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February 17, 2006

An Interview With The Smoking Gun

William Bastone, editor of the muckraking website, talks to Gelf about exposing author James Frey's fabrications and how the cover-up may have been as bad as the crime.

Carl Bialik

It all started with an email from a reader of The Smoking Gun named Glen last Nov. 21. TSG, the muckraking website that publishes newsworthy documents like the sexual-harassment lawsuit against Bill O'Reilly in 2004, often posts mugshots of the famous and infamous. Glen suggested that the site dig up a mugshot of New York author James Frey, who chronicled his battle with addiction and his criminal past in the best-selling, Oprah-endorsed memoir A Million Little Pieces.

William Bastone
William Bastone
That got TSG's editor and founder, William Bastone, on the case. After initially failing to turn anything up, Bastone and his staff hunkered down to read Pieces, published by Doubleday, and Frey's follow-up, My Friend Leonard, published by the Penguin imprint Riverhead. To them, Frey's tragic stories reeked of bullshit. So Bastone and his deputy, Andrew Goldberg, began investigating, and found that, in the words of Bastone, "Once you pull the thread a little bit, the whole fucking garment is in a pile on the floor." The result was a lengthy, riveting article, published on Jan. 8, that contradicted much of the criminal past Frey had claimed for himself.

The ensuing media frenzy, which climaxed with Oprah excoriating Frey and Doubleday editor Nan Talese last month, brought lots of Frey tipsters to Bastone. As a longtime mob reporter for the Village Voice before he founded TSG in 1997, Bastone wanted to identify Leonard, a major character in Pieces and the eponymous sequel. Leonard was said to work in organized crime, but from interviews with Frey associates and his own knowledge, Bastone has concluded that Leonard is no Mafioso and, contrary to Frey's claims, didn't die of AIDS a decade ago but was alive as of a year ago. "In Book 2, that's where real licenses were taken," Bastone told Gelf in a lengthy telephone interview this week. "Every person we've spoken to who knew [Frey] in the post-rehab years said it's totally fake. Nothing like that happened."

Bastone expresses some sympathy for his subject, whose painful appearance on Oprah Bastone watched with his staff on a live satellite feed, courtesy of TSG owners Court TV. "It's not like he was a child molester or a murderer out there, though she treated him like one," Bastone says. He adds that he doesn't plan a follow-up debunking Leonard, though he claims to have amassed a dossier of contradictory evidence. "To us, it came down to, if we unloaded on him a second time, would it look like we're kicking him while he's down?" Bastone says. "Did we save a bullet in the chamber and now we're finishing him off?"

But Bastone also harbors anger at Frey for the author's initial denial of TSG's findings, for casting aspersions about TSG's reporting on Larry King Live, and for siccing lawyers on the website. "Don't pull that shit when you know everything in that piece is accurate," Bastone says. "There's not a single thing in the piece that anyone says is wrong. It's a weasel move, a chump move." Bastone says he left a phone message with Frey after the story broke seeking a heart-to-heart, reporter-to-subject talk, but Frey hasn't replied. (In response to Gelf's request for an interview with Frey, his publicist, Lisa Kussell, said, "Thank you so much for your inquiry, but he is not completing any interviews at this time.")

In the interview with Gelf, Bastone also explains why he thought it was proper to use quotes from Frey that initially had been off the record; criticizes Larry King for being "bamboozled" by Frey; calls the threatening letter from Frey's lawyer "pretty extraordinary"; and evaluates the mainstream media's coverage of the Frey story. Here's a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity:

book covers
Bastone says Million Little Pieces set off his bullshit alarm from the first page and My Friend Leonard is mostly a 'fabrication.' Adds Bastone, 'I think the real James Frey story ain't that interesting.'
Gelf Magazine: Why wasn't someone from The Smoking Gun on Oprah? Were you invited?

