Frey drama was allowed to go as far as it did, she was not the one who selected the book for Oprah's book club. Talese may not have done enough fact-checking, but why should she take all of the blame for the actions of one person?
It makes sense that Oprah would want to protect her image. Her image, after all, makes her a lot of money. We trust that she is honest, that she has good intentions, and that she spends time researching her subject. When she chooses a book for her book club, we believe that said book is worthy of our time and attention. (Disclaimer: I usually steer clear of anything that Oprah Winfrey recommends, book-wise. I almost didn't read The Corrections, simply because she put it on her list. But Oprah has a wide and loyal following, and her opinions are taken seriously.)
But watching Oprah trash Nan seemed nothing short of disappointing. Oprah played the conscious psychologist attempting to educate the hapless publisher. Instead of explaining why she was so quick to support Frey when she learned he was lying, Oprah turned the questioning around, asking Talese why she had published Frey's book as nonfiction without having done the necessary research. But at the end of the day, Frey's publisher is no more responsible for the debacle than Oprah is. They both made mistakes. Why, then, was Talese forced to field such attacks?
Had Oprah not sustained such ego-blows after her call-in to Larry King, I doubt she would have bothered to re-think her endorsement of James Frey's memoir-esque work of fiction. After all, she had important Brokeback Mountain stars to interview that afternoon. But I can't help but question the integrity of someone who not only retreats from their stance due to media pressure--he lied; she said it was okay; people complained; she said it wasn't--but who also forcibly shifts the blame to someone else.
Everything about the Frey reunion felt trashy and wrong. At the end of the day, what Oprah wanted was for Frey and Talese to take responsibility for their own actions. Own up to it, she seemed to be saying, but it's hard to take that instruction seriously when it comes from someone who isn't owning up to her own mistakes. You chose the book, Oprah. You decided to endorse it. You were a perfect politician on television last week, but I don't buy any of it. It was a media spectacle in lieu of an apology, and for many Oprah-adoring Americans. But that's not enough for me. Really and truly, Oprah, you're the one who should be ashamed.