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
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.