Bill Bastone: We didn't hear from her at the time, nor have we heard from her or anyone from the show since. When we saw that they were going to have reporters who have written about or covered the story, we were a little curious as to why they didn't come to us. I can only speculate. Perhaps they didn't want to come to us because they thought we might have reported on it.
I think they obviously knew what was going to happen on that stage. If anyone would be confronting him, it was going to be Oprah doing that—they didn't need someone from a dopey website to do the heavy lifting for her.
It was tough enough watching it on TV. I don't know how it would have been sitting there watching it go down. I think it would have been fairly painful.
If she's going to have people pontificate, it's better to have people from the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times—that provides more juice than us. I would assume that probably there's a better chance her audience is going to know Joel Stein than know us. Those people bring more heft to the table than some three-person website that the average Oprah viewer was unaware of until the Frey story.

GM: You mentioned how it might have been tough to be in the audience while Frey was being confronted. Have you ever physically encountered someone whom you had written about on TSG?

BB: We're not mixing with people who might become subjects of stories. We're not on that circuit. We don't go to parties or openings where they might show up. It was hard watching a guy get knocked around like that—all the cutaways of him looking incredibly pained. There was no place else in the world worse for him to be than sitting across from her right there. And it didn't stop.
We were having a hard time watching it. We were watching it on a live feed from Chicago—we plucked it off the satellite. We were watching it at 10 a.m. New York time. For 15 minutes, she kicked his ass and didn't stop. And you thought, maybe Nan Talese will offer some cover. And she got steamrolled. And Frey looked like Oprah had thrown his dog out the window.
I know he brought it on himself and could have curtailed it at any point in the last three years. But it's not like he was a child molester or a murderer out there, though she treated him like one.

GM: What was the scene like in the office, with you guys watching Oprah together?

BB: We're now owned by Court TV. They don't have anything to do with what we do. But this is one of the great things with being affiliated with a TV network: They have the ability to grab the signal from the sky and pump it into our office.
We didn't know what to expect. We thought it would be a repeat of the Larry King interview [see transcript], and more importantly, that it would deliver a message of sin and salvation. When Oprah came out there and said, I've been in television since I was 19 years old and never have I felt like this, we were floored. To us, it was pretty stunning. We knew, after she gave her little spiel, we were like, oh my God, this is developing into something that we did not expect it to develop into. It's still a little hard to believe. However many weeks removed from the story itself, to see Oprah Winfrey doing that based on work our site did is a little strange. It didn't stop, and she never let up on him—we don't watch Oprah Winfrey, but we quickly understood that this is not the norm for the Oprah Winfrey show. The guest usually isn't flayed for 60 minutes.

GM: Did she at any point mention TSG on the show?

BB: We were wondering whether she was going to mention the name of the site. And she did. At the beginning of show, she showed two clips of interviews I had done on CNN. She put the name [of the site] to him—she mentioned it to get the context. She did far more than we would have expected her to do, in terms of mentioning and crediting the site. On a couple of occasions, she actually showed screengrabs from the site.

GM: Did you feel sympathy for Frey during all this? Was blame being shifted unfairly on to him, and away from Oprah and his editor?

BB: Everyone seems to be running away from the guy. His agent dropped him. His editor seemed surprised anything was fabricated. His publisher didn't know anything about it. As far as I'm concerned, it's one joint entry—Sean McDonald [who edited Pieces; New York Magazine], Talese, and Frey. Did they believe part of it was true? All of it was true? None of it was true?
From my reading of it, and my staff's reading of it, it didn't take too far to read into the book to say, this is bullshit. And it kept getting worse. More improbable, phony stuff kept getting added on, and built upon. You're the editor of the book, and this thing comes to you, and there are things in there that scream, "This is fake." I don't know how it couldn't have struck Sean McDonald as fake, or whether Nan Talese actually believed this stuff.
The whole thing about whether they should fact-check these things is a subject for other people to figure out. But the first line of defense, it seems, is an editor who is skeptical and can put questions to the author. It's not like John McPhee walked in with this book. This is a guy who never published a book before, and he comes in with these absolutely incredible stories. You'd think outside of any libel issues, and legal exposure, you'd think they'd attempt to figure out whether this guy did what he said he did. I think they've spun out differing accounts of whether any of that happened before—whether Frey had any records from that time. They make it seem like it happened 15 years ago and no one had records about what happened when the book was being put together. I think honest answers to those questions wouldn't make Doubleday look too good.
My favorite story in the book is this story that he tells, that after the great felony arrest of his career, he jumps bail and heads to Europe ...

