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Oprah is redeemed, but questions linger

Amid a heartening moment of truth, what about James Frey's publisher?

I hereby take back every snarky thing I’ve ever said about Oprah Winfrey.

With her stunning admission on Thursday’s broadcast of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” that she’d been duped by James Frey, author of the now-disputed “A Million Little Pieces,” she single-handedly restored credibility to the concept of truth in advertising — and in publishing and journalism.

Her precision smackdown of Frey and his editor helped, by extension, to bolster the mission of the nation’s beleaguered ranks of mainstream journalists.  And irresistibly, it all made for excellent television.   “I left the impression that the truth doesn’t matter, and for that I am deeply sorry,” she said at the top of her live broadcast. “That is not what I believe….and to those who challenged me, you were absolutely right.”

That comment, delivered in Winfrey’s trademark, low-pitched “Now-listen up-cause-I-am-serious-as-a-heart-attack” voice, kicked off the beginning of her remarkable mea culpa show. And in a big way, it also re-established the once-solid line between fact and fiction in commercial publishing, all under the guise of putting an end to the three week-old controversy surrounding Frey’s book. 

As I see it, though, at least a few pressing questions remain, including the role of Frey’s publisher in the mess.

Why did Doubleday’s Nan A. Talese, the editor of “Pieces” who bravely if somewhat foolishly sat down on Oprah’s show, not give a clear yes or no answer when asked about the basic truth of Frey’s story?  Talese, a doyenne of New York’s book publishing universe and the wife of journalist Gay Talese, came off as weirdly out of touch and patronizing.

“Yes, the whole situation is very sad,” she said to Oprah at one point, speaking in a stiff, Mid-Atlantic accent.  To which Oprah replied, “It is not a sad situation for me, it is embarrassing; embarrassing and disappointing.”

A prior historyNo one on the broadcast mentioned the fact that Winfrey and Talese have history, as they say: Talese in the early 1990s published journalist Alex Kotlowitz’s critically-acclaimed nonfiction book, “There Are No Children Here,” which details the poignant story of single black woman in Chicago’s ghetto struggling to raise her sons. 

Oprah optioned the book and turned it into a television movie in mid-1990s. (And Kotlowitz, by the way, printed a short disclaimer at the front of the book, saying that he changed the names of some of the individuals in the story to protect their identities.)

In light of that past connection, I waited during Thursday’s broadcast for Oprah to ask Talese an obvious question: Are the rules for a nonfiction book detailing the hard-luck life of a poor black woman  different than that of a memoir detailing the hard-luck life of a middle-class white man from Michigan?  If so, why?  And if they aren’t, what changed in the years between the two books’ publications?

Still, with the stakes as high as they were, Oprah's broadcast was one for the ages.

As the three week-old controversy brewed over the veracity of Frey’s “memoir,” the most important aspect of the story was in danger of being obscured by the glitzy  marquee players involved: Oprah Winfrey, America’s Conscience and Supreme Ruler of Daytime Talk Shows; Talese, one of the most powerful women in big-ticket book publishing; and veteran broadcaster Larry King, whose eponymous national TV program gave legs to the flap on Jan. 11. (Caught between the two larger-than-life women on Thursday's show, Frey looked like a lost little boy, or as CNN anchor Anderson Cooper observed less generously, “a scared rat.”)

All along, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich noted in a recent column that landed him a seat on Oprah’s show, the underlying shame of the whole affair resided in its brazen flouting of the once-sacred line between fact and fiction. as Rich observed, borrowing a nutty-but-succinct word from Comedy Central frontman Stephen Colbert, has been on the rise in America in recent years.

Despite the public’s apparent willingness to live with lies tricked out as truth — embodied by reality shows, the government’s trumped-up evidence of “mushroom clouds” emanating from Iraq, and most recently by Frey — such faux facts have no place in nonfiction book publishing, journalism or government. This argument drew somber nods of agreement from Oprah, and a big round of applause from the audience at Harpo Studios.

Then again, very little of Thursday’s show was business-as-usual. The vehicle itself — Oprah holding herself accountable on the air, along with Frey and his publisher — represented a startling development in the remarkable 20-year-long run of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”  Best of all, perhaps, was Oprah’s unwillingness to cut any slack to Frey's editor. After Talese lamely attempted to draw distinctions between memoir and nonfiction, Oprah abruptly told her: “I’m not buying that, that doesn’t wash with me.”

Veteran Oprah Show viewers can count on one hand the number of times that Winfrey has countenanced serious challenges to her way of thinking, to her opinions. More than that, regular viewers of the program, me included, know Oprah is a bit of a control freak. More than once has she semi-joked about “not liking surprises.”

Doing the right thingSo one can only imagine the atmosphere around Harpo Productions in Chicago following the Jan. 8 disclosure on the Web site, The Smoking Gun, that cast doubt on James Frey’s bestselling tale of his misspent youth. Oprah and her staff were still on holiday vacation as the story gained traction; her Jan. 11 happened days before the Harpo staff returned. 

Yet I like to imagine Oprah stalking the halls of her vast empire in Chicago’s South Side, seething and demanding answers. Woebetides any Harpo staffer who might have skirted ethical boundaries in their dealings with Talese and Frey.

And despite the heartrending disclosures from all sides on Thursday's show, we still don’t know how and why she came to select a two-year-old title as the first nonfiction pick for her powerful Book Club.

Still, it is significant, as Keith Olbermann of MSNBC observed on Thursday night's “Countdown,” that Winfrey did the right thing, and in a big, big way: Despite the personal humiliation she clearly felt, Oprah forced a long-overdue conversation about fact versus fiction in pop culture. More importantly, she sought to hold at least one publisher accountable for perhaps willingly blurring the line between the two. This is far from your typical daytime talk show fodder, or even a subject that gets much attention from serious news programs on a consistent basis — unless it concerns fabricating journalists like Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair.

Of course, it remains to be seen if the legions of Americans who continue to shell out money for Frey’s discredited memoir really do care about the line between fact and fiction. But Thursday’s broadcast made one thing abundantly clear: Oprah Winfrey, a former local TV journalist and troubled teen from a dirt-poor Mississippi town, has bigger cajones than most of the men elected to national office these days.

Amy Alexander has written commentary for the Washington Post, NPR and The Nation, and is co-author of “Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African Americans.”