Blogs > Liberty and Power > Oprah Shocked Shocked

Jan 29, 2006 6:45 am

Oprah Shocked Shocked

Normally I do not watch the Oprah Winfrey show, however, last week's well deserved public humiliation of author James Frey proved too interesting to pass up. Frey wrote a book, A Million Little Pieces, that was featured and promoted on the Oprah Winfrey program. The supposed factual memoir of someone engaged in long term drug abuse and recovery contains phrases such as " covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood." The work features many anecdotes that some would call compelling but others sensationalistic.

All was well, with Mr. Frey on his way to fame and fortune and Oprah’s place as keeper of the literary gate secure, until The Smoking Gun pointed out that the gripping anecdotes that so inspired Ms Winfrey were products of the author’s imagination not his experience. Thus controversy began and Oprah ended up defending her author with a phone call to the Larry King show. To many she seemed to be arguing that maybe the truth was not so important on balance. Backlash generated by her position necessitated a trip to the woodshed for Frey.

Watching Oprah’s indignant questioning of the fabricating Frey brought to me a strong recollection of a scene from the movie Casablanca. In it German Major Strasser has just told the French Police Captain to close Rick’s Cafe’. When Bogart asks why, Louie replies that he is shocked shocked to find out that gambling is taking place on the premises. A few seconds later the croupier gives the Captain his winnings.

Oprah should not be surprised that Frey’s memoir of drug use played fast and loose with the truth, after all he is heir to a long literary tradition. This popular genre of sensationalistic exaggeration and outright lies began in 1822 with Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The subject shortly turned to hashish and there is a superb chapter in Lester Grinspoon’s work Marihuana Reconsidered which demonstrates that the breathtaking descriptions of 19th century cannabis use were not only essentially distortions but also destructive in that they formed the foundation for the crazed marihuana killer myth used to legislate the drug’s prohibition in the 1930s.

Also, while I do not watch her show on a regular basis, I have seen it enough times to have formed the opinion that Oprah Winfrey is not above exploiting the war on people who use certain kinds of drugs to get ratings. She once treated her audience to a tearful confession of personal cocaine experience proving that use of that drug is no real impediment to becoming multimedia billionaire.

Certainly, Winfrey is not being denied her winnings because of the book’s false character. Frey’s look of misery and desperation during his dressing-down before the cameras had to have had a large audience, they got me to tune in, and media experts are calling the episode a brilliant defense of her brand name. She is in the news and that is usually good when you are in show business.

Only a few malcontents like me are going to suggest that if Winfrey really wanted to make up for endorsing a false picture of drug use that helps to legitimize repression, her book club would soon feature a far more truthful work about drug use such as Thomas Szasz’s Ceremonial Chemistry, Jeff Schaler’s Addiction is a Choice, Arnold Trebach’s The Great Drug War, or Jacob Sullum’s Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use.

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Sheldon Richman - 1/30/2006

Not to mention that she would be sued (maybe successfully) if a drug-user died after allegedly seeing the program or hearing that Oprah "endorsed" drug use.

Lisa Casanova - 1/29/2006

I think it would be great if Oprah actually had one of the books you mention in her book club. Unfortunately, most people don't make much of a distinction between "Maybe drug use is not the worst thing anybody could do" and "Drug use is great and everybody should be doing it!" I can imagine even someone with as much media clout as Oprah not wanting the headache of all kinds of nasty publicity claiming she's "promoting" drug use and encouraging impressionable children all across America to do drugs, which is probably what she'd be accused of if she had a show suggesting drugs have anything but terrible consequences.