About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Oprah and truth

I am no a professional Oprah-basher. On the contrary, I respect anybody who can build the kind of media and financial empire she has, especially beginning from the double disadvantage of being a woman and a minority. Nonetheless, it seems clear to me that whatever Oprah's good intentions toward her public, the woman has become a self-propaganda machine with little regard for ethics and how things really are.

As is well known by now, she got into trouble recently because of her endorsement of James Frey's book “A Million Little Pieces,” an allegedly autobiographical memoir that turned out to have been fabricated in many of its crucial details. Oprah, who had promoted Frey's book nationally through her TV book club (thereby catapulting Frey into best-selling status), defended the “essential truth” of his message on CNN's Larry King Live even after it was clear that the book was full of lies.

Finally, after relentless criticism from several quarters, and particularly by more than one New York Times columnist, Oprah went on television and attacked Frey (who was sitting nearby, apparently willing sacrificial lamb) while at the same time apologizing for her mistake to her viewers. She certainly did the right thing, but one cannot avoid the feeling that it was too much drama too late in the game. It seemed rather obvious that Oprah's move was little more than pandering to her public after she had been exposed for her cavalier attitude toward factual truth. Not only she should have denounced Frey months ago (as soon as serious questions about his book were raised by the investigative web site The Smoking Gun), but she should simply not have used phrases such as “the essential truth” in defense of Frey's lies.

What is the “essential” truth, anyhow? As opposed to what? The superficial truth? The today-it-is-but-tomorrow-may-not-be truth? If an author fabricates stories and sells them to the public as non-fiction, in what sense can one possibly find an essential truth in the deception? Of course one is free to communicate one's message through invented stories – there are plenty of worthy examples, from Jesus' parables to philosophical thought experiments, but one clearly labels them as stories (even fundamentalist Christians don't really think of Jesus' parables as recounting actual truths, though they do get confused when it comes to his alleged miracles).

After this debacle, it seems to me that Oprah either really doesn't value truth in the sense that most of us do – in which case she is insulting her audience by treating it as a bunch of children who need to believe in Santa to be saved -- or she knows better and she is simply cynically trying to save her empire from the consequences of a colossal embarrassment. Since she has repeatedly demonstrated herself to be an intelligent and savvy business woman, I have to opt for the latter answer. What a shame.


  1. Having been in the privileged position of hearing thousands of recovery stories- as well as telling my own- I have no sympathy whatsoever for Mr. Frey. Evidently all his stories of encounters with the police are false. He converted an "I suck" story into an "I'm a bad boy" story. He had to know the difference, and we all know why he did it.

    As for Oprah, it's not the first time! She is quite fond of using phrases like "I choose to believe" in this sort of situation. I would like to think she learned a permanent lesson here, but I doubt it.

    Interesting sidebar: Frey tried to defend himself by some mumbo-jumbo about "memoirs", recollections and standards of truth. Nonsense, of course. A memoir should be your best effort at recall. But I was wondering. What if he had used a pseudonym, or published anonymously? Not only would he have avoided being caught, but the line between fiction and non-fiction would have been blurred, perhaps enough to allow him the license he claimed. And the book would have retained its impact. Of course he would have had to give up his personal celebrity. Do you think it would still be immoral to "let people think" it was all true, so long as this wasn't explicitly stated?

  2. Ms. Palmerston is correct to place the blame on the con man. Yes, we women are equally responsible for the commitments we make. But this man just plainly saw the potential for the use of her notoriety to advance his interests. How can she be blamed for any of that?

    I believe Oprah means well and generally just wants to involve herself in activities that encourage people. That someone took advantage of her better nature, just shows what big jerk the guy was. What happened to Oprah could have happened to practically any one of us.

    It is fascinating to me how so many people in American culture (especially women) gravitate to people like Maratha Stewart and Oprah. I think it makes the point quite clear that our female and even male natures long for motherly women who do domestic sorts of activities, plus encourage and connect with people the way Oprah does. In the end, I suppose feminism has won a sort of booby prize in this regard. Some women now get paid (more than their worth, btw), to do the things many women use to do purely for the sake of love. But since our culture devalued the real thing, now it get the mechanistic substitute.



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