GM: Is this where the priest approaches him sexually, and Frey beats him up ...

BB: Get the fuck out of here. You can't tell me someone thinks this is real. He's writing this, and putting this in a book, right in the heart of all the priest sex scandals breaking out in the U.S. What a nice piece of business. We spoke to a source who read the book in manuscript form. I said to the source, "What'd you think of the story with the priest? You know, he's in Paris, and he's going to throw himself in the Seine, he's going to kill himself." The source said, "I don't remember that." I said, "What do you mean you don't remember that?" Maybe he just doesn't remember, or maybe it was added in.
It's one of so many other things in the book, that, I guess, if anyone had any questions about them, those were not raised. Once you pull the thread a little bit, the whole fucking garment is in a pile on the floor.
So, yes, he had his ass kicked, and in many ways the publishing house doesn't deserve as much of the blame, but they certainly deserve a lot of the blame. Someone thought that stuff was real and was asleep at the wheel, doing nothing about it. I think the real James Frey story ain't that interesting.

“I know Frey brought it on himself and could have curtailed it at any point in the last three years. But it's not like he was a child molester or a murderer out there, though Oprah treated him like one.”

GM: How did you get started on the Frey story? Had you read the book out of professional interest, or personal interest?

BB: No, no. We knew who he was. We read every daily newspaper in New York, we read Page Six, Gawker. We knew about his fabulous book signings, with mind-boggling crowds, and we read the Page Six items, with Lindsay Lohan showing up at his book signings [Gawker]. We weren't looking at the guy.
We got an email from someone on November 21, a visitor to the site. It was a two-sentence email that said something like, you guys should go get a mugshot of James Frey. I saw it and wrote back to the guy. I said, we'll see what we can do. We have a fairly large section of the site devoted to mugshots of celebrities and politicians. It just seemed to me, he's the literary It Boy and our audience might get a kick out of it. I knew the book was an Oprah pick.

GM: And that was before any of you had read the book?

BB: I hadn't and [TSG reporter] Joe Jesselli hadn't. Managing editor Andrew Goldberg had started it but hadn't finished it. His memory of the book wasn't fresh. I told Andrew, "This guy James Frey, see what you can find out. He has mugshots—see what you can find out." We do what we normally do: We try to get pedigree information on him. We get his date of birth, where he currently lives, where he previously resided. We did computer checks. Initially, it was in-between regular other stuff we do. We were just looking for a picture. And we couldn't find anything. We kicked it around for a couple of days, and we couldn't find anything. I told Andrew, let's just drop it.
I came back after Thanksgiving, that Monday morning. I came through Grand Central and bought the books (Pieces and Leonard). We started reading them, and said, we should get that guy's fucking photo. So we started looking at it. There were no clues in the book. There was virtually no sense of time in the book. And with the exception of references to three states—Michigan, Ohio, and North Carolina—there was no indication of where the arrests occurred—what jail, what county. So we basically set out to try to find the picture. We couldn't find anything. So we decided, something is not right here. Reading the book, he said he had been arrested 13 or 14 times. Usually if you're arrested 13 or 14 times, that leaves a mark. Usually there's a trail someplace. When we couldn't find it, we were intrigued.

“We always kind of wonder whether Frey can remember what was real and what's fake—what really happened to him and what has become the urban legend of James Frey.”

GM: You mentioned that reading the book set off your bullshit alarm. Did it start with the first page, where he recounts how he woke up on a plane missing four front teeth, covered in vomit and blood?

