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Oprah strikes a blow for truthiness

Do facts really matter? Ask Winfrey, James Frey or Stephen Colbert

I will later regret having ever typed these words, but here goes: Stephen Colbert was right. Truthiness reigns.

Last year, the Comedy Central host eschewed truth for “truthiness”: that which might not be literally true but just feels too good to resist. (In true truthiness form, the word itself not only wasn't coined by Colbert, but has been around since before Mark Twain invented fib-happy Huck Finn.  That only made Colbert .)

So when Oprah struck back Thursday at her disgraced book-club golden boy James Frey for the factual holes in his memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," it was a small (and belated) but bold nudge back out of the proud halls of truthiness.

“I really feel duped,” Oprah told a sheepish-looking Frey, “but more importantly I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.”

She offered an honest apology. And at first glance, it seemed like a bold turnaround from a woman who gave Larry King a jingle two weeks ago to defend Frey's mendacious ways, saying that the one-time drug addict “stepped out of that history to be the man he is today” — a bestselling author with a tenuous grasp on what the “non” in “nonfiction” could possibly mean.

But let's not get too excited here.  Oprah's success has always been built on defending the obvious (philanthropists good, philanderers bad). By endorsing Frey, she not only backed the wrong horse but in fact picked a donkey to win the third at Belmont, so after a long stretch of trying to avoid that fact, it was inevitable she would have to reverse course and give Frey his comeuppance.

That's just good business sense, and Harpo Productions is nothing if not a very well-run company. Plus, Oprah's already taking flak for her new book club pick, Elie Wiesel's “Night” — a brilliant book and one that's far more unimpeachable than Frey's, even though it has commonly been pegged somewhere between truth and fiction.

What's really troubling, though, isn't the length of time it took for Oprah to come around. It's how she, Frey and Frey's publisher defended the book to begin with.

Rather than reacting with shock or surprise when the allegations were documented in painstaking detail by investigative Web site The Smoking Gun, or even taking a politician's stance by saying that the allegations were disturbing but the truth would eventually be sorted out, Oprah shrugged the whole fracas off as “much ado about nothing.”

For a woman who prides herself on a true sense of empathy with her devotees, this was either the biggest case of a tin ear since “The Wizard of Oz” or a deviously brilliant move to place herself among the masses of Frey fans who themselves were in disbelief.

Even more unsettling was Frey's own response.  Rather than admitting that maybe he had tucked a fib or two into an otherwise fact-based book, he insisted that “the emotional truth is there,” essentially saying that no meddling fact could get in the way of his pain and suffering.

While Frey's editors were unwilling or unable to conduct the basic due diligence that would have torn his “emotional truth” to shreds, Oprah has the resources to check up on her book picks and ensure they're absolutely bulletproof. Why doesn't she?

That moment of truthiness deserves a big Colbertian thumbs up.

Frey made the expected apologies Thursday, even admitting he had lied — and, because everything is about him, saying he hoped the whole travesty helped him in “being a better person and learning from my mistakes and making sure I don’t repeat them.”

But given Frey's perch atop the bestseller lists (including, in a sad moment for book classification, the New York Times' nonfiction list) it's hard to believe he's feeling too sorry — and more likely that he's sticking by his earlier defense on his (now nonfunctioning) Web site,, the one in which he stood by his book, told us haters we could hate and said he wouldn't “dignify this bulls--- with any sort of further response.”

Except perhaps the one he offered when Oprah dragged him onto her airtime to give him a well-deserved smackdown.

Now for the full disclaimer: I haven't read more than a few excerpts of Frey's book. If I want to indulge myself with embellished tales of privileged white boys screwing up their lives with drugs, I can go to my next college reunion, or find a copy of Jay McInerney's old novels in the remainders pile. (Guess who's a , by the way?) 

The amateurish, punctuation-deprived tidbits I did muddle through left me cold, though perhaps I didn't endure enough of Frey's rambling to appreciate his emotional truth. Plus, I have a strange ailment which forces me to like my fiction more or less fictional, and my nonfiction more or less true.

That's a minority view these days, since political discourse has long since moved past defining what “is” is, beyond what “unknown unknowns” might be or whether it was possible to find nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, into the realm of mediocre fiction. And the default response to any memoir is now to assume it comes with a dose of truth-fudging. After MSNBC's gossip columnist Jeannette Walls published her memoir last year, she found herself “perplexed, infuriated and even a bit amused” at how many readers questioned her own true story about a tough childhood.

‘Deeply inspiring and redemptive’This laissez-faire attitude toward the truth shows itself nowhere more boldly than in the statement Frey's publishers, Doubleday and Anchor Books, released in response to the charge that their big meal ticket was a fraud.

“We decided 'A Million Little Pieces' was his story, told in his own way, and he represented to us that his version of events was true to his recollections,” they said, going on to argue that “the power of the overall reading experience is such that the book remains a deeply inspiring and redemptive story for millions of readers.”

So basically, truthiness reigns.

The enduring irony of the whole Frey mess is this: He himself admitted that “Pieces” was shopped around both as a novel and as nonfiction. Apparently either would have suited him just fine, so long as his name showed up on a book jacket.

In 1990, former undercover cop Kim Wozencraft published her first novel, “Rush.”  Not unlike Frey's book, it details a middle-class descent into addiction — though unlike Frey, Wozencraft's drug troubles began when her narcotics gig prompted her to start shooting up. Also unlike Frey, no one ever questioned Wozencraft's prison stint (rather longer than Frey's two-hour stay in holding) or other details of her harrowing experience.

Wozencraft saw fiction as a safe way to document her real life. Frey? The line between the two was functionally irrelevant.

The bestselling “Rush” was later adapted into a 1991 movie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh. It has not, however, been an Oprah Book Club pick, the new holy grail of publishing. 

So maybe a good dose of truthiness makes all the difference. lifestyle editor Jon Bonné is really glad he opted against that “FTBSITTTD” tattoo.