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Oprah Clarifies Her Position: Truth, Good. Embarrassing Oprah, Very Bad

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Note to self: never, ever, embarrass Oprah Winfrey. The most powerful woman in daytime television and publishing brought James Frey on her show today, after he was caught having fabricated parts of A Million Little Pieces, the memoir she had selected for her book club, and subjected him to a public flogging. No, scratch that. Flogging is too civil. It was more like an old-fashioned street beatdown, in which Oprah took guest after guest—Frank Rich, Richard Cohen, some scholar from the Poynter Institute—and invited them to take a good swing at him. ("So what do you want to say?" she kept coaxing, handing off the lead pipe.)

Oprah, it turns out, is absolutely furious at Frey for having lied in his memoir, a fury that, nonetheless, took about two weeks to materialize after she called in to Larry King Live to defend Frey during his appearance there. A slew of e-mails, letters and public chidings from the press followed, and today, Oprah took the stage, with Frey and his publisher, Nan Talese, and acknowledged that she had been wrong, to the applause of her audience.

But somebody else was wronger, and Oprah let him have it, with a controlled, icy rage that was gripping and frankly scary to watch. "It is difficult for me to talk to you," she said, "because I really feel duped." It got uglier from there, as Oprah laid into Frey, grilled him on plot points, prodded him to call himself a liar, then tossed the cudgel to the likes of Maureen Dowd, who in a taped bit said, "Oprah should kick James Frey’s bony, lying, nonfiction butt out of the kingdom of Oprah."

This being Oprah’s show, the whuppings were leavened by praise breaks for the host, as when Cohen genuflected, "The year is very very new, but I still name you Mensch of the Year for standing up and saying you were wrong, takes a lot of courage, all right?" Only TIME contributor Joel Stein, on tape, dared suggest that Frey’s book might have redeeming qualities: "I still loved the book… I think people can sense when a detailed truth isn’t true and when the bigger truth is true."

What made the show such fascinating TV was that it was personal—you-humiliated-me-and-now-I-will-vivisect-you personal—in a way that almost never materializes on air. There may have been offenses committed against truth, against literature, against addicts and their caregivers, against persons real, fake and composite. But above all, by God, these were offenses against Oprah, and Heaven help you should you commit one of those. When Talese offered the euphemistic concession that the whole affair had been "sad," Oprah stopped her cold: "It’s not sad for me. It’s embarassing and disappointing for me."

Eesh. I got a chill there—I half expected Oprah to turn to the camera and call me out for the time I told my Mom that of course there wasn’t going to be any beer at that party when I was 17. Frey himself spent most of the hour meekly staring at his lap—probably, a colleague of mine suggested, silently counting the royalties each minute of abuse was earning him—and occasionally offering a weaselly half-defense. But his answers were mostly irrelevant. What mattered was the money quote, which Oprah expertly procured in the last segment. From the transcript:

Mr. FREY: I mean, I feel like I came here and I have been honest with you. I have, you know, essentially admitted to…

WINFREY: Lying.

Mr. FREY: …what I have been–to lying.

WINFREY: To lying.

That’s right, to lying, you lie-faced little lying Lie-y McLiarson. Now go wash up and get off my stage; I’m done with you.

At the outset of his book, Frey describes himself getting onto a plane, busted up and bleeding, sporting several missing teeth. On Oprah’s show, by the way, he insisted the scene was true. But even if his story didn’t start that way in real life, the latest chapter as good as ended that way, as his onetime benefactor ripped him into a million little pieces.

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