The Oprah Example

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2006 10:27 AM

It was a matter of hours after Oprah confessed her sin that her move was imbued with larger political significance.

Now that Winfrey has admitted she was wrong for embracing a memoir that had been exposed as a pack of lies, Maureen Dowd told Keith Olbermann, the contrast with President Bush could hardly be greater.

From a small-time hustler's fictitious book to fictitious WMD--well, I guess it was inevitable.

The Bush-Winfrey connection also came up in a column by Chicago Tribune blogger Steven Johnson , who praised Oprah's apology but added:

"Then WLS-Ch. 7, the station where her talk show originated, shockingly cut off the program by cutting to live ABC coverage of President Bush's news conference. Important, potentially, but in the usual order of things, nothing more than a restatement of existing positions."

I must admit, Oprah was better television. She was tough on herself, and then she sliced James Frey, her former book-club fave, into A Million Little Pieces.

I had been kinda depressed about the whole episode. I mean, Frey's so-called memoir is exposed as a fabrication, he still stands behind it, Oprah still stands behind it, Doubleday still stands behind it, people keep on buying it and no one except a few columnists seems to care that it was one of the great con jobs of the modern era.

Well, that changed yesterday. Here's my report:

Oprah Winfrey, embarrassed by her defense of a memoir after it was exposed as partially fabricated, apologized yesterday and then lectured the sheepish-looking author and his publisher in an emotional hour of televised penance.

Two weeks after standing by James Frey's falsified tale of crime and drugs, the talk-show queen reversed herself following a spate of newspaper editorials and columns assailing her credibility.

"I made a mistake and I left the impression that the truth does not matter and I am deeply sorry about that," Winfrey told viewers of her Chicago-based show. "That is not what I believe." She said she was "really embarrassed," adding, "To everyone who has challenged me on this issue of truth, you are absolutely right."

Frey, after an early series of maddeningly vague comments about "embellishments" and the subjectivity of memoirs, acknowledged yesterday for the first time that, in writing "A Million Little Pieces," he systematically lied.

The previous refusal of Winfrey, Frey and his publisher, Doubleday, to own up to the book's fictions sparked a national debate over whether facts really matter anymore in the hype-heavy literary world, or whether it is enough to have a whiff of "truthiness," a word mockingly popularized by Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.

In the 10 years since Winfrey formed a book club to endorse her favorite works, she has launched dozens of volumes to bestsellerdom, from "House of Sand and Fog" to "White Oleander," fueled by more than 800,000 online club members and more than 20 million viewers in 107 countries. Frey's book was published in 2003, but since Winfrey endorsed it in September, the memoir has sold 2 million copies.

Winfrey's tone was dramatically different during her Jan. 11 phone call to CNN's "Larry King Live," when she said that although some of the facts had been questioned two days earlier, "the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me. And I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book."

That call followed an exposé on the Web site the Smoking Gun, which revealed that Frey had not committed the felonies he claimed in the book, had not hit an Ohio police officer with his car and had not spent three months in jail.

Winfrey was intense and emotional in cross-examining Frey on her show yesterday, telling him: "I feel that you betrayed millions of readers . . . that bothers me greatly. . . . I feel that you conned us all."

"She was unrelenting," said William Bastone, the Smoking Gun's founder. "I thought she was incredible. I thought she was fabulous." On King's program, he said, "she went off half-cocked. To us, it looked like she was abetting a liar. . . . It would have been easy for her to just forget James Frey and move on, but she stood up and set the record straight."

Frey, who insisted to King that he had not conned anyone, was morose yesterday during a series of grudging admissions. He acknowledged that he spent two hours in jail, not 87 days, and that he was in North Carolina, not jail, when he broke up with a woman who later committed suicide. Winfrey looked stunned when Frey said the woman slit her wrists rather than hanging herself, as he had written.

"Why do you have to lie about that?" she asked.

Overall, Frey conceded, the Smoking Gun's evisceration of the book was "pretty accurate."

"All the way through, I altered details about every one of the characters," Frey said, adding that he had portrayed himself as "tougher" and "badder" than he actually was.

When Winfrey asked how Frey could have lied on her set and lied about his fictionalized tale, he said, "I made a mistake."

During a 2003 interview with Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today," Frey denied having taken license with his tale of life in rehab. "I cut out all the boring stuff, but I didn't invent anything. Everything I wrote about happened," he said then.

Winfrey's declaration that she had been "duped" came two days after the New York Times reported that her producers had been told before Winfrey embraced the book that Frey had distorted reality.