BB: Yeah, I didn't buy that for a second. He's backed off from that. He says he didn't need 40 stitches—it was more in the area around his chin and lower lip.
Yes, he was in rehab. We believe that. Everything else is fake or wildly embellished. From his acknowledgments and other things we've learned, we were pretty accurate in our appraisal at the time. The whole description of his younger years, his college years, was totally made up. When we were interviewing him, he told us some embellishments were made.
But in Book 2 [Leonard], that's where real licenses were taken. Every person we've spoken to who knew him in the post-rehab years said it's totally fake, nothing like that happened. We're still waiting for whatever Riverhead is going to do with the author's note— what is the author's note to explain Book 2? [Frey penned an author's note [Wall Street Journal] that will be attached to future editions of Pieces. Riverhead didn't respond to Gelf's request for comment.] It's still out there, selling lots of copies. What discrepancies are not covered by teeny-tiny disclaimer type in Book 2?

GM: I haven't read Leonard, but I thought the Leonard character in Million Little Pieces—the mobster with the heart of gold—was pretty implausible.

BB: He's totally fake.

“I looked forward to writing the first story, and found it enjoyable. It would be like twisting my arm to have to do another exposition of James Frey.”

GM: So he doesn't exist?

BB: We're pretty sure we know who it is, actually. In my prior career, the last 10 years of my stay at the Village Voice, I pretty much exclusively wrote about organized crime. And when I read the first book, I said, this fucking guy doesn't ring—I don't know who this guy is supposed to be. He doesn't sound like anybody I've heard of. [When being interviewed by TSG, Frey] said, he's not an Italian guy from New York. He's a Jewish guy from the Midwest. And I'm like, is it Cleveland, Kansas City, Chicago? And he said, basically Chicago. And I said, is he affiliated with a traditional organized crime group in Chicago? But he wouldn't give me anything.
And I knew he wouldn't give me anything, because this guy isn't affiliated with any Italian crime family. There's barely any crime family in Chicago. New York has five. Chicago has one crime family, and it's been in disarray for 20 years. He didn't give me any names because he didn't have one.
In the first book, Leonard arranges for a huge feast to be trucked into the facility while all the men gather to watch a prize fight. Hazelden is allowing stuff to be trucked in to the facility? The premier drug-treatment and substance-abuse-treatment facility, and they're letting some inmate truck in some private food for parties? It's insane, it's totally nuts.
We have an idea of who he's talking about, who he claims is Leonard. While some minor biographical details were kind of true, the rest is fake. Big surprise.

GM: Are you planning to write an article debunking Leonard?

BB: No. We stopped debating it in the office. We debated it for two weeks. We did the first story, and people just came out of the woodwork. Everything from, I went to high school with Frey, I went to college with him, I was in his fraternity, I lived with him in North Carolina, in Chicago, in Europe, in California, I was involved with business with him—people from every point of his life. We got a very good and detailed chronology of his life. Our interest was Leonard, frankly. He was the subject of the second book. I have a personal interest in it.
To us, it came down to, if we unloaded on [Frey] a second time, would it look like we're kicking him while he's down? Did we save a bullet in the chamber and now we're finishing him off? Have we reached the point of James Frey separation and no one wants to hear about him any more? Frankly, we don't want to talk about the guy any more. No, we're probably not going to do anything. I think there's an understanding out there now—if Oprah didn't drive it home, I don't know who would have—that the first book was entirely made up, and the second book was a fabrication. Oh, Leonard didn't do this, Leonard didn't die of AIDS, Leonard happens to still be alive. A lot of people would say, tell me something I don't know or didn't assume.

[In a follow-up email, Bastone declined to provide the name of the man he suspects is the real Leonard, "since we still could conceivably do something on the second book."]

“Frey's thinking he's going to outwit the reporter. It's always, the dopey reporter is never as smart as the subject of the story.”

GM: Do you think an author's note can cover any problems with Leonard?

BB: I don't think the author's note he put together for the first one was honest, either. I don't think that covers it. I'm sure it's going to be a similar sort of thing that isn't truthful, that doesn't really explain what the fabrications were. I think he's going to try to tell people, it was an important story. I'm expecting that. I don't think it's going to make a difference and force our hand to write: Look at what he did.

GM: What about just writing a straight biography? Something like, you've read what James Frey has written about his life. Here's the true story.

BB: I've gotta tell you...

GM: You're sick of it?

