Everyday Ethics


I can’t believe Oprah Winfrey has apologized to author James Frey after the way she skewered him on her 2006 show for fictionalizing parts of his bestselling memoir. But that’s what Vanity Fair is reporting has happened, at least according to Reuters

I felt close to the Frey story when it first came to light. I am a big fan of memoirs, especially harrowing ones. I read “A Million Little Pieces” on the edge of my seat, practically biting my nails, and finished it in one sitting. I also worked in book publishing at the time, and the scandal was all anyone could talk about. Had Frey singlehandedly killed the memoir genre with his lies? Had he dealt a body-blow to mega-mogul Oprah? How would she save face? Our entire office gathered around a TV to watch what Oprah would do, leaving the phones ringing and emails going unanswered. It was The Day The Publishing World Stood Still.

We soon saw what she would do. She eviscerated Frey on national TV. Practically crucified him. He grew smaller and smaller in his chair, until he could barely mumble an apology into his beard and slink away. I mean, what Frey did by fabricating aspects of his so-called memoir was obviously wrong and morally reprehensible–one could spend a whole post devoted to writers such as Frey and others who’ve recently made the news for similar offenses–but as I watched the public flogging go on and on, all I could think about was how, were I in his shoes, her harsh words might have driven me right back to drink. His book career took a dive (and rightfully so, considering he duped thousands of readers) and he became the literary world’s persona non grata. The whole time Oprah was excoriating Frey, going on about how he had betrayed her viewers, it just seemed to me that it was really about her own personal humiliation, and that she was retaliating out of anger by publicly shaming him for having made her look a fool. 

If today’s reports are to be believed, upon reflection, the incident left her feeling guilty, and she’s taken steps privately to make amends to Frey, by calling him up to apologize.

Anyhow, Oprah’s belated “I’m sorry” got me thinking about apologies and amends, and how they fit in to our ethical obligations to one another. How do you make amends, when do you owe them, and how do you avoid blameworthy action in the first place? What was worse, being a liar, or shaming a liar?
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