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January 12, 2006

Brill Had It Right

Doubleday didn't bother to fact-check a best-seller, so the Smoking Gun did it for them. James Frey chronicled his rehab from drug and alcohol addiction in A Million Little Pieces, a purported nonfiction memoir that has sold more than 3.5 million copies and was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club (populated by perhaps a million little viewers). Many of Frey's colorful characters were reported dead, conveniently, in the book's postcript, so the Smoking Gun trained its investigative sights on his self-reported crimes and detailed a few days ago extensive problems with Frey's account. Why didn't Doubleday's Nan A. Talese imprint catch the problems? Because books generally aren't fact-checked.

This may come as a surprise to many readers. After all, the Jayson Blair scandal revealed that some members of the general public thought newspapers were fact-checked. Most magazines are—though the system is hardly fool-proof, as proven by Stephen Glass and Michelle Delio, and it's expensive, making the business a tough one for such shuttered titles as Brill's Content.

Stephen Brill's media-watchdog magazine published a revealing article about the publishing industry's blithe attitude towards the facts in February 2000. Centered on a lawsuit filed against publishers, the article survives on the plaintiff attorney's website. "What you now know from this suit and the publishers' association brief is that the publishers you buy books from—Penguin/Putnam, Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, St. Martin's Press, and the rest—don't think they have any obligation or responsibility to worry about the accuracy of the books they sell to you," the magazine reported in February 2000. "None. Nor do they think they are even under any obligation to tell you that they don't care."

Many publishers, though, care enough to at least publish a tiny disclaimer, basically covering their asses. Frey didn't. "It is not at all uncommon to see new books marketed as nonfiction containing notes to readers saying the author has altered the time sequence of events, created composite characters, changed names or otherwise made up details of a memoir," the New York Times reported. "' A Million Little Pieces,' however, contains no such disclaimer." Too bad the Smoking Gun lacks the resources to fact-check every nonfiction book.

Without the disclaimer fig-leaf to hide behind, Frey finally admitted last night on Larry King Live that he'd made up some details, though he put the figure at less than 5%. (Gelf admires Frey's lawyers for carefully threatening the Smoking Gun against "falsely" accusing their client of lying.) Winfrey called in to the show to voice her support: "Although some of the facts have been questioned, the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me, and I know it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book and who will continue to read this book." (NYT) That's probably true, but it's not necessarily a good thing. Frey argues that traditional addiction-fighting methods are bunk and his approach of 100% resistance and will power is superior. If it's based on lies, is it misguided and dangerous?

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