“She was a sanctimonious bully,” recalls Thompson. “She beat the living crap out of him,” says Bastone. “I was saying ‘throw in the towel, throw up the white flag.”’
The next day, Frey’s spanking made the front pages of newspapers with editorial philosophies as diverse as the New York Times and Boston Herald. But the sheer shrewdness of Oprah’s handling of the situation was reflected in the fact that it was her punishment of Frey — rather than her own poor judgment — that became the story.
“I have no sympathy for James Frey ... but it did remind me of a show trial,” says Lehmann. “At the very least in any rational literary culture, it would not only destroy James Frey’s credibility, it should have destroyed hers.”
But as one headline on an Associated Press story suggests, Oprah’s real interest in ultimately demolishing Frey was to “protect” her “brand,” and the mighty Oprah empire. And in a strange way, the whole ugly episode may have caused her legend and power to grow.
The Post’s Eugene Robinson wrote a January 31 column marveling at “the wrathful, Old Testament Oprah” who gave Frey “that awful public smiting,” and asserting that “if there were justice in the world, George W. Bush would have to give his State of the Union address from Oprah’s couch.”
That idea was seconded by syndicated cartoonist Mike Luckovich, who drew a caricature depicting a chagrined-looking Bush — who had just delivered his speech — and a disapproving Oprah sitting next to him on the couch uttering a loud “BULL!!!!”
The moral of the story: even the leader of the free world had best cower before Oprah.
On the Web:
The Smoking Gun: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/
Center for the Study of Popular Television: http://newhouse.syr.edu/research/POPTV/
Marcia Z. Nelson: http://www.marciaznelson.com/
E-mail the author:
Mark Jurkowitz: firstname.lastname@example.org