Years ago, long before the Tonight Show, Johnny Carson hosted a game show in which couples were brought on stage. The man would be asked a series of questions and offered a choice: he could either answer the question himself, or trust his wife to come up with the answer.
The cash prize was limited, but what really held your interest was watching how well the couples thought they knew and trusted one another.
Except for the game show part, the same question might be asked of publishers and, for that matter, talk show hosts who feature authors with an incredible true story to sell.
Oprah Winfrey, who single-handedly revived much of the book industry by way of her book club, was fooled a few years ago when writer James Frey’s book “A Million Little Pieces” was featured on the show as a real-life story that later turned out to contain many little fictional pieces.
Long before it was purchased by Berkley Books, Herman and Roma Rosenblat appeared on the Oprah Show to share an unbelievable love story. Roma was the young girl who, according to Herman, helped him stay alive by throwing apples to him over the fence of a Nazi concentration camp. Years later, Herman says, they were reunited on a blind date in New York that eventually led to marriage.
Oprah called it “the single greatest love story, in the 22 years of doing this show, we’ve ever told on the air.”
Pretty heady stuff.
Unfortunately, the unbelievable turned out to be just that. “After scholars, friends and family members challenged him,” according to the Washington Post (Jan. 6) “Rosenblat acknowledged the story was untrue and Berkley pulled the book.”
What’s interesting is that it was largely due to the appearance on Oprah’s show that led editors at Berkley Books to offer a book deal to the Rosenblats. However, “Kathleen Rooney, the author of ‘Reading With Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America,’ said she did not find any evidence the producers fact-checked the books Ms. Winfrey selects.”
Further, “Andrea Hurst,” the Post reported, “the literary agent who secured his book deal, said she trusted [Rosenblat] in part because he had already received Ms. Winfrey’s imprimatur. And …Rosenblat retold his story repeatedly to newspaper and magazine reporters and to a writer for the book ‘Chicken Soup for the Couple’s Soul,’ published in 1999.”
In the case of James Frey, Winfrey had the author back on the show after the truth was revealed and personally took him to task, “telling him that he ‘betrayed millions of readers.’”
In the Rosenblat case, something different has happened. Oprah has not made any public statement and the only clue to any dissatisfaction is put forth in a brief “Update” at the bottom of the page where the Rosenblat story continues to appear on her web site.
It reads: “On December 27, 2008, Herman Rosenblat admitted to fictionalizing portions of his life story, including how he met his wife. Based on this admission, the publisher of his forthcoming memoir, ‘Angel at the Fence’ canceled plans to print his book.”
The Frey incident opened a public discussion about fact-checking in publishing. At the time, I remember reading a couple of publishing sources that talked about the expense involved in having a staff of fact-checkers to do the work. My comment: what’s your reputation worth?
In light of the Rosenblat case, it might be prudent to revisit the case for spending the time and money by both talk show producers as well as publishers who wish to avoid a repeat of reputation-damaging stories.
As one anonymous reader wrote on Oprah’s web site: “We run out and buy these books and then we get kicked in the teeth.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about trust.