After years of going out of my way to avoid it, I recently found myself watching CNN. Turmoil in the Middle East appeared to be reaching unprecedented heights. High-level U.S. officials were being accused and indicted for all sorts of riff raff. Apparently, President George W. Bush was personally listening in on my phone calls and snickering maniacally.
When I turned on the television a few weeks ago, however, none of this was being covered at length. No, something far more serious than international unrest and political scandals was going down. Some dude exaggerated some key facts in a book about himself.
It turns out that when James Frey wrote his “memoir” A Million Little Pieces, he stretched the truth in a big way. After months of denying charges brought by the muckraking Web site the Smoking Gun that details of events that supposedly took place in James Frey’s drug-addicted and embattled life were grossly exaggerated. Given that the book, which Oprah had herself given much credit, was marketed as a factual memoir of Frey’s life, the charges were indeed serious.
After weeks of denying the charges of being a liar, Frey admitted on the Oprah Winfrey Show that he did embellish and Oprah publicly scolded him. The major news media exploded with excitement and nearly around-the-clock coverage commenced.
How hard will the publishing industry be hit by Frey-gate?
Will publishers need to start hiring fact-checkers?
What does Tucker Carlson think?
Is literary Armageddon upon us?
Panels of pundits fired back and forth about Frey’s evil deed. Flipping from network to network, the picture was roughly the same.
I fail to see what the commotion is all about; or rather, why the volume of the commotion is so ear-piercing. Frey’s dishonesty is important, but it’s not this important. In 2003, when New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was discovered to have plagiarized stories, faked quotes and concocted entire interviews, the journalism world shuttered, and rightly so. The function of the journalist is to inform the public about real events in as objective of a fashion as possible, using reliable sources and solid research methods. Blair dealt a devastating blow to the integrity of the profession that is supposed to inform the public and keep government, business and others in check.
James Frey is not Jayson Blair.
After all, A Million Little Pieces is not a work of journalism. It’s not a scientific study. It’s a book meant for entertainment. And it’s not a bad read, either.
The Smoking Gun article, “A Million Little Lies,” challenged several aspects of Frey’s account on factual grounds based on police reports, court dockets and other records, finding his story to be quite at odds with the factual record. For instance, Frey had interjected himself at the scene of a deadly train wreck, contrary to police reports and the memories of everybody else involved in the incident. The truth of several other dramatic and drug-fueled incidents were stretched as well, sometimes almost to the breaking point.
The Smoking Gun should be applauded for a piece of investigative journalism at its most dogged. James Frey should have been straightforward about the contents of his book from the outset. Maybe the book could have been marketed differently. But the fact that the major news media is treating this like the next Watergate scandal says a lot about the priorities and practices of broadcast journalism in the 21st century. What it says is not terribly flattering.
The mainstream news media do deserve some credit. They did a stellar job of holding this one author to account for dishonesty. Now, if we could kindly move on to politicians, business leaders and the executive branch of the federal government, that would be great.
John Paul Titlow can be reached at email@example.com.