Oprah Winfrey, James Frey and public truth

How to explain the abdication of authenticity by writers, editors and publishers?

Edward R. Murrow 298.88 (photo credit: )
Edward R. Murrow 298.88
(photo credit: )
Fifty-one years ago Edward R. Murrow devoted two episodes of his television show See It Now to taking on senator Joseph McCarthy, the reigning demagogue of Red-baiting. One of the segments examined a typical example of McCarthy's method, his smear of a thoroughly loyal Air Force reservist as a security risk. In the subsequent show Murrow let the senator speak without questions or interruption, an occasion McCarthy used to lob allegations of Communist influence at the newsman himself. By the time the drama was over, Murrow had not only contributed to McCarthy's demise but helped to restore a certain standard of public truth. The recent soap opera involving Oprah Winfrey, James Frey and the sort-of memoir A Million Little Pieces appears on first inspection to be a pallid sequel of minimal consequence. Unlike Murrow, who had proven his mettle as a radio correspondent during World War II, Winfrey is not a journalist but an entertainer, albeit one with a welcome respect for literature. Frey is not an elected member of Congress with subpoena power over the entire citizenry but a writer barely known before Oprah selected his account of drug addiction and recovery for her televised book club. Several weeks after an investigative Web site named thesmokinggun.com first revealed the exaggerations and inventions in Frey's supposedly non-fiction book, Winfrey hauled him before a national audience to wring out the admission that he had lied both to make his book more commercial and to manufacture a macho image for himself. "Betrayal" is the word she used. YET THE underlying issue in the Frey incident is actually identical to that in Murrow's expose of McCarthy. Again, the issue is one of public truth. And it is a bad day for public truth when the duty of defending it falls to a talk-show hostess. Murrow remains a venerated figure in the liberal pantheon, most recently extolled in George Clooney's Oscar-nominated movie Good Night, and Good Luck, because McCarthy violated public truth on behalf of a fanatical right-wing cause. To defend public truth in the McCarthy era was to stand against the reactionaries and with the progressives, where any sensible person naturally would want to be. With James Frey the positions have been nearly reversed. Frey's greatest protectors came from the publishing industry and the literary community, two redoubts of liberal sentiment. At one level, both the author and his publisher were simply seeking a lot of money - by recasting what had originally been conceived as an autobiographical novel into the more commercial category of memoir, and by leaving in the lurid, fictional details that fit into the lucrative saga of degradation and rehab. More broadly, though, Frey's apologists argued that the truth of his experience did not matter. What mattered was his idea of what the truth was. The political satirist Stephen Colbert has dubbed this quality "truthiness." IN EXPLAINING away Frey's deception, publishing people and literary critics have portrayed memoir as being some special zone, distinct from other forms of non-fiction, the only place where normal ethics can be suspended. Yet authors of biographies, true crime, and social history - from Edmund Morris (Dutch) to John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) to Joe McGinnis (The Last Brother) - have availed themselves of similar freedom from factuality. While McGinnis's reputation did suffer, Morris and Berendt have gone on untarnished, as if their having made up material in one book need not cast the slightest doubt on the veracity of everything else they write. More than commercial considerations and editorial laziness, you see, explains the abdication of truth by writers, editors and publishers, who ought to be its fiercest protectors. While the publishing industry has one foot in corporate capitalism, it has the other in the academy. So publishing has been inevitably influenced by the cluster of literary and historical theories that fall under the umbrella term "deconstructionism." In deconstructionist doctrine, no such things as truth or factuality exist; all accounts of non-fiction are, in fact, "social constructions," reflecting not a good-faith effort to describe reality but the biases of their authors. All such narratives, deconstructionists argue, are shaped by the oppressor to subjugate the oppressed. So if "truth" is merely a tool of tyranny, who needs it anyway? THE ATTACK on truth increasingly pervades American journalism as well. Critics from both the Right and the Left assail the "MSM" - dismissive shorthand for the "mainstream media." One flank accuses the MSM of being quislings during wartime, the other accuses it of blindly endorsing Bush aggression, and both agree there is no such thing as a professional, nonpartisan media. The rise of Fox News Channel, with its sneering, ironic slogan "fair and balanced," signals a shift in American journalism toward the Western European model of news organizations inextricably tied to political and ideological movements. Yes, even Rupert Murdoch is a deconstructionist now. Back in the late 1980s, before he reinvented himself as a mainstream politician, the Rev. Al Sharpton took on the case of a black teenager named Tawana Brawley, who had been found in a wooded area near her home covered with dog feces and claiming to have been raped. Though every bit of evidence pointed to the fact that Brawley had not been sexually assaulted and had desecrated herself, probably to escape punishment from her parents for violating a household curfew, Sharpton persisted in accusing a white district attorney of having attacked the girl. (The prosecutor later won a defamation lawsuit against Sharpton.) All that mattered, to Sharpton and his many followers, was that the crackpot theory resonated with a communal racial history of black humiliation at the hands of powerful whites. The fiction was truer than truth. Or, to put it more accurately, the fiction offered more of a palliative than "terrible honesty," to use the historian Anne Douglas's phrase. Not previously known as a literary scholar, Sharpton has proven himself a world-class deconstructionist. YET TRUTH isn't just what the teller wants to be true, or thinks should be true in an ideal world. Joseph McCarthy no doubt wanted all of those he falsely accused to actually have been guilty because their guilt would have confirmed his world view. George W. Bush no doubt wanted Iraq to have been trying to acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger because that effort would have confirmed the president's world view. James Frey needed to believe his own concoctions - three months in jail, a root-canal operation without anesthesia - to believe he had passed through a crucible of redemptive suffering. So the assault against public truth should have no politics. There should be nothing either liberal or conservative, enlightened or benighted, about believing that non-fiction must make every effort at accuracy, documentation and transparency. When Oprah Winfrey's middlebrow viewers, the genuine vox populi, revolted against Frey's lies, they taught the chattering classes of America a lesson. The writer, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, contributes regularly to The Jerusalem Post. He is the author of five books, most recently Who She Was: My Search For My Mother's Life.