BB: Yeah. I'm the one who wrote the first piece, and the idea of having to sit down and do it again is not something I'm particularly looking forward to. I looked forward to writing the first story, and found it enjoyable. It would be like twisting my arm to have to do another exposition of James Frey.

Frey website screengrab
Posted by James Frey on his website Jan. 10: 'I just want to thank all of my supporters during this tribulating time. The truth will be exposed in the next few days and I will be certain The Smoking Gun will be posting a retraction and apology within a few days. Again, thank you all.' TSG's staff took a screengrab before the letter was pulled from Frey's site.
GM: Is that letter he posted to his fans before your article came out, claiming that your article was false and would be retracted [see image at right], still on his website?

BB: No, he took it off. It was up there probably for three weeks after our story. And then some time post-Oprah, it disappeared. He kept it up there. His site went down for periods of time. And at some point he took it down. Why he posted it in the first place, I'm not sure.
I'm sure when he looks back he realized he made a lot of tactical mistakes in dealing with us, from interviews he did with us, to sending us a legal threat letter, to sending a message to his fans saying, don't worry, everyone. All the facts and the truth will come out in a couple of days and Smoking Gun will apologize and issue a retraction.
He was putting these things on his website, and they were lies to his fans. He authorized a lawyer to send us a threat letter of five pages threatening to sue us for millions of dollars. I don't necessarily blame the lawyer because it was based on lies Frey told him. It was fucking bullshit. [The lawyer is Martin Singer, of Lavely & Singer; see letter here. Singer didn't respond to Gelf's call for comment.]
He's [Frey's] thinking he's going to outwit the reporter. It's always, the dopey reporter is never as smart as the subject of the story. When the subject realizes the gig is up, they figured it out, what are you going to do? You pull out the lawyers, you start lying.
We interviewed him three times. The first two times were off the record, the third time was on the record. By the time we had confronted him, I had written a draft of the story. He was hemming and hawing. He said he wanted to keep it off the record. I said, we're staying on the record. He said, talk to my lawyer. We said we didn't want to. We read him the story. He basically said the reason why he couldn't talk is that basically there's no upside, no benefit to him in addressing those issues. I said, don't you owe it to your fans? Don't you owe it to Oprah? I wasn't too persuasive.
The draft of the story I wrote didn't include anything we spoke off the record about. The final interview was Friday afternoon. Late Friday night, the lawyer sent us the threatening letter. On Saturday morning, I wrote Frey a note. It was reporter to subject, straight to him. It wasn't to anyone else. I said, James, I'm only sending this to you, I'm not sharing this with your lawyer. I want you to know we're preparing a story. It looks at chunks of your book that are directly contradicted by primary sources—documents, police reports. I sent it off to him and said, you know, we all live within a mile of each other. I live in Chelsea, Andrew lives in Chelsea, you live in SoHo. I said, we'll get together with you any time this weekend and hash this out. We want your input on this. We think it's a very serious story.
Then he went and published the whole thing on his website. It was chock-full of details of our conversations, between Andrew Goldberg, him and myself. To me that was a clear and unambiguous waiver of confidentiality. I think he thought it was some sort of preemptive strike on his part. There were certain things [from the off-the-record interviews] that were good and helped strengthen the story. But it was a small portion of the story: He said this, first-person sources said that. The quotes didn't add much. It was nice to get his voice in the story.

“When Frey was caught, he could have shut his fucking mouth. But he did what all these fucking guys do: run to a lawyer, threaten to sue for millions of dollars, and continue to lie.”

GM: From your time covering the mob, and your work at The Smoking Gun, surely you've gotten threatening letters from lawyers before. Does this one stand out for fiercely defending things that turn out to be fabrications?

BB: I thought it was of particular interest to us. We pushed him on the question of jail time. And we knew he had never been in jail. In our interviews, we confronted him. We said there is no evidence you ever did three months—in the book, he said he was due to get three years in state prison, but thanks to the magical intervention of his buddies in rehab, poof, it turned it into three months—but anyway, we confronted him and said we know there's no way you ever did three months. What we're talking about here, was it really significantly less time? You got arrested and were in custody until someone came along and bailed you out? He said, it was more along the lines of something like that. Fuck the 90 days. We got him down to a couple of days. We had yet to figure out it was a few hours in the equivalent of a conference room. He never was in a jail. He was in police headquarters, in a conference room. He had made that acknowledgement to us, that at most it was a couple of days.
Then the letter says something like, on the question of incarceration, Mr. Frey has spent more time in prison than either of us would ever want to.
Then there's the striking the cop with the car. The lawyer puts in the thing saying, you probably have the wrong police report. It's different from the one that really happened. He was offering to provide us with a witness in the car at the time of the incident. We knew there was no witness in the car. On the eve of publishing the story, Frey was saying, I have a witness who will back up my account. For an event that never happened, they were going to offer us a witness. That's some desperate shit. He was giving it to his lawyer, and the lawyer was sending it to us. It was pretty extraordinary.
So as those kinds of letters go, and in the face of the documents, it was the product of a guy who was pretty desperate. I can't imagine what he was thinking. It was a story we knew was accurate. I can't imagine what was going through his mind. Maybe he'll want to sit down with us one day and hash it out. I thought that was a pretty weaselly move.
Then, telling his fans that all the facts are going to come out—he knew that wasn't going to happen.
I thought the [lawyer's] letter was pretty extraordinary. This one went off, offering to provide witnesses to events that never happened. What if we told him, we'd put off publication—give us the witnesses? Who knows what would have happened there? Had he lined someone up who was going to lie for him? We never got to that point.

GM: Did you ever hear again from the lawyers?

BB: I'll leave it at this: Subsequently I had a conversation with the lawyer. It wasn't something for publication.

GM: It seemed like the cover-up was worse than the crime, or as bad.

BB: We were tempted to write a story about the post-reporting stuff he was doing. Only Frey and the lawyer know what transpired with him. But I am going to give Marty Singer the benefit of doubt here that he wrote those things to stop us from publishing because his client told him those things: "Marty, I was in jail. It's true." I assume he got that from his client. There was something in the letter that implied that the Smoking Gun obtained records illegally from when he was in Denison—that we had improperly obtained records from Frey's time at Denison University. I don't even know where that came from.
I thought that stuff was outrageous. I thought his letter to fans was outrageous. We thought about sending a letter back to them across the 'Net. But we thought maybe someone else would write about it. No one else wrote about it. So whenever we were interviewed about the story, we made sure to say, these are the acts of a desperate guy. He promoted it nonstop for two and a half years. Finally, when he was caught, he could have shut his fucking mouth. But he did what all these fucking guys do: run to a lawyer, threaten to sue for millions of dollars, and continue to lie.
I though it was outrageous, offensive, poor sportsmanship. You don't have to send that letter. You don't have to get the big tough litigator involved. No one said you had to write that letter to your fans saying we're [i.e. TSG is] fuck-ups, they'll be issuing a retraction.
But then again, it should have been expected. This is a guy who did an interview with Barnes & Noble [listen here] a few months before our story came out. What role did books play when you were doing your jail time? He could have easily diverted the line of inquiry, but he dove right in and started talking about War & Peace, and the monotony of being in prison. He tried to read some Proust but it wasn't that interesting.
I know he knew the publisher liked it [Pieces] and thought it could be a hit, but he never ever expected it to turn into what it turned into. I think this story got out of hand. It took over. It was the monster in the room. He never did anything to rein it in. I'm sure he rues that. There were opportunities at every turn to not continue the embellishment. We always kind of wonder whether he can remember what was real and what's fake—what really happened to him and what has become the urban legend of James Frey.

“You don't have to crap on us, and make us seem like reckless reporters, as if we've got an agenda, we're these venomous hacks. Don't pull that shit when you know everything in that piece is accurate.”

GM: My friend wondered if the criticism would drive Frey back to drinking or drugs. Do you worry about that?

