John Leo

Of course Oprah took the side of veracity-challenged author James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces. She is in the feelings business, and you don’t succeed in her line of work by favoring facts over deeply felt but untrue stories. The tears that she and her staffers shed while reading Frey’s largely concocted tale of crime and addiction made the book important to her. When Frey appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live, Oprah made things worse by phoning in to say,  “the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me.” Apparently this meant that she was so moved by the book that she doesn’t care that it contains many untruths. Resonance makes lying defensible. 

    She has a lot of company. Bill Bastone, the talented investigative reporter whose web site, The Smoking Gun” broke the news about Frey, says 40 percent of email consists of “How dare you” messages defending Frey. Patti Davis, President Reagan’s daughter, expressed sympathy for Frey, and some bloggers have abandoned coherence in order to come down on Frey’s side (“ I believe that much of his fabrications are collective memories, splintered memories and probably recovered memories,” one wrote.) Various publishing types help justify the fraud by arguing that memoirs are never a hundred percent accurate and almost all autobiographies contain evasions and lies. Doubleday pointed to the “overall reading experience” of Frey’s work, which is probably better than saying, “It’s a pack of lies and you’ll love it.” In 1972 the writer Clifford Irving went to prison for creating and selling a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. Now Oprah and his publisher might defend him as an emotional truth teller.

    The willingness to accept “emotional truth,” even when packaged in lies, is hardly new. What’s new is that those who insist on factual truth are now on the defensive-pictured as fuddy-duddies who don’t understand that the self recognizes the highest truth in feelings. College speech codes have long been written in feelings language. Hurt feelings are evidence of an offense. These codes reflect, and reinforce, the rise of feelings over facts and standards. The emotional impact is what counts. Brown University, for instance, banned “verbal behavior” that “produces feelings of impotence, anger or disenfranchisement,’ whether, ‘intentional or unintentional.’” In other words, you can’t say anything that makes anybody feel really bad.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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