The paper quoted a counselor at the Hazelden rehabilitation center in Minnesota, where Frey says he dealt with his addictions, as saying she warned a senior producer for the "Oprah Winfrey Show" that Frey's description of treatment there was "almost entirely false." On Oct. 1, she and other counselors challenged such episodes in the book as Frey claiming he was physically abused by other residents, was left to sleep on the floor after a fight and regularly vomited blood. It is not clear whether this information was conveyed to Winfrey.

Winfrey's company, Harpo Productions, said she decided on Jan. 19 to do the follow-up program.

Among the guests yesterday were Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who wrote that in defending the book, Winfrey was "not only wrong but deluded," and New York Times columnist Frank Rich, who wrote that Winfrey had made clear that "no one except pesky nitpickers much cares whether Mr. Frey's autobiography is true or not." Cohen told Winfrey that it took "a lot of courage" to admit she was wrong, and Rich agreed.

Frey has said he originally tried to peddle the book as a novel before labeling it nonfiction. Winfrey said she relied on Doubleday's assurance that the memoir was accurate when, a week after she endorsed it, a Hazelden counselor told a show producer the account of Frey's rehabilitation was false. The company has refused to withdraw the book, but Nan Talese, Frey's publisher at Doubleday, said future editions have been delayed for an author's note addressing the falsehoods.

"In retrospect," Talese told Winfrey, "it might seem, 'How could everybody be that stupid and that dumb?' " But, she said, "I thought as a publisher, this is James's memory of the hell he went through. . . . I do not know how you get inside another person's mind."

Pressed by Winfrey on why the company didn't do independent fact-checking, Talese said, "This whole experience is very sad."

"It's not sad for me," Winfrey replied. "It's embarrassing and disappointing for me."

On to politics: Well, the press said the Democrats wouldn't be mounting an Alito filibuster. Uh, right.

"Breaking ranks with Democratic leaders," says the Boston Globe , "Senators John F. Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy yesterday vowed to lead a filibuster against the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr., forcing their colleagues to decide whether to join a high-stakes -- but likely fruitless -- attempt to use Senate rules to block the judge's confirmation.

"The move by the two Massachusetts Democrats intensifies pressure on other Democratic senators, who have been torn between appeasing their abortion-rights supporters and risking condemnation for attempting to block a vote on a judge with impressive credentials and majority support in the Senate.

"'Judge Alito's confirmation would be an ideological coup on the Supreme Court,' Kerry said. 'We can't afford to see the court's swing vote, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, replaced with a far-right ideologue like Samuel Alito.'

"The Alito nomination has turned into a nightmare for Democratic leaders, who have almost uniformly opposed Alito, but resisted taking the more radical -- and hotly disputed -- step of mounting a filibuster. Under Senate rules, 41 senators can tie up debate indefinitely, blocking a nomination."

Russell Shaw at the Huffington Post blames . . . the voters:

"Too many pro-choice 'moderates' gave 'moderate' Republican Senators Chafee, Specter, Collins and Snowe a free pass. And at this writing, it sure seems like they all will vote to confirm Alito.

"And what about New Hampshire, a state with increasingly liberal sensibilities (carried by Kerry), whose newest Senator, John Sununu, won by a thin margin over a pro-choice former Governor?

"Or what about Minnesota, where some moderates and perhaps even a few liberals voted for the anti-choice Norm Coleman over Walter Mondale because they were offended at the Democrat's behavior during the eulogy for Paul Wellstone?

"Or what about South Dakota, where pro-choice Senator Tom Daschle lost by a couple hundred votes? Don't you think that state--which has one, one-day-a-week abortion clinic--sends more non-voting pregnant women to Minnesota each year than the margin of Daschle's defeat?

"Take away those seven seats, and perhaps Florida as well. The Dems run the Senate and Alito doesn't get confirmed. But there is something in the liberal mindset that is repulsed by political calculus."

A plethora of polls this morning, starting with this one from NYT/CBS :

"Americans are willing to tolerate eavesdropping without warrants to fight terrorism, but are concerned that the aggressive antiterrorism programs championed by the Bush administration are encroaching on civil liberties, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. . . .

"The poll, conducted as President Bush defended his surveillance program in the face of criticism from Democrats and some Republicans that it is illegal, found that Americans were willing to give the administration some latitude for its surveillance program if they believed it was intended to protect them. Fifty-three percent of the respondents said they supported eavesdropping without warrants 'in order to reduce the threat of terrorism.'

"The results suggest that Americans' view of the program depends in large part on whether they perceive it as a bulwark in the fight against terrorism, as Mr. Bush has sought to cast it, or as an unnecessary and unwarranted infringement on civil liberties, as critics have said. In one striking finding, respondents overwhelmingly supported e-mail and telephone monitoring directed at 'Americans the government is suspicious of;' they overwhelmingly opposed the same kind of surveillance if it was aimed at 'ordinary Americans.'"