BB: It's a major disruption in his life, but I'm sure he's had tough things happen to him in the 12 years since Hazelden. But everyone we spoke to said he can be around alcohol and never imbibe. He has his family, a support system, and a lot of money. He's not out on the street. I can't say I know him. But he definitely has a support system around him. And it's not like he's going to prison. It's not like he shot someone to death. They're not raiding his home because he has a bunch of child pornography. He wrote a book, made up some stuff, and got caught. It's tough for a guy hoping someday to be mentioned with Charles Bukowski, Hemingway, Norman Mailer. Now in many ways he's a punchline. That has to be very, very tough. But does that lead you down a path of destructive behavior you've been able to avoid for 12 years? I would hope not.

GM: It seemed to me that one of the biggest problems with his fabrications is that he seems to be recommending a nonconventional course of rehab: Forget 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and just use your willpower to say no.

BB: He always said, I don't want to be the guy to be looked to. He's always kind of shied away from the book being used that way. But now he's saying it's supposed to be offered as some kind of aid and comfort. He didn't want it to be seen as some kind of self-help tome. Now he's kind of embraced that, because it's the only way he can try to embrace the book.
And listen, yeah, a lot of people saw it as, he somehow stumbled onto a magic formula: Maybe I just have to fucking say no. It's a decision. It's not a disease. Alcoholism is not a disease. Parkinson's is a disease. Cancer is a disease. Everything up to taking the bottle or snorting those rails is a decision. So make the opposite decision.
If that's the message he's sending out to people, it's a message that probably 99.9% of the people who are going to opt into that, are going to fail. If he was able to do it successfully, God bless him.

GM: Do you know if he really did follow that course to quit drugs and alcohol?

BB: There's no way to know if he had a relapse, if he was in rehab a second time. He said at one point he was only in once. He would be in a relatively small percentage of people. Whether he didn't do the 12 steps, whether Tao kept him straight, who knows? He tells you that, but why would you believe that? Why would you think any of the details he tells you of how he did it were true?
People are giving the book to their kids as if it's some sort of magic formula. James Frey can do it: James Frey can walk out of rehab, sit in a bar, James Frey can say no.
Who knows how he did it? If you read the book, if you believe the book, he had an addiction that involved virtually every illegal substance known to man, with the exception to heroin. He's really the only one who knows. We can't even go to his parents. He pimped out his mother to ride shotgun with him on Larry King. On Oprah, his father would have liked to have been anywhere else, but his mother lapped that stuff up.
It's probably safe to assume it's all bullshit. He was in rehab, and on everything else, don't sweat the details.

“It's tough for a guy hoping someday to be mentioned with Charles Bukowski, Hemingway, Norman Mailer. Now in many ways Frey's a punchline. That has to be very, very tough.”

GM: Have you heard from James at all since your article published?

BB: No. Some time after the story came out, after he was on Larry King, I left a message on his answering machine, something like: "It's Bill Bastone and Andrew Goldberg here. We saw you on Larry King. We're not doing another story, but you owe us a conversation about some things you told us, some things you said about us. A reporter-to-subject conversation—we're not looking to do another story. You owe us the conversation about some things you said about us."
We weren't expecting him to call back, nor has he. I don't think he's going to be going near reporters any time soon.

GM: If he had granted you the conversation, you wouldn't have published it?

BB: We said, we would like to talk to you about some things you said, some things you put on your website. I wanted to deliver a message to him. We wanted him to know, we're fucking pissed off. We don't like you threatening us with lawsuits you know are bullshit. We don't like you writing that our story is wrong and it's going to be retracted, when you know it's going to be true. You never said boo when we confronted you with stuff [i.e. Frey didn't object to the article's claims in prepublication interviews], so don't be pulling that bullshit now. Stand up. You don't have to crap on us, and make us seem like reckless reporters, as if we've got an agenda, we're these venomous hacks. Don't pull that shit when you know everything in that piece is accurate. There's not a single thing in the piece that anyone says is wrong. It's a weasel move, a chump move. We though we would call him on it.

chicken-pox mugshot
Courtesy of The Smoking Gun
Frey's chicken-pox mugshot, taken by the Berrien County Sheriff's Office in Michigan in 1988.
GM: Besides for his lawyer's letter, and the letter on his website, is there other stuff he did that you're referring to?

