In a sudden about-face broadcast on national television, Oprah Winfrey castigated author James Frey yesterday on her show for fabricating parts of A Million Little Pieces, ostensibly a memoir of his drug addiction. The book has sold more than 3 million copies, largely on the strength of Winfrey's book club recommendation.
"I really feel duped," she told Frey, whose previous appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show was full of acclamation for his work. "I've been in television since I was 19 years old, and I have never been in this position."
The show aired just weeks after the Smoking Gun Web site exposed inaccuracies that riddled Frey's book and prompted a national debate about the importance of truth in memoirs and the responsibilities of publishers and authors to readers.
Initially broadcast live from Chicago yesterday morning and later on affiliates nationally, the episode had within hours set blogs and online chat rooms abuzz. At times, the show became high drama as a clearly angry Winfrey grilled Frey and his publisher, Nan A. Talese, about how fabrications and embellishments had gone unquestioned during the editing process.
Gawker.com, a gossip and commentary Web site, which sent a blogger to Winfrey's studio for the broadcast, wrote later: "We are, of course, completely in awe of the whole thing. Best. Television. Ever."
Winfrey's turnaround follows a sea of criticism not only of Frey, but also of the talk-show host herself, who has made an industry out of publicly supporting authors.
She had harmed her cause by calling CNN's Larry King during his Jan. 11 show, which focused on the controversy, saying the clamor over Frey's distortions was "much ado about nothing."
"The underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me," she told King, "and I know that it resonates with millions of other people."
At one point yesterday, Winfrey said, "This has been very embarrassing to me."
In addition to a contrite Frey, Winfrey's show featured columnists Frank Rich of The New York Times and Richard Cohen of The Washington Post, both of whom had been critical of Winfrey and the author. Earlier, Cohen had called Winfrey "not only wrong, but deluded."
On the show, Cohen said that a "fact checker would have found out in a half an hour that some of this book didn't work because the book doesn't pass the smell test."
Winfrey zeroed in on Frey: "I trusted you and believed you."
Referring to her defense of the author on King's program, Winfrey said, "I regret that phone call."
"I left the impression that the truth does not matter," she said. "And I am deeply sorry about that because that is not what I believe."
For months, Frey had stood staunchly by his harrowing account, saying that he had changed only a few people's identities in the book to protect them, and that only 5 percent of his story was in dispute -- an amount he deemed appropriate for a memoir. But yesterday, Frey admitted he had lied repeatedly in A Million Little Pieces, which was published in 2003 by Talese's imprint at Doubleday, and was one of the best-selling books of 2005. Its sequel, My Friend Leonard, is also selling briskly.
After a series of Internet rumblings about Frey's veracity -- especially from people who disputed his traumatic account of life in a rehab center -- the Smoking Gun published on Jan. 8 the results of a lengthy investigation into A Million Little Pieces. The writers of the piece said the 36-year-old author had "wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw `wanted in three states.'"
"Oprah Winfrey's been had," the first line of the Smoking Gun story said.
A key part of Frey's odyssey was an 87-day stint in jail, which he admitted yesterday amounted only, in fact, to a matter of hours.
"In addition to these rap sheet creations, Frey also invented a role for himself in a deadly train accident that cost the lives of two female high school students," the Smoking Gun said. "In what may be his book's most crass flight from reality, Frey remarkably appropriates and manipulates details of the incident so he can falsely portray himself as the tragedy's third victim."
In an Oct. 26 appearance on Winfrey's show, which was advertised with the title "The Man Who Kept Oprah Awake at Night," Frey boasted that he was "a bad guy."
"If I was gonna write a book that was true, and I was gonna write a book that was honest, then I was gonna have to write about myself in very, very negative ways," Frey said.
Yesterday, he was more humble.
"I think I made a lot of mistakes in writing the book and, you know, promoting the book," he said. A few minutes later, he said, "I feel like I came here and I have been honest with you."
The controversy over Frey's book has raised questions about Winfrey's judgment, particularly as she is widely perceived to be knowledgeable about literary matters. Her influence is beyond dispute.