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TODAY

Sunday, November 19

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Airbags

On my way home for the holidays last month, I browsed in an airport bookstore looking for a book to read on the plane. I picked up Oprah Winfrey's Book Club selection A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. I had heard about this "shocking true story about his battle with addiction and his gut-wrenching journey to recovery." The rawness of his struggle was so harsh and real that readers were haunted for days afterward. I flipped to the first page.

I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut. I open them and I look around and I'm in the back of a plane and there's no one near me. I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood. I reach for the call button and I find it and I push it and I wait and thirty seconds later an Attendant arrives. How can I help you?

Where am I going?

You don't know?

No.

You're going to Chicago, Sir.

How did I get here?

A Doctor and two men brought you on.

They say anything?

They talked to the Captain, Sir. We were told to let you sleep.

How long till we land?

About twenty minutes.

Thank you.

Although I never look up, I know she smiles and feels sorry for me. She shouldn't.

"Bullshit," was my immediate reaction. There's no way someone in such a state would be allowed on a public flight (Frey mentions other "Passengers" a few lines later). Wasn't this supposed to be a memoir, which should be based in truth? Also, I dislike that sparse writing style that uses seemingly random Capitalization to Emphasize nonexistent Importance — see what I just did there? — and refuses to follow proper punctuation and grammar rules. I put the book back on the shelf and promptly forgot about it.

Now, however, one can hardly escape recent coverage and revelation that, in fact, Frey's story was less an actual autobiography and more of an elaborate exaggeration relabeled as a memoir to boost sales. After weeks of investigating, The Smoking Gun website posted its 9,500-word exposé on Frey on January 8 with the provocative subhead "The Man Who Conned Oprah." Ouch. The extensive research proved that Frey padded his book by embellishing details of his Criminal (his caps, of course) past, claiming he underwent dental surgery without anesthesia, loved a now-dead addict named Lilly, and appropriated the sad tale of two dead teenage girls to explain his apparent Fury at the world in general. None of this would even matter that much had Frey or his editors run a standard disclaimer anywhere in the book. But they didn't.

Frey first intended to sue TSG. However, when he realized that the Court-TV–owned site had all its ducks in a row, Frey went on Larry King Live, with his mother at his side, to address the issue. As Frey deftly fielded softball questions from King without once admitting that he was sorry ("I still stand by the essential truths of the book"), who should call into the show but Oprah. What would she say? Would she stand by the man who inspired thousands to forgo sanctioned self-help addiction programs to go it alone, or would she throw him to the wolves?

WINFREY: As [Frey] said, he's had many conversations with my producers, who do fully support him and obviously we support the book because we recognize that there have been thousands and hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been changed by this book.

So the truth is this. I read and recommend books based on my connection with the written word and its message. And, of course, I am disappointed by this controversy surrounding "A Million Little Pieces," because I rely on the publishers to define the category that a book falls within and also the authenticity of the work....

Whether or not the cars' wheels rolled up on the sidewalk or whether he hit the police officer or didn't hit the police officer is irrelevant to me. What is relevant is that he was a drug addict who spent years in turmoil, from the time he was 10 years old, drinking and — and tormenting himself and his parents.

Publisher Nan Talese refuted Frey's claim that he initially shopped A Million Little Pieces as a novel as just another one of his many lies. By blaming the publishers rather than the author, Oprah both saved face and gave Frey an undeserved out. What else could Oprah do? If she denounced Frey, it would damage her reputation and taint her publicly as a fool. And Oprah's no fool.

In this Information Age, several popular shows on television are "reality" series: America's Next Top Model, Survivor, The Amazing Race, Project Runway. But recent articles and admissions from writers, TV editors and contestants alike have shined a spotlight on what goes on behind the scenes. During its brief existence, Radar magazine published an article focusing on "frankenbyting," or the practice of deliberately using actual footage to construct false scenes and scenarios. The casting process for The Apprentice and Survivor includes several rounds of interviews as well as psychological evaluations. However, contestants are often chosen for their strong personalities and potential to either rage against the machine or break down completely. That's what they call "good TV." Even the feel-good juggernaut Extreme Makeover: Home Edition hasn't escaped the backlash. Five orphans sued ABC, claimed that the network coerced them into participating in the show and now no longer live in the dream house that was built for the people that took them in.

How much truthiness (full credit to Steven Colbert, else I be publicly chastised for not doing so) should be expected from authors and those participating in or "creating" "real" stories for the mass media? Who is responsible for verifying the accuracy of these tales — the publishers or producers, the participants, or the audience itself? If "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," then most of this is just plain fugly. What's a person to do? To quote James Frey's mantra, which he undoubtedly stole from Wilson Phillips: "Hold on." And try not to believe everything you read and watch while you're at it.

(For those of you wondering about my final selection at the airport, I chose Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer instead. It's a fascinating nonfiction book — no, really — about murder, fundamentalism and the history of the Mormon church. I highly recommend it.)

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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