Oprah Retracts Support of Frey Memoir
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, for the record, for those who did not see those now-famous Oprah moments on her program yesterday, she brought back author James Frey to charge he lied to her and his readers in his book, “A Million Little Pieces.” Two weeks ago, she had called CNN’s Larry King to defend Frey. He’d just been forced to admit his supposed memoir was partly fiction. Yesterday, she replayed that phone call before turning to Frey.
OPRAH WINFREY: I feel about “A Million Little Pieces” that, although some of the facts have been questioned and people have a right to question, because we live in a country that lets you do that, that 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, and I rely on the publishers to define the category that a book falls within and also the authenticity of the work.
OPRAH WINFREY: I regret that phone call. 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 what I believe.
I called in because I love the message of this book, and, at the time, and every day I was reading e-mail after e-mail from so many people who had been inspired by it. And I have to say that I allowed that to cloud my judgment.
And so to everyone who has challenged me on this issue of truth, you are absolutely right. This whole upsetting controversy has left me with a lot of questions for James Frey, who is here today. And we will talk to him after this break.
OPRAH WINFREY: It is difficult for me to talk to you because I really feel duped. I feel duped.
But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers. And I think, you know, it’s such a gift to have millions of people to read your work, and that bothers me greatly.
And so now as I sit here today, I don’t know what is truth and I don’t know what isn’t.
I read this book as a memoir, and to me, a memoir means it’s the truth of your life as you know it to be, and not blatant fictionalization. So when I pick up a book and it says it’s a memoir, I’m thinking that that is your life. I’m not thinking that that’s a character. I’m thinking that that is Lily, and that that happened to you.
And I sat on this stage back in September and I asked you, you know, lots of questions. And what you conveyed to me — and I think, to millions of other people — was that that was all true. That was all true.
JAMES FREY: I made a mistake. I mean, what was true is there was that person. Every one of the people in the book existed.
OPRAH WINFREY: Mm-hmm.
JAMES FREY: I altered things about all of them. I think part of what happened with a number of the things in the book is when you go through an experience like the one I went through, you develop different coping mechanisms.
And I think one of the coping mechanisms I developed was sort of this image of myself that was greater probably than — not probably, that was greater than what I actually was.
In order to get through the experience of the addiction, I thought of myself as being tougher than I was and badder than I was, and it helped me cope.
OPRAH WINFREY: In closing, I wanted to say this: I read this quote in the New York Times from Michiko Kakutani, who said it best, I think. It’s why I really wanted to do this show. She says this is not about truth in labeling — a case about truth in labeling or the misrepresentation of one author; that it is a case about how much value contemporary culture places on the very idea of truth.
And I believe that the truth matters.
I thank you for being on here today. I thank you.
JAMES FREY: Thank you for having me.
OPRAH WINFREY: Thank you for being here.
JIM LEHRER: And to cultural historian Robert Thompson, who directs Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television.
Professor Thompson, so what are most Americans likely or how are most Americans likely to react to what Oprah Winfrey did, applaud her for her honesty and candor or condemn her for her original mistake?
ROBERT THOMPSON: Well, I think she is going to skate through this. I think she did what she had to do. She clearly had to backtrack from what she had done on Larry King.
And she took the oldest trick in the book. George Washington did this with, yes, Father, I chopped down the cherry tree. He gets to be father of our country and the first president.
So I think she’s going to be fine. I don’t think this is going to cause big problems on planet Oprah.
On the other hand, this was not one of her finer moments. Generally, Oprah is known for her extraordinary candor, her frankness. She seems to be really shooting from the hip and from her heart.
And on that night, or on that program yesterday, she started sounding a little bit like a political leader. She sounded like she was on these talking points of how I left the impression that the truth didn’t matter.
The fact was, she changed her mind about this. She did more than leave an impression.
And I think then she turned around and some people, myself included, kind of saw that she was kind of a sanctimonious bully on that show.
JIM LEHRER: This story, her apology and her confession and all of that yesterday was on the front page of every major newspaper in the country today. Why?
ROBERT THOMPSON: Well, part of it is that Oprah Winfrey is in a cultural class all by herself.
Let’s just review the last year. She has been involved in the criminal justice system, putting up those pictures of people charged with child molestation and getting them caught. She has been dominant in legitimate culture in opening and producing a Broadway play.
She was at the center of the one of the goofiest celebrity moments when Tom Cruise got all giddy on her chair when he was talking about Katie Holmes.
Her feud with David Letterman that stopped was the biggest thing since Jack Benny and Fred Allen. She got people to read Faulkner and Anna Karenina.
This is a woman with a pulpit that had some extraordinary cultural power. And when she made the call, by the way, to Larry King, they threw the entire schedule out. They went ten minutes over what they were supposed to do so that they could continue to hear what Oprah had to say. There is nobody quite like that in the current cultural scene.
JIM LEHRER: Where did this come from? Where does her power — how did she — she is certainly not an overnight success. She’s been doing this for a very long time. But what’s the source of her power, in your opinion?
ROBERT THOMPSON: That’s right. I grew up in Chicago. And I remember when Oprah was a local talk show person doing a kind of Donahuesque program that she slowly improved.
I think the big thing is she is very cagey. She’s very good in an awful lot of things.
And the other thing is that she is the perfect television personality. I think she manages to transcend that screen, and as rich as she is and as powerful as she is, she can still give us the sense that we’re talking to her over the fence out in the backyard.
Very few people have been able to do that like she has. I think Walter Cronkite did it pretty well. I think Johnny Carson did it pretty well. I think Mr. Rogers did it pretty well for young people.
She really has that ability to deliver candor in a way that I can think of very few people now including political leaders who are able to do it.
JIM LEHRER: But you say she delivers candor and yet here is the most grievous example of a case where that was just the opposite.
ROBERT THOMPSON: Absolutely right. If she would have come out as soon as this story broke loaded for bear and said, you know, you betrayed your readers, you betrayed us, we showed this, we talked all about how it was helping people, and now I find out this is “say it ain’t so James Frey, why did you do this,” I think that would have been — she would have been fine.
The fact that she made that impulsive call to Larry King first and, in fact, gave him a pass on this, was completely against everything that she seems to stand for in her program which is shedding the light of truth on things, getting people to confess and be open about their relationships, their child abuse, whatever.
By giving him a pass on that, she had to backtrack and that looked kind of bad. I mean this would be like if you crashed the car on Saturday night, and your parents say well, you’ve been a good kid, we’re going to let this one go. And then suddenly on Wednesday they say we’ve changed our minds; you’re grounded for the rest of the year and give us back all your Christmas presents.
That tends to make the person doing that seem like a bully and the person who did the original sin actually seem kind of pathetic.
And I got to admit, that guy on the stage with his homina, homina, homina, and everything, you had to kind of feel a little sympathy for him.
He may not have needed Novocain when he had his wisdom teeth taken out; he sure looked like he needed Novocain when he was on that stage with Oprah.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. All right. Professor Thompson, thank you very much.