Like everyone else, I squirmed in my sofa watching Oprah lambast James Frey yesterday. Ms. Winfrey felt "duped" by the shady author, and yesterday we watched one of the most influential brands in American culture flex its muscle, bringing down the guy she had almost singlehandeldly made famous. Such is the power of Oprah. Ouch!
This sordid tale reveals a lot about our culture. Following Oprah's initial breathless praise for the book, a nation lapped up Frey's memoir, singalling a collective longing for a really good story. And especially a story about "redemption" and all of the other feel-good pop-psychology Dr. Philisms. But as much as they public wants a good story, book sales have been flat for years: people don't want to read fiction, that's not the appropriate vehicle these days for telling the best stories, it seems. People long for "the truth", and not the dramatized reality-TV version; they want the real thing. The more real the better. Of course, Mr. Frey and his publishers obscured the fact, likely sensing that throwing in caveat's about writer embellishments, as one might expect in a memoir as opposed to, say, an autobiography, would take the wind out of the sails of the overwhelming publicity initiated by Oprah.
But like any great brand, Oprah, despite initially defending James Frey, listened carefully to her fans and acted swiftly to publicly condem him, thus restoring her place on the side of all that is good and "true". The question for me though, is: who is the "real" Oprah, and what values are the most important for her as a brand? Is it the sympathetic Oprah, going out on a limb and emphatically stressing that the central message of the book (redemption) should not be eclipsed by the fibs, or is Oprah managing her brand more carefully by making sure she says the right thing at the right time to the right people, giving in to the groundswell of criticism of Frey and taking the high road? Maybe we'll find out in her memoir.