BB: When he went on Larry King, he said, they have a police report on there, and it's not even me. It's another name—like we had published a wrong document. What he was talking about was one of the incidents we talked about: his first drunk-driving arrest. He was pulled over. At the time he had chicken pox. We published the court record and his chicken-pox mugshot. We also had the police report. We didn't publish the police report, because the report we obtained they got off microfilm. We could read it, but in scanning it and turning it into a GIF for the web, it looked like shit. And he was pointing to this one document, making it seem like it wasn't him, because the cops had a wrong middle name for him. But of course it had the right date of birth, the right address, and the numbers on the court document corresponded with his mugshot and the police report. Because some dopey cop put down the wrong middle name ...

GM: Or maybe he gave them the wrong middle name.

BB: Maybe he gave them the wrong middle name. He was saying to Larry King and the whole audience that it was the wrong middle name.
He also left the impression—because Larry King never bothered to read our story, nor read the book—he tried to leave the impression that our use of off-the-record quotes was done unilaterally—we just decided to use them. Larry King went, oh, really. The fucking guy could have read the story and gotten eight fucking paragraphs into the story and seen why we used them. But Frey tried to leave the impression we had published a phony document, and that we were guilty of a cardinal sin journalistically. I thought those were cheap shots. He knew they were not true. We called him the day after and we were very fucking pissed.

GM: You mentioned Larry King not having read the book nor your article, and that no one wrote about Frey's cover-up. What did you think of the mainstream media's coverage of Frey-gate?

BB: Listen, there's little doubt why he went to Larry King in the first place—because he knew Larry King never read the book and therefore never had any questions. He knew Larry King didn't read the book, and didn't read the second book. He was going into it, at least fact-wise, he was more armed than Larry King was. Larry King performed the way Larry King does. His staff has some questions, he can ask some questions, Frey will answer however he does, and then he sends out misinformation, and Larry King, not having read the story, has no comeback. King performs as he always performs. He gets the guy because the guy knows it's going to be a cakewalk. [Frey] never would have allowed himself to be exposed, by, like Anderson Cooper. [Cooper's] a bright guy. He never would have been bamboozled by things that Larry King punted on. [A spokeswoman for King declined to comment to Gelf.]
But aside from that, a lot of the other coverage was excellent. Ed Wyatt's coverage in the New York Times was excellent. A lot of the columnists who wrote about it were right on the mark. The New York Post did a very big feature story right after the story broke. Columnists like Maureen Dowd, Ellen Goodman, a whole bunch of people—I thought they were very good on the fact that the Oprah connection made it a story that had national appeal and wasn't just about some sort of New York writer who no one really knew. He was someone exposed to every corner of the country, thanks to Oprah. For the most part, I thought they were very good.

GM: So if I ever need to defend myself from charges of fabrication, I should go on Larry King?

BB: If you want to address something and talk past someone, that's probably the place to go.

—David Goldenberg contributed to this article.

Related in Gelf

•Traces of Frey's erstwhile prestige remain online.

•Why books should be fact-checked as rigorously as magazine articles are.

Lessons from another fabrication scandal.

Related on the Web

•The 2003 Minneapolis Star Tribune article by Deborah Caulfield Rybak that raised questions about Frey's accuracy.

Time.com on how the owners of TSG hope to cash in from Pieces-spawned fame.

•Bruce Willis defends Frey to iFMagazine.com: "James Frey is a writer, okay? He can write whatever he wants. It's fiction, and it's just hard, it's just shameful how he was treated in some of these things."

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik is a co-founder, contributing editor, and Varsity Letters editor of Gelf. Bialik currently writes the Numbers Guy column for the Wall Street Journal and plays no role in Gelf's day-to-day editorial decisions.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik is a co-founder, contributing editor, and Varsity Letters editor of Gelf. Bialik currently writes the Numbers Guy column for the Wall Street Journal and plays no role in Gelf's day-to-day editorial decisions.

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