Media Truth

When I got home from my mountain writing retreat, I learned my most important critics (aka family) didn’t like my comments about the movie “Crash.”

I liked the issues raised by the movie, thought the performances were strong, but was concerned that the interconnectedness of the stories was implausible and might detract from the impact of the important issues raised. My family thought I was imposing too rigid a standard on a film that was fiction. I think they make a valid point.

Imagine if I impose plausibility standards on fiction, how much more I believe non-fiction ought to be truthful!

My first brush with this issue came a few years ago when Margo Morgan released “Mutant Message Down Under” in 1995. Originally self-published as a memoir, it tells the story of a Midwest farm woman who was mystically prompted to travel to Australia, where she stripped down to a loin cloth and went on a walkabout with aborigines who taught her their ancient ways and wisdom. As the story goes, after the self-published book sold 370,000 copies, HarperCollins stepped in to publish it, but after they were unable to verify the truthfulness of her story, they told her they would publish it as a work of fiction.

Morgan, who appeared on my Chicago-based show just after taping Oprah, said she was not bothered by Harper Collin’s decision to publish as fiction the story she claimed is true. A spirited off-air conversation ensued in which she made the classic relativistic “what’s true for me, may not be true for you” statement.

This is top of mind because of the controversy over James Frey’s best-selling “A Million Little Pieces,” which was published as a memoir, Frey is now saying he “made up” elements of his memoir, an admission that came only after “Smoking Gun” investigated his claims of criminal activity and jail sentences and found them to be fabricated.

The plot thickened when Oprah, who made Frey’s book a best-seller on her show, called “Larry King” to defend Frey saying, “Although some of the facts have been questioned, the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me, and I know it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book and who will continue to read this book… to me it seems to be much ado about nothing. What is relevant is that he was a drug addict who spent years in turmoil and who found a way to tell his story of redemption.” Oprah is essentially saying the true truth of a story of redemption and recovery is based on it’s therapeutic value to the reader, not on the facts of the story.

This reminds me of a Mason Williams lyric “this is not a true tale, but who needs truth when it’s dull.” I also saw a cartoon of a bookstore with three sections: Fiction. Non-Fiction. Not Sure,

This is closer to reality than you may think. Author Gay Talese took a strong stand about the importance of truth in memoirs. “Nonfiction takes no liberty with the facts, and it should not. I think all writers should be held accountable. The trouble with book publishers is that they don’t have the staff or they don’t want to have the staff to ensure the veracity of a writer. You could argue that they had better, or they’re going to have more stories like this one. My wife is going to hate me for this, but that is what I believe.”

“His wife, Ms. Talese, whose Nan A. Talese imprint at the Doubleday unit of Random House published Mr. Frey’s book, disagreed, saying memoir cannot be held to the same standard as history or biography. “Nonfiction is not a single monolithic category as defined by the best-seller list,” she said yesterday when asked to comment on her husband’s remarks. “Memoir is personal recollection. It is not absolute fact. It’s how one remembers what happened. That is different from history and criticism and biography, and they cannot be measured by the same yardstick.”

“I adore Gay, but this is a debate that we’ve been having for 40 years,” Ms. Talese said.”

In conclusion a broadcasting note. The blurring of fiction and non-fiction is a regular occurrence in the media, where the public persona and private often differ. A NYT story about Howard Stern reports this as an example. Turns out audiences connect to the fictional character (the schtick) of Howard Stern, more than the real David Lee Roth.

“Mr. Stern, as his fans know, is born for radio: his on-air character is an unwashed basement figure, best kept out of sight – a haggard masturbator and morbid misanthrope who must hang out with deformed and desperate men because he can hardly perform with women. The fact that the pinup girls who come on his show now seem to want to have sex with him is, in his telling, evidence only of the women’s ambition and depravity.The Stern character simply hates his guests and co-hosts as he hates himself; he’s a mean little pornography-addicted freak whose self-loathing reverses itself only in fits of equally grotesque narcissism, as when he flashes his listeners with a dirty raincoat by disclosing disgusting secrets about himself. But his relentlessly loser style makes him seem honest, and wins him a privileged relationship with the truth; fans believe what he says – about everything from politics to back pain to etiquette. He has hewn his character brilliantly.”

Fans believe what Stern says (though it is not true). Readers are helped by what Frey said (though at least parts of it aren’t true.)

Truth matters. Know that in the media this view is increasingly debatable.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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