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.