As a long time scholar of Oprah’s career, one of the most difficult moments came in 2006 after Oprah chose James Frey’s self-help drug addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces as her book club selection. At its peak, the book club was an unrivaled cultural phenomenon with each selection racing up the New York Times best-seller list, often to #1, and selling hundreds of thousands, if not millions of extra copies.
But the book club also bred resentment from elitists who may have subconsciously thought “How dare an overweight non-Ivy league dark skinned black woman who entertains housewives on daytime TV be the most important literary figure alive!”
For years critics had wished for a scandal to embarrass her & knock her of her high horse, & in 2006 it looked like they found one when it came to light that Frey had fabricated or embellished parts of memoir including the time he spent in prison.
At first Oprah stood by the author, saying that while parts of the memoir may be wrong, the spirit of the book was true, but the critics were having none of it. For the first time in a decade, Oprah found herself being attacked in the opinion pages of the major newspapers. Especially unrelenting was the omnipotent New York Times who had long been jealous that Oprah’s book’s club had usurped their review as the most influential literary force. Every day they would write another story about the Frey scandal and at one point they gave Oprah the Nixon treatment, asking “What did Oprah know and when did she know it?”
A dark day
I went to the internet to defend her, but the trolls were too many:
“This stupid woman never should have been on TV in the first place!” read one comment.
“Looks like someone made a monkey out of old Oprah,” read another.
At the time my coworkers were supposed to take me out for dinner to celebrate a promotion but I cancelled. I crawled into bed and pulled the covers over my head.
How could this have happened to the World’s biggest brained woman? Did I bet on the wrong horse? My whole life felt like one big waste of time.
And then I fell asleep as an ominous Thunder storm began roaring outside.
A new day
When I woke up, the sun shining as fresh air blew into my bedroom from the windows I forgot to close, and bird were chirping.
With great anxiety, I checked the internet.
Gone were all the nasty comments and vicious media coverage. They were replaced by people watching Oprah’s show in Chicago (where it had aired live that morning) and gushing:
“Oprah’s beating the living shit out of James Frey!”
“Oprah’s slaughtering Frey!”
The newspaper headlines were the same:
Oprah obliterates Frey
Queen of Alll Media Takes her Revenge
Oprah scolds Frey for betraying millions of readers
Even the New York Times was singing her praises!
What the hell happened I wondered? In an act of extraordinary genius, Oprah and her female staff had found a way to lure Frey and his publisher, the legendary New Yorker Nam Talese, onto her show as part of a panel discussing “Truth in America” but little did they know that they would be the sacraficial lambs.
Oprah walked Frey through every chapter of his book demanding he admit it was lies. At one point Oprah even got Frey to admit he had lied about his girlfriend hanging herself.
The studio audience moaned in agony
“Well one idea I had” Frey said, before Oprah cut him off. “That’s not an idea James, that’s a lie!”
“You conned us all!” she said, “you betrayed millions of readers”
“I’ve really been embarrassed by all this” Oprah kept saying, using a brilliant technique Chris Mathews calls Shining a Lantern on Your Problem.
Oprah then described a scene where Frey claimed to have had two root canals without novocaine. Frey claimed he wan’t sure.
“James that doesn’t make any sense,” said Oprah “that scene goes on in great detail for 2 or 3 pages and you say you had 2 root canals; so I ask again, were there 2 root canals?”
Frey was defeated. His beard mouth hanging open like dog shocked that its loving master had kicked it. Oprah seemed to see the pathetic face in the live TV monitor and knew her work was done. She cut to commercial, and brought out the publisher.
Oprah then lectured the elite publisher on the need for fact-checking and that the root canal story was an obvious red flag she should have caught.
Then Oprah invited elite columnists from the The New York Times and Washington Post onto the panel.
Richard Cohen praised Oprah for her courage in admitting she was wrong and course correcting and crowned her Mensch of the Year. Oprah insisted he say more, and which point Cohen began lecturing Talese to hire a fact checker! The publish turned bright red and when Oprah saw that the monitor had captured her humiliation too she cut to commercial.
Oprah ended the show by reading a quote from Michiko Kakutani about the importance of truth.
“I believe the truth matters” said Oprah as she furiously stormed off the set to thunderous applause, tossing Frey’s book for dramatic effect.
David Carr gushed: “By the time the program was over, she was surrounded by carnage, but she didn’t have a hair out of place. ”
Others gushed :”This was Old Testament Oprah! Making Frey burn in hell on live TV!”
Barbara Walters said “no one does the right thing all the time but Oprah does the right thing more often than anyone else.”
Packing a roughly 1900 cc brain size, Oprah had somehow turned the biggest scandal of her career into its biggest triumph.
“No one knows how to stage manage their image quite like Oprah,” said David Carr, “and I think her durability over time is that ability to stage manage”.
Another expert said “the sheer shrewdness of Oprah’s handling of the situation was reflected by the fact that her punishment of Frey, not her own judgement, became the story.”
I could hear my chemistry teacher’s definition of intelligence echoing in my mind:
The ability to adapt: To take whatever situation you’re in and turn it around to your advantage.
A few years later, publisher Nan Talese would eloquently lash out at Oprah in an attempt to save face.
Of course Oprah wouldn’t be Oprah if there wasn’t redemption. In the final season of her syndicated talk show, Oprah had Frey back on and apologized for being so tough on him and the two embraced.