Well, there you have it! Just pass a law exempting ordinary folks.

This LAT/Bloomberg survey puts Bush at 43 percent:

"He received even lower marks for his handling of the economy, healthcare and Iraq -- especially from women, who the poll found had turned against him on several fronts. And by a 2-1 ratio, those surveyed said the nation needed to change direction from the overall course Bush had set. "But most of those surveyed believed Bush's policies had made the nation more secure. And a plurality say they trusted him more than they did Democrats to protect the country against terrorism."

Similar findings by USA Today/CNN/Gallup , which also has him at 43 percent:

"By more than 2-to-1, those surveyed say things have gotten worse in the United States over the past five years. . . . Even conservatives divide 47%-44% on whether things have gotten better or worse.

"The country's downbeat mood poses a challenge for the president as he tries to command support for the legislative agenda he'll unveil for his sixth year in office."

Imagine journalists relying on exit polls--in a Palestinian election, no less!--after 2000. Yet plenty of news organizations fell into that trap, says the Boston Phoenix's Mark Jurkowitz :

"It's not the same thing as reporting that most of the Sago Mine disaster victims had been found alive. And it's not Dewey beats Truman. But U.S. newspapers again found themselves in another one of those frustrating deadline traps today in trying to report on the Palestinian elections -- which appear to have led to a stunning Hamas triumph.

"My late edition of Thursday morning's Globe had a 'Close Fatah win seen in Palestinian vote' based on exit polling. My Wall Street Journal front page, relying on the same exits, (Let's not forget that John Kerry was president of the United States for about seven hours on election day 2004 based on exit polls.) said 'Fatah Survived a strong Hamas challenge in Palestinian voting.' My New York Times banner headline read: 'Hamas Presses Fatah in Palestinian Vote, Surveys Say.' The Washington Post said exit polls showed Hamas 'Winning Near-Parity With Fatah in Palestinian Assembly.'"

I've always seen the Congressional Research Service as nonpartisan, as do most journalists. But Power Line's Scott Johnson digs up this nugget:

"The Congressional Research Service followed up with yet another report on January 18, this one by Alfred Cumming on the statutory procedures under which Congress is to be informed of intelligence activities. According to the Washington Post story on the report, Cumming found that the administration 'appears to have violated the National Security Act by limiting its briefings about a warrantless domestic eavesdropping program to congressional leaders...

"The 'nonpartisan' Mr. Cumming contributed $1,250 to Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, according to the Web site PoliticalMoneyLine."

Nation Editor (and Googler) Katrina van den Heuvel offers the administration a deal:

"I'm happy to let Dick Cheney analyze my Google records and discover that my most frequently searched terms are 'Brad,' 'Angelina,' and 'baby,' if the NSA will data-mine his computer for the keywords: 'Joseph,' 'Wilson,' and 'wife.' The White House can eavesdrop on my cell phone calls to my daughter, if it gives a detailed accounting of its dealings with Jack Abramoff. I don't even mind if George Bush learns the title of the last book I checked out of the library, if the FBI will tell me when the last time W. was in a library.

"If NSA spying were really an issue of security, as the all-out media assault by the Bush administration claims it to be, it should accept the deal. But it's not. Rather this is all part of their neocon dream of an American Empire. You see, in a republic the lives of private citizens are private while the workings of public servants are public, but in an empire, Caesar's dealings remains shrouded in secrecy while he spies on citizens looking for threats to the regime. It is up to the Congress to put a stop to this idolatry: the emperor as God, mysterious and omniscient."

Finally, I know we live in an age of transparency, where journalists are supposed to get things off their chests, but I must confessed I raised an eyebrow at this NYT report from Alex Kuczynski :

"Surely I had no need for a professional bra fitting. My breasts were as reliable as Old Faithful, waxing and waning through their various cyclical changes with the on-time efficiency of European trains. They were not too big or too small. They liked their homey 36B bras, which after several wearings would settle into a comfortable hammock.

"Then one afternoon when I should have been working, I turned on Oprah, which is always a Big Mistake. Oprah comes on at the low blood-sugar hour, when you're perfectly content to loll in front of a television for 60 minutes, which I think is the secret reason the show is so successful. That day she broadcast a special about bra interventions.

"Fully 85 percent of women, she said, are wearing the wrong bra size. The show's makeovers were incredible: droopy breasts were transformed into buoyant ones; torsos rippling with back fat became silhouettes as sleek as porpoises. I vowed to venture to the Town Shop."

I'll spare you the part about "robustly jiggling" and how she upgrades to a 34D.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive