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2006-01-26 13:46
by Will Carroll

I'm not one for watching Oprah and I didn't see all of today's episode, but from the descriptions of what I missed and from the parts I saw, Oprah just killed James Frey. Not literally, but almost literally. The guy looked like he'd been beaten, that his internal martyr was getting a workout he hadn't expected, almost like a masochist who likes the pain then doesn't know what to do when it goes a step or ten too far. Frey had no safeword.

Frey, more than Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass, is an interesting case of fiction presented as fact and a case-study for the failings of modern journalism. Add in Novak, Miller, and BernsteinWoodward's involvement in the Plame case and the giants of the industry are having problems. I haven't read Frey's book, but Scott Long raved about it and I'm interested to hear his take on this.

For me, it's interesting in that fact-checking has always been a big part of my career. I'm not a trained journalist, instead learning on the fly and occasionally suffering for it. I make mistakes, no doubt -- Washington Grays, anyone? -- but always make an effort to both admit those mistakes and to be as transparent as possible about how that mistake was made.

I spoke yesterday at DePauw University and afterwards, the director of their Media Fellows program and I talked about the Rose article. While I still believe I had the story correct, my rawness as a journalist caused some obvious mistakes and we're talking about doing a case-study presentation of where those mistakes occurred and how to deal with the phenomenon of the writer becoming a part of the story in modern media. I'll keep you updated if that happens.

How Frey got past fact-checkers and passionate readers is beyond me. Over the last two years, I had two stories relating to steroids that got checked, double-checked, triple-checked, and then checked again by another set of eyes. My "Dr. X" excerpt from "The Juice" not only made it past the test of my publisher and attorneys, but before Sports Illustrated ran the piece, I talked to no less than three people who closely checked the story. It was a hard process, due to the protected identity of my source, but I understood their job and, in the end, truth is truth.

Another piece, offered to a major newspaper regarding some facts of a steroid positive, did not make it past the fact-checking stage. I had a single, important source that wouldn't publicly discuss the fact shared with me to an editor due to the source's concerns for anonymity and in the end, the piece never ran. Could I run it here, where I don't have an editor or fact-checkers? Sure, but I seldom if ever consider that. At BP, I'm lucky to have Joe Sheehan pushing me for my best work. My two books have come out with Ivan Dee as both editor and publisher and his work has made me look good.

I even address this type of topic in my piece for this year's Rotowire Baseball Season Preview magazine. My article is about how to "read" rumors for a fantasy advantage, but at the heart of it, it tells the inner-workings of what Peter Gammons and Ken Rosenthal do so well. I'm not sure when that hits newsstands or the big stage of Wal-Mart's magazine rack, but I've seen a couple previews already out, so keep your eyes open.

So how did something hit the best-seller lists and make it to the massive stage of Oprah without the fact-checking kicking in? I don't know. That story probably won't sell as well as Frey's book, but may be even more interesting.

2006-01-26 14:24:30
1.   Daniel Zappala
Frey's books are both amazing. I have followed the Smoking Gun revelations and have been giving Frey the benefit of the doubt -- in the sense that the particulars of his jail time could have been made up, but his experiences in recovery, the extent to which he was messed up, and how he got better, were real. I haven't seen the latest Oprah, and forgot to Tivo it, but I sure hope his recovery message is still valid because it is incredibly powerful and moving.
2006-01-26 14:38:56
2.   Daniel Zappala
Another interesting point -- do we expect books to be fact-checked in the same way as products of the news media? This is a quote from Ashbel Green, a senior editor at Alfred A. Knopf, from the story on this:

"At The New Yorker and Time and Newsweek, you have experienced people who know where to go and what's right and what's wrong. We don't. There's been a traditional dependency on the author."

2006-01-26 15:00:23
3.   Another Tom
Someone clue me in on this controversy. I understand the basics and all. But what confuses me is: Does this relevation make the book less enjoyable? We're talking about a piece of literature. Whether or not it's a true autobiography or one of those movies made "Based on Actual Events" shouldn't change whether or not you enjoyed the book. The reason you read the book is for enjoyment. If it is true or not it doesn't adversely affect your life in any way. You should get the same enjoyment out of it.

Our literary history (both fiction and non-fiction) is filled with "psuedo-truths." Did Lincoln free the slaves? Did Washington cut down apple trees? Sorta. Kinda. Maybe.

Maybe I'm way off base, but I think this is only a big deal because Oprah feels duped. Other than that, who cares. Do people really feel cheated that they were reading a semi-fiction? Frey's book simply deserves a different Dewey Decimal Number, not a lambasting.

2006-01-26 16:06:59
4.   deadteddy8
3 - (Disclaimer: I haven't read the book...) Whether this book is "based on real events" or "this is what happened" is very important because it has affected how a lot of people in the US think of drug abuse and recovery. I think we can all agree that there's a difference between the truth presented in fiction and the truth presented in non-fiction; we read the two forms differently. If someone wrote a book titled "We Can Save The Pitcher", only loosely based on real research, but not following actual research, and instead embellished details about everything from ideal drive line, to stretching, to double spin mechanics, that would be irresponsible and dangerous to pitchers' health, not just because he was wrong, but because he knew there was a more precise truth, he altered it, and passed off his altered truth as the precise truth just because he thought it could sell more books. ran a column addressing that issue in which the author pointed out that Frey advocated a macho, bootstrap, method of recovery and mocked others for their supposed weakness in the face of their addictions, when a sober, humbling, unflinching, look at his own problems might have saved him all the grief he's getting now.


