Monday, January 30, 2006


Mutt brought this to my attention and I have to share it here, just on the basis of principle. For those of you who have been following the whole Oprah Winfrey/James Frey A Million Little Pieces scandal, David Carr of the New York Times gives the whole affair some badly-needed perspective in an editorial running today. The essence of it, as Mutt pointed out, is captured in the first line and paragraph, and the last line. His piece is worth reproducing here in full, not just to highlight the differences between mediocre and great books, but also to shine a bright, hard spotlight on the way in which we turn celebrities into gurus, without bothering to check their supposed credentials. (How is it that Oprah Winfrey gets to publicly rebuke an entire industry because of her own poor judgment?) In our time, if a brand gets popular enough, it becomes a source of authoratative wisdom!?! I guess this is what happens to a culture once it's jettisoned all of its traditional and historical sources of authority... pretty sad...


How Oprahness Trumped Truthiness
(by David Carr, New York Times, January 30 2006)

FOOL millions, make millions. Fool Oprah, lord help you.

James Frey, the author of "A Million Little Pieces" — which could yet become the first book ever to lead both the fiction and nonfiction best-seller lists — reported to the set of "Oprah" on Thursday to complete his public abasement. Ms. Winfrey turned on him with calculated efficiency, using him to mop up the floor and clean up her reputation at the same time.

She did not stop there, going on to lecture Nan A. Talese, the head of Doubleday, about the need for the book industry to be more careful in choosing what to stand behind — good advice, from someone who should know. Her show was a tutorial in how to take responsibility and deflect it to others at the same time; by the end, the truth and Ms. Winfrey were aggrieved in equal measure.

But the battle cry to reform the book industry was really just an effort to repair the specific damage to Ms. Winfrey's own lustrous brand. Last year, Ms. Winfrey had put some Oprah's Book Club lightning on "A Million Little Pieces" and it ended up selling 3.5 million copies. Even after the Smoking Gun ( blew giant holes in Mr. Frey's version of his life, Mr. Winfrey continued to defend him — calling in during "Larry King Live" in his defense — until it was clear that it was not just his reputation that was taking a pounding.

How was it that "A Million Little Pieces" came to pose an asymmetric threat to both the book industry and Ms. Winfrey? The book never seemed to be a big issue among people I talked to who were recovering from addictions — most of them thought he was full of beans. But for a broader aspirational audience, his triumph over addiction was both unbelievable and totally believable.

And no one knows the cycle of triumph, abasement and rehabilitation better than Ms. Winfrey, who embodies bootstrap excellence. Perhaps that may be part of the reason she fell so hard for James Frey, who threw off his chains without, as Newsweek pointed out, any of those "wussy 12-step programs."

ALTHOUGH Mr. Frey, unlike Ms. Winfrey, was a child of privilege who had to walk a long way to find trouble and inflict it on himself, his book's underlying message about the strength of individual will and stubbornness — he seemed to sober up out of spite more than anything else — was too compelling to put down for Ms. Winfrey, who had been told that she was doing it the wrong way ever since she started to build her media empire.

But, in her own way, in her own time, she came to understand that she had been had by Mr. Frey. Thursday, she opened the show by looking directly into the camera and saying, "I made a mistake and I left the impression that the truth does not matter. And I am deeply sorry about that, because that is not is what I believe."

But what started as a mea culpa soon turned into j'accuse. Both Mr. Frey and Ms. Talese were snapped in two like dry winter twigs. A Greek chorus of media types (including from The
New York Times), ostensibly on hand to provide third-party context to examine Ms. Winfrey's enthrallment with a con, mostly fell into step as well. Richard Cohen, the Washington Post columnist who had written that Ms. Winfrey was "deluded," was beaming and describing her as "mensch of the year."

By the time the program was over, she was surrounded by carnage, but she did not have a hair out of place. "I believe the truth matters," she concluded to thunderous applause.

And so it does. With network news crippled and major newspapers suspect, Ms. Winfrey is regarded as a bulwark of veracity. But as this episode proves, she can be had when a narrative bends to her belief system or touches on her sense of moral outrage.

Just last September, she visited New Orleans after the flood and spoke with Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Chief Edwin P. Compass III about life inside the Superdome. "We had little babies in there, some of the little babies getting raped," the mayor said. "They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."

Not much of that was true either, but there was no well-considered corrective, no royal summons for the mayor and police chief to come to Chicago and explain themselves. In that case, the damage done was to the reputation of a flooded city, not the Brand Called Oprah.
How strong is that brand? Consider that Ms. Winfrey is about to set new standards and principles for an industry that she does not belong to. "The book industry has been deeply embarrassed and I think that her show pointed up the disconnect between publishing and the real world," said Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly.

If Mr. Frey is the pathogen, then Ms. Winfrey will be the catalyst. Look for a great deal of noise about fact-checking and the book industry's sacred trust with the reader.

"I think whether it is going to be a fig leaf or an honest attempt to make sure we are a bastion of accuracy, something is going to happen," said David Hirshey, executive editor of HarperCollins (a subsidiary of the
News Corporation).

But Ms. Winfrey will not fix the book business any more than she fixed television when she dumped the tabloid elements of her show years ago. She is a cultural Dustbuster, someone who cleans up messes by living her values and focusing on what is good and right. Her willingness to put both her wealth and her mouth on the line has improved lives in South Africa, raised much-needed money for New Orleans and made any number of afflictions household names.

She is also a force for good because she reminds people staring at the television that there is a big wide world of words out there. Sales of "Night,"
Elie Wiesel's holocaust memoir, are already beginning to soar as her next book club selection, demonstrating that her taste and title-making abilities are undiminished.

But she won't repair the book business by a wag of the finger. The most important thing that Ms. Winfrey can do for publishing is pick better books.

1 comment:

I Am Not What I Am said...

Once again, the Secret Thread is right on target with this commentary (indirectly) on Oprah Winfrey. From my own vantage point, there are few individuals who exemplify what is wrong with American society/culture today than Oprah.

When one takes a trip back in time, to around 1985, she was nothing more than a second rate Phil Donohue. Than, through the stroke of good fortune, coupled with the arrival of political correctness and her own sappy sentimentality, she became a mediocre talk show host.

Yet, her rise was astonishing. It's almost like the scene out of 1st Samuel, where the people tell Samuel, "We want a king, we want a king (when referring to Saul)". Then God tells Samuel, "Okay, but they may not get the king they like."

It's the same with Winfrey. Think about it, where is her credibility on ANYTHING?

She suddenly became a fitness guru after having her weight balloon up and down for years. This lead to her selling books, tapes, etc... in that area.

Then she ventured into the area of self-help. Not only by her self, but by foistering Dr. Phil upon us.
Once again, who was she to determine what sort of analysis/assistance people need?

Now, most recently (and laughably),
books. Do you think she actually has read one or any of the books she has ever 'chosen' for her lists? Maybe, but as the NY Times columnist pointed out, the difference between her choices and the ones made for her is laughable
(she should have had THE SECRET THREAD select the books).
After this latest fiasco, one could almost imagine her running into a meeting, saying, "Get me something big and important... an intellectual book!"

All of these criticisms aside, she then has the chutzpah not even to take it on the chin for her mistake. I guess that's what you can do when people want you to be their king. The only question left
is, where shall King Oprah venture next? Maybe she can tell those feeble minded Americans out there 1)how, 2)when and 3)who to worship.
Oh wait, she's already done that.

Answers to above: 1) watch 2) 4p.m., ABC affiliate and 3)Oprah