Saturday, January 28, 2006

In Oprah We Trust

This column does not bear Oprah's gold seal. She does not heartily endorse this event or product. Her gold seal is only let to superior products worthy for her ravenous fan-base to consume.

Why don't I like Oprah? I guess I don't really have a problem with Oprah as much as the millions of people who watch her, idolize her, and erect her as high priestess of our culture.

This never struck me more as it did last week when Oprah did an about-face on former "book club" author James Frey who wrote a true life account of drug abuse, violence and redemption. The book "A Million Little Pieces" served as an inspiration for many and literally sold millions thanks to Oprah's inclusion in her book club. Unfortunately the book was a great work of fiction.

The Smoking Gun ( broke news that many of the "facts" or "scenes" in the book were highly questionable. Thousands sprang to Frey's defense, most notably Oprah herself on "Larry King Live". She declared, "What is relevant is that Frey was a drug addict..and stepped out of that history to be the man he is today, and to take that message to save other people." The whole controversy was dismissed as much to do about nothing.

No, what is relevant was that the book was fabricated. Lying about real life, and using that as a vehicle to sell millions of books, is not "nothing." The tide turned and Oprah had a change of heart. She invited Frey onto her show to discuss the allegations and the book. Oprah then opened up a salvo on the author who sat on the couch looking forlorn putting up a rope-a-dope style defense. Oprah told him that she felt "duped" after he admitted that he had fabricated most of the story.

Duped, like us all. Although for Oprah I doubt ratings have been much higher.

I don't expect Oprah to research every fact in every book she puts on her book club. It is certainly not her fault that this author stepped into a vacuum of satisfaction and delivered a product of fiction billed as truth that inspired millions. My issues with Oprah are not that her seal of approval on a book sends millions off to buy it and read it. My issues are not that Oprah has made millions of dollars of other people's need for clarity and inspiration. My issue is with the millions of people who seem to let Oprah do most of their heavy thinking for them.

I would hope that this example would caution people from just simply consuming what ever someone like Oprah puts in front of them. But it wont. In the wake of the Frey fallout, Oprah announced her latest monthly selection: Elie Wiesel's "Night", which was immediately vaulted to the top of the best-seller list. "Night" is a first-hand account of World War II Nazi death camps written from Wiesel's perspective as a Jewish child in those camps. And, unlike Frey's book, the accounts are true. The book has inspired millions and has indicted those perpetrate similar atrocities precisely because it is true. Wiesel has been a champion of human rights and has been awarded the Nobel Piece Prize.

I find it disheartening that such a wonderful and compelling book, by a true hero, needs Oprah's seal of approval before millions will read it. Now it bears her shiny gold stamp on the cover and apparently it is acceptable for the masses. And it will be consumed and digested like fast food, and then Oprah will announce her next book, and that will be consumed in the same way. The fact that people readily drew inspiration from "A Million Little Pieces" had as much to do with Oprah's blessing as it did from the fact that people feel these books should change them.

Perhaps you've heard of Pat's Law: Trust is the basis for failure. And the Frey debacle illustrated this for me. One minute he's a hero to millions of Oprah fans, and the next she is boxing his ears because he has misled everyone. My advice: figure out what you want to read for yourself. "Night" should have been on that list a long time ago. That book is greater than Oprah, her book club, or her fans.

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