2006-01-26 16:59:42
5.   Another Tom
I haven't read the book either. I understand the issue and the example of Saving the Pitcher is a good example. But it's a book. It's not a newspaper article that theoretically is "news" and should be accurate. There are a million books that Lee Harvey was the lone gunman, or Hitler is still alive in Argentina or we never landed on the moon (that one I believe) that purport to tell the "truth". It's the truth as they see it.

If it's a piece of literature then it should not matter if some of the events were fabricated. If the uproar is because of how he dealt with recovery and that may mislead some people who are in recovery, well, that should be up to the reader, shouldn't it? There are tons of books on how to cure cancer by eating tree bark or get rid of your arthritis by drinking sloth urine. Tom Woo is in prison and he wrote a book that many people followed. Lots of books about not paying the IRS schemes land followers in jail.

When I was in law school I wrote a law review article regarding a book entitled: How to Be a Hitman by Paladin Publishing. It was basically a manual of how to kill people and get away with it. Freedom of speech is an amazing thing.

I will reiterate my thesis: This is only a big deal because Oprah got duped.

2006-01-26 17:23:46
6.   TFD
"how frey got past the fact checkers is beyond me"

Will, we're talking here about a published book, here. This isn't a 5,000 word essay in the NYorker or The Atlantic. There really aren't any fact checkers, per se. Sure there are some minimally, but publishers want to publish a book; and the standards are MUCH less strict in the book world.

Jack Shafer did a great article or two on this comparison...I'm sure you could find through google.

2006-01-26 17:27:51
7.   jgpyke
The problem is that Frey is a nancy boy of privilege who pretended he was a thug. He spent two hours in jail for open container, not the crack-fueled meleee with cops that he claimed. What a weenie.

When did I know he was lying? When I found out he graduated in four years (from Denison). No one I know who was even half as messed up as he claimed to be, finished school on time. No one.

2006-01-26 18:05:18
8.   Linkmeister
"Bernstein's involvement in the Plame case."

Woodward, not Bernstein.

2006-01-26 20:36:35
9.   Will Carroll
Crap! I always reverse Woodward and Bernstein, much as I always screw up the word "their." I ALWAYS type it as thieir for no apparent reason.
2006-01-27 07:22:52
10.   Tom
I didn't read the book, but I did read the Smoking Gun article. It's my understanding that Frey first tried to sell the book as fiction and it wasn't picked up. Then, he retooled it to be a memoir.

The Smoking Gun article makes it sound like he wrote a novel with a character called James Frey, and then pretended that all of those events happened to him. His story was compelling, largely, because it happened to a real person, not because it was an independently great work of literature.

2006-01-27 12:44:52
12.   Scott Long
I've been largely silent on the constant barage from this "your editor" character, but I can't go silent anymore. Dude, your story is getting tired. You've made your point on the same 2 or 3 subjects, time after time.

When you are in the business of reporting the scuttlebutt from the baseball world, you are going to be proven wrong occasionally. It happens to Gammons, Rosenthal, and the countless others who ply their trade in this field. Guess what, it will happen to Will again, but that won't mean that he put it out there because he made it up. I would put Will's batting average up against anyone else in his field.

Will and I have a different point of view about comment sections. He prefers to have people send him emails and hash it out there, while I like how the public forum can inspire larger discussion. My big problem with comments are when people hide behind a moniker and slam away. Show some f---ing balls is my motto, if you want to have a flame war.

I come from the world of stand-up comedy where if I get a heckler, I can see their face and respond to them personally. We try to not censor anyone here, unless there are really ugly personal stuff being flung about. We continue to let your editor post his redundant rants, because we don't want to suppress dissent, but bruce almighty, it really has gotten to be boring.

If you want to gain any respect for your diatribes, come up with some new material and take off the mask, nancy boy.


2006-01-27 15:48:27
14.   Will Carroll
Since Your Editor refuses to come out of his hiding, I'll blast from here:

I defy you to find anyone that admits his mistakes like I do. If you read the friggin' post, you'll see I mention the Grays mistake. I've explained before how I got that one wrong.

Do I miss things? Yes. Do I admit to it? Yes. As for what's right ... jeez, you have to be kidding me. Slander from anonymity is cowardice. "Proclaimed himself the internet?" That doesn't even make sense.

I have NEVER admitted that I made up anything, nor would there be anything to admit. Your quote in support of the statement is out of context as well. The player I "made up" was, in fact, changed by only ONE single fact, something I made extremely clear in both the introduction and the chapter due to his need for anonymity.

Your Editor, I'm done with you. You have my email. That's the proper forum for this.

2006-01-27 15:52:52
15.   deadteddy8
13 - Where to begin? I don't speak for Will or Scott, but I feel compelled to respond...

To me, your post sounds like selective memory at work, since wide misfires stick out more than general accuracy. Scott's point about Gammons's and other top writers' reporting is spot on. I can tell you right now, and I don't know Will Carroll personally at all, that the evidence from his online body of work indicates that he both scours newspapers and mines sources beyond team mouthpieces. Exhibit A, a memorable scoop, was his proclamation that Byron Leftwich would be ready for Week 17 this season when everyone else in the world thought he was done for most of the playoffs. That case also illustrated what I think Carroll's primary contribution to sports writing is, a "language for the masses" translation of sports injuries and other medical issues. As I recall from that Black and Blue Report on, he explained in simple language WHY Leftwich would be back, which was two steps beyond what most other football writers were providing about the situation. And as for the one quote/specific piece of evidence you provide, "generating content" has nothing to do with "making shit up". If you're gonna challenge someone on their site, you better really bring it and/or at least do it in a respectful way that conveys that you're trying to help them improve. It helps no one to just fling snark.


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