On Oprah, Frey, Henri-Levy and Unreal Reality Shows

With Oprah flaying James Frey alive on nationwide TV late last week, "truthiness" is in the air.

With Oprah flaying James Frey alive on nationwide TV late last week, truthiness is in the air. Stephen Colbert’s portmanteau seems to have struck a chord with Americans, describing something we’ve never really had the word for: the state of being kinda true, pretty much true, sorta true.

Newsweek takes a deep look at that compelling piece of live televison with an article this week headlined “The Wrath of Oprah”:

“Her anger was understandable. After all, her kingdom was at stake. In its 20 years on the air, The Oprah Winfrey Show has operated with a simple credo: to thine own self be true. The formula has made Oprah her billions. It’s also changed the way Americans live. Every time a politician lets his lip quiver or a cable anchor ‘emotes’ on TV, they nod to the cult of confession that Oprah helped create. So when she stuck adamantly by Frey, the fabricator, she seemed to have lost touch with her public. Worse, she seemed to have lost touch with her inner Oprah.”

Frey’s defense, of course, is that the book, while filled with made-up facts and tall tales, still achieved some kind of “essential truth” through his storytelling. So what if the details are fudged, he says, the sentiment at the core of the story is still true. To our ears this sounds much like the “reality” we see in reality shows. And lo and behold, Time has a story this week that poses this question about the way these shows are put together: “Is dramatic editing wrong if it captures the essence of the moment?”

Take the case of one Sarah Kozer, a contestant on the dating show “Joe Millionare.” On her date with the show’s one eligible bachelor the two happened to stroll behind some trees for a few minutes, out of the range of the cameras. When Kozer saw the televised version, the producers had doctored the scene to “make it seem as if they had oral sex,” Kozer told Time. “The producers added sound effects and captions, she says, and dubbed in a line — ‘It’s better if we’re lying down’ — that she had said earlier in the day in a different context. ‘It couldn’t have been more misrepresented and fictional if it had been completely scripted,’ she says.”

Sounds truthy to us. The article is chock full of such examples, such as “Frankenbiting,” which is when someone on a reality show has their words from one sound bite spliced together with the words of another sound bite to make them say something they never said.

But back to “essential truths.” Frey isn’t the first writer to generalize or cut a few corners for the sake of getting at something deeper, and he won’t be the last. We’re only opposed to the process if the person doing the essentializing is, say, a pretentious French philosopher who actually goes by his three initials (“BHL”) and only buttons the bottom two buttons on his shirt, exposing his Gallic chest every chance he gets.

That’s why we were thrilled reading this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review to see Garrison Keillor’s take-down of the new book by Bernard Henri-Levy, American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville. Keillor, who seldom manifests this level of ire on Prairie Home Companion, thinks that BHL took the scenic route, swallowing and spitting out every cliché about America, never drifting even close to truthiness.

“There is nobody here whom you recognize,” Keillor writes. “In more than 300 pages, nobody tells a joke. Nobody does much work. Nobody sits and eats and enjoys their food. You’ve lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don’t own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French. There’s no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title.”

Mon Dieu! The man was only trying to get at the truth of America. Who does Keillor think he is — Oprah or something?

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.