Jeffrey Trachtenberg’s second-front story, “Publishers Say Fact-Checking Is Too Costly,” in today’s Wall Street Journal, describes a remarkable scene in the offices of Random House.
After appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show — and not having a very good answer as to why they published as nonfiction a book Frey had shopped to other publishers as fiction — Nan Talese, the publisher of the now-discredited fake memoir by James Frey, walked into her office to what Trachtenberg describes as “a standing ovation from her colleagues.” This was followed by a supportive phone call from the chairman of Bertelsman, the big German conglomerate that pays her salary.
An aside: Let’s not forget that Bertelsman’s BMG music group is also connected to Sony and its ill-fated attempt to sneak spyware onto consumers’ computers on the presumption that everyone who buys a Sony/BMG CD is a criminal.
So let me recap here: The company’s employees give a standing ovation to lying to us about the books they publish, and another division of the company wants to spy on our computers.
The whole thing has haunting parallels to the Hitler Diary hoax about 20 years ago.
Back then, Newsweek magazine paid gazillions for what turned out to be forged diaries by Der Fuehrer. Then, instead of apologizing for hyping the forgeries in its magazine, they turned around and wrote a story about the forgeries that even said straight out, “Real or not, it almost doesn’t matter.”
In other words, the big media companies give their audiences so little credit for ethical behavior that they figure the truth “almost doesn’t matter.”
Sounds a lot like the way Nan Talese and Jim Frey were spinning the story last week. “So what if he lied, it’s a great, true-sounding story.”
That’s why Oprah tried to get away with defending the book in her call to Larry King, until some common sense prevailed among her fans, and they took her to task for the lapse in ethical standards.
She was forced to backtrack — not because the truth was so important to her — but because she realized that her audience was unhappy with her lapse in ethical standards and she had to protect her brand’s value.
The only real question left is why we keep enriching companies with questionable moral compasses by buying their tainted products?