The Frey nonsense

Humiliation is big business in a burnt-out America

Photo Illustration by Ginger Fierstein

At last we have arrived. The truth America had to know about James Frey’s best-selling memoir, A Million Little Pieces, has been sucked like water from stone.

He made some of it up.

All it took was an article on a skeevy Web site, a newspaper desperate to earn back its reputation, an orgy of hand-wringing and worrying, a last-minute reprieve on Larry King and then high noon on Oprah.

It’s been a ratings bonanza.

We now have proof that Frey invented some macho bona fides in a drug memoir. He was not in jail for 90 days, but one; he didn’t get in a brawl with cops. “When you go through an experience like I did, you develop different coping mechanisms,” he said live on Oprah Winfrey’s show on Thursday. “To get through the addiction, I thought I was tougher than I was, badder than I was.”

Am I the only person wondering why this is a newsflash? Wasn’t there something poignant in the swagger that Frey affected in this book? Couldn’t you see right through it? Wasn’t that part of the point?

The sad thing about this whole debacle is not what it says about A Million Little Pieces, but what it reflects about us.

How eagerly this pile-on turned into a weird kind of techno rave of recrimination, and from the unlikeliest of sources. To start off, The Smoking Gun may have gotten the scoop, but The New York Times has been banging the drum loudest for Frey’s burning in the town square, running no fewer than 35 articles and mentions on the phenomenon in the past month.

This commitment to the truth is really inspiring, so much so that you almost forget this is the same paper whose own news reporters got caught making up tall tales. Like Jayson Blair, who fabricated quotes, even entire interviews. Or correspondent Michael Finkel, who interviewed children in Africa who did not, in fact, exist. And let’s not overlook Judith Miller, whose willingness to buy the administration’s yarn about mushroom clouds and weapons of mass destruction made the case for war.

Let’s face it, humiliation is big business in America. We love to see people fail. And this prurient desire has led to a rotten state of priorities. When a former drug addict lies about his past, it makes big news, but a president who lies and continues to lie about torture or weapons of mass destruction or spying on the American people? That’s not such a big deal.

But it should be. More than 2,000 American soldiers have died in a war that was sold under false pretenses. And let’s not even get into Iraqi casualties—civilians estimates alone run from the 30,000 range all the way up to 100,000.

What a buzz kill that is, though. How boring and tedious and screechy things seem to get when you start talking about matters of life and death, like war and killing, and the maiming of people we are supposedly liberating.

We need a guy on TV, sweating in front of the cameras. We need denial, recrimination, escalation and then cathartic comeuppance.

It would be nice if outrage over these mini-scandals (just you wait; there will be another one this year) could be lifted out of the tabloid and transferred into something that really mattered.

But it never works that way. After all, everyone who is engaged knows there is such a thing as outrage fatigue. You get frothy, and you get mad, and then you get sick of yourself for being such an angry SOB all the time.

So, you have to shut off for a while; dial it down, big guy; recharge those batteries.

And just when you begin to notice that every time you click on the TV, all you hear is lies being spun about foreign policy, about the decision made in the name of “freedom,” another success story goes crashing toward the earth.

And the whole cycle starts up all over again.