Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Too Late for Oprah To Be Ethical

There’s no denying it: Oprah Winfrey is slick. Her deft change of strategy regarding James Frey’s fraudulent “memoir” A Million Little Pieces was, as Variety would say, “boffo,” and has the same media critics that had joined The Ethics Scoreboard in calling Winfrey an “ethics dunce” actually hailing her “courage.” So Oprah has escaped this fiasco with more publicity, enhanced prestige, and a burnished reputation for integrity, not to mention a show that everyone is talking about, almost as much as when she gave all of her audience free cars. Yup, she’s slick all right.

Not that it will pain her any, but the Scoreboard’s applause will be limited to the sound of one hand clapping. There is much blather in our culture about the power of apology, but when an apology is dictated by one’s public relations staff, it is less apology than damage control. When Frey’s memoir was thoroughly and convincingly shown to be a pack of lies by the website “The Smoking Gun,” Winfrey’s response was to call Larry King’s show on the air and call the controversy “much ado about nothing.” What happened to change her mind in the two weeks following her argument that what really mattered was not the dubious truth of Frey’s supposedly non-fiction book, but that his story inspired its readers?

This is what changed: it didn’t work. Oprah’s refusal to take responsibility for her misjudgement of the book and its author backfired. She was slammed from the left, right and center, by Tucker Carlson and Richard Cohen and Maureen Dowd and everyone in between for promoting a fraud and then arguing that it didn’t matter as long as it “resonated.” Recognizing that the controversy wasn’t going away, and that it threatened to permanently stain her reputation, Oprah turned on a dime. She hauled in Frey and excoriated him; she invited two of the columnists who had attacked her in the most vociferous terms to repeat their charges on the air, and received in return their predictable praise for her good sense and courage. She pronounced herself embarrassed and betrayed (poor Oprah!) and confessed that she made a mistake (but then, don’t we all?) But when Frey, who looked as if he was contemplating a leap from the Sears Tower, described his misrepresentations as ‘mistakes,” Oprah was on him like a Doberman. “Do you mean you lied, or did you make mistakes?” she barked. He agreed that he lied. And Oprah had said that his lies didn’t matterÂ…but she was making a mistake.

There’s no trick to doing the right thing when you have no other options. One commentator who showed surprising spunk was that old softball specialist himself, Larry King, who in several on-air interviews with other talking heads made the observation that Oprah had no choice but to fall on her sword. “Do I think she would have done all this if the whole thing had blown over?” King asked himself.


In other words, Oprah would have been perfectly happy to stand for the proposition that the truth doesn’t matter, if she could have gotten away with it. King is right.

During his unsuccessful quest for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator John McCain campaigned for the crucial South Carolina primary by pandering to the state’s right wing with a fervent defense of its affection for the Confederate flag. After he lost the primary, he announced that upon reflection he had been wrong to take that position; the flag was offensive to black Americans, and he apologized for endorsing it. The political pundits, who love McCain almost as much as entertainment pundits idolize Oprah, called his apology courageous. It was not; it was simply prudent. McCain would have been courageous if he had actively opposed the flag in South Carolina knowing that his position would lose him votes. He “did the right thing” only when he had nothing to lose . It was better than doing the wrong thing, or doing nothing, but his conduct didn’t deserve any special praise.

Neither does Oprah’s. When she had an opportunity to show that she rejected dishonesty and was willing to take responsibility for her unwitting part in Frey’s literary scam before public opinion backed her into a corner, she didn’t take it. Her about-face now shows that she knows how to handle a public relations crisis, but tells us nothing about her ethics. Her initial reaction did.

There may be many chances to do the right thing, but sometimes there is only one chance to